Portraits of Post-memory: Van Leo

A photograph stood in the shadow of Van Leo’s miniature faces-of-the-Egyptian-“Hollywood” collage that was showcased in the exhibit “A Rare Look” at the American University in Cairo. Tahrir Square (quite unrecognizable) loomed in a lonely corner of the exhibit. It was only natural that the sea of faces around would steal the limelight because at the time all these photographs were taken, no one would have yet known the importance of Tahrir Square.

Tahrir Square through Van Leo's lens

Tahrir Square through Van Leo’s lens

If the hegemonic determinant of identity is the extent to which one identifies with spaces and places, it is none other than Van Leo that shatters this view. Born in 1921 in the Armenian Turkey, Levon Boyadjian became the “master of Egyptian photography” through his extensive emphasis on portrait photography. Having fled with his family at the age of three from the Armenian genocide, Van Leo found exile in Cairo, in which remnants of his work are still found. Despite having lived the majority of his years in Egypt, Van Leo becomes difficult to read as an artist of exile. One reason for this is the scarcity of commentary on his work. The other is the fact that the majority of his work included numerous portraits of celebrities and others identified as “unknowns” as well as four hundred self-portraits of Van Leo himself. While the orthodox view depicts exiles as reliant on “memory” as a means of identity sustenance, with Van Leo it is possible to explore a rather different concept- that of “postmemory.”

Van Leo with his camera, 1944

Van Leo with his camera, 1944

“Postmemory”, a term developed by Marianne Hirsch, in her study of the children of Holocaust survivors, denotes the type of memory that is not accessed through remembrance or recollection but through “an imaginative investment and creation.” According to Hirsch, the children of exiles come to accumulate their “memory” based on the narratives they are told by their parents. She states,

“Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are displaced by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor re-created.”

Especially relevant to Hirsch’s concept of postmemory is the survival of traumas characteristic of the Holocaust. Although the children of Holocaust survivors know nothing of the experience of the event itself, they build this pseudo-memory in relation to the stories their parents have told them. Reading Hirsch’s Past Lives: Postmemories in Exile, one cannot help but discern a similarity between the exiles of second-generation Holocaust survivors and Van Leo. Despite the fact that he moved out of Armenia at a very young age, Van Leo’s parents had indeed, witnessed the Armenian genocide. As such, evidence of “postmemory” is especially apparent in the case of Van Leo. Yet how can one imagine a memory?

Photography, as a means of remembering and imagining a memory is a particularly relevant tool to Van Leo and Armenian exiles at large. Such importance is known to be dual in nature. On the one hand, it was a mobile skill that exiles could take along where they moved. On the other hand, Armenians in exile have often used the accumulation of photographs as a mechanism through which to “sustain memory and testimony to collective pasts.” As such, family portraits of Armenian families for example, have acted as important symbols in the memory of Armenian exiles since they are, in Hirsch’s words, “defined by their context as much as their content.” This notion holds true for a vast amount of Armenian exiles except Van Leo, whose decision to refrain from photographing just Armenians greatly distorts the meaning of photography to exile.

Since his photography was comprised of portraits of multinational subjects rather than pictures of his Armenian family or other Armenians living in Egypt, Van Leo greatly distorts mainstream Armenian ties to photography. While his work comes to disclaim his position within the orthodox view of Armenian exiles, Van Leo provides leaves limited yet fruitful indications of his placement as an artist of exile. Indeed, his extensive self-portraiture serves as a reminder that the Armenian Van Leo photographed and that was worthy of study was himself.

An important question to raise therefore, is the significance of portrait photography and specifically of self-portraiture. Portraits by their very nature, invite immense interest as the viewer attempts to make sense of a mere face standing before them. Glenn Jordan emphasizes this particular nature of portraiture by stating that,

“We, the ordinary viewers, invariably seek to read faces and to create narratives about the lives of those whose expressions we feel we have deciphered. We feel that, by virtue of our status as fellow human beings, we can discern or deduce what emotions, attitudes and experience lie behind or beneath photographed facial expressions.”

Singer and actress Dalida

Singer and actress Dalida

On a note more specific to exilic experience, Jordan adds that portraiture may in fact, be an expression of oral history. Like Hirsch, his project was undertaken under the assumption that photography was important for the exiled artist as a mechanism of sustaining memory. Indeed, his article An African Presence in Europe is a project that attempts to combine photography and oral history in reference to Somali exiles in Europe. Jordan’s concept, applied to Van Leo, makes for a compelling analysis that discerns an oral history quite unlike the one assumed by Jordan and Hirsch.

The “oral history” to which Jordan and Hirsch make reference involves a narration of the experience of exile through photographing exiled subjects. A necessary element of this narrative is the establishment of the nature of the “history” being narrated through the photograph. In Jordan and Hirsch’s projects, the history being narrated is clearly the history of the exiles in their homeland. In Van Leo’s case, the history he narrates through his photography is that of Egypt, albeit a history that is only discernable through his eyes as an Armenian exile.

A snapshot of Van Leo’s Egypt is essential in understanding the type of history his photography narrated. In a preface to his interview with Van Leo, Akram Zaatari captures the image of Van Leo’s Egypt,

“Women threw off the veil, artists and intellectuals congregated in cafes. Cairo was a profoundly multi- cultural society, and it was against that multiculturalism that the Arab nationalism of the 1940s and I950s defined itself.”

Actress Mervat Amin

Actress Mervat Amin

It becomes clear from Zaatari’s quote above that the Egypt Van Leo had lived in was profoundly different from the Egypt we know today. Indeed he explains that the Egypt that emerged from the 1952 revolution is “self-consciously Arab.” One may thus infer that the Egypt Van Leo saw was a multicultural rather than a “national” community, much unlike the Egypt that lived after the departure of its many foreigners and the emergence of a narrative that established the notion of “being Egyptian.” Indeed, in Akram Zaatari’s interview Van Leo states that,

“Egypt has three estates: the First Egyptians, the Arab Muslims who dominate politics and society; the Second Egyptians, the Copts, whose Christian religion predates the arrival of Islam: and the third Egyptians, a multinational hodgepodge that includes Armenians like him.”

While Van Leo narrated an Egypt that was defined by multicultural faces and movie stars, he established himself in such a context, as one of Egypt’s third citizens. One can comfortably accommodate such a view given the fluidity of “citizenship” in Van Leo’s Egypt.

Van Leo has allegedly taken over 400 self-portraits, playing different personae including a pilot, a serial killer and a starlet. In Zaatari’s interview, Van Leo claimed he was simply experimenting. Yet the profound interest he took in self-photography and his self-identification as Egypt’s “Third Citizen” raise questions about the relationship between self-portraiture and identity. It is none other than the renowned German philosopher Theodor Adorno that provides great insights about such a relationship.



In A Portrait of Non-Identity, Gerhard Richter explores the one self-portrait Adorno had taken before his death. He builds on a critical statement made by Ronald Barthes who in turn explains that Adorno’s photograph is “the advent of…(the self) as other: a cunning dissociation of consciousness from identity.” The notion of separating identity from consciousness has deep implications regarding self-portraiture of the exiled artist, indeed because Adorno was also an exile in the United States. It is highly plausible that by taking so many self-portraits, Van Leo was also engaged in the process of dissociating consciousness from identity, in a manner that would allow him to reconcile his position as a third citizen of Egypt. By picturing himself as a pilot or a serial killer, in an Egypt that was not so rigidly defined by certain notions of “Egyptianness” Van Leo has been able to create a category of existence within the country of his exile that included his belonging as well as his exclusion.

And that is the utmost beauty of Van Leo’s photographs. They may be seen as little more than a collage of handsome faces. Yet in their entirety, they do in fact represent a place, an Egypt that today’s viewers have almost no knowledge of- an Egypt that is now too late to attempt to remember because it has not existed for today’s Egyptians.

Actress Zubeida Tharwat

Actress Zubeida Tharwat

Actor Roshdy Abaza

Actor Roshdy Abaza

An Egypt too late for memory.


Humans of Everywhere

Humans of Beirut. Humans of Cairo. Humans of Karachi. Humans of Cardiff. And even, Humans of Planet Earth. By now, we all not only know of the brainchild of 29 year old photographer Brandon Stanton-Humans of New York- we also know of the hundreds of spinoffs from the now viral street photo-blog. The idea is brilliantly simple: grab a camera, take to the streets and capture photos and random stories from random people.

We can all also see the appeal behind this idea. It is the notion that we can associate our lives- our struggles, failures and dreams- with the narratives of people as ordinary as ourselves. This has long been the secret behind street art.

And again like in most social media platforms, we can see the manner in which issues of racism, gender and class all play out, albeit on a platform in which we are talking about ordinary characters with tangible profiles as opposed to more fluid narratives. The process continues to repeat itself: a picture is posted, a stream of racist comment appears and another stream of replies ensues.

Examples include a photo of a man identified as Patrick Dougher, whose quote read, “My dad was just a working class Irish dude. He drank himself to death when I was fifteen, but he was a good dad when he was sober. I remember him taking me to a gay wedding on Christopher Street to teach me tolerance. And that was back in 1971.” When the photo was first posted, the first few comments read things like, “Irish?” “Irish huh I wouldn’t have guessed that,” and “he is the least Irish looking person I have seen.”

Screen shot 2014-07-05 at 9.53.21 PM

Another featured the photo of an Egyptian man who said, “America is good but Egypt is my home” and even with a caption as simple as this, many commentators responded by “go back.”

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Of course, the redemption here is that comments like these have not escaped criticism.

And yet the question we ought to be asking is, how much progress are we making on the ground in terms of breaking stereotypes and paving way for the more critical view on things? How real are these battles outside the internet?

One analysis of the manner in which we have come to use the internet that I have found intriguing is a video named “The Innovation of Loneliness,” taken from a TED talk by Sherry Turkle. While the main idea of the analysis is that the more we have come to “connect” online, the less actual human interaction we have, we can see its relevance to the social media debates such as those showcased on the Humans of Wherever pages.

How much critique are we capable of offline?

The irony here is that I am using the same platform to present this idea. But my intention is to cast questions whose reflections can be manifested elsewhere, in encounters, conversations, and in the realm of the “real” that has rendered projects like Humans of New York the appeal that it has now.

Remembering Om Al-Donya

The first time I remember questioning what being Egyptian meant was about fourteen years ago when, standing in the kitchen of our Gaborone home I asked my mother, “Mama, are we more black or white?”

Having grown up in a place where the remnant tensions leftover by Apartheid were still very real even to children as young as nine years of age, the question of whether I was more white, black or colored (to use the terms of the time) constantly gnawed at my mind. At school, I would always be part of the somewhat ambiguous category of the “Arab kids”- a group made up of Egyptians, Iraqis, Iranians and others that were not really Arab at all but whose features put everybody at loss for categorization.

At home, my parents did their best to avoid the question. Whether this was because they did not actually have an answer or did not want to be the ones to fling me into the bickers at school, I never knew. What was certain was that while they insisted that we were wheat colored– which is a term many Egyptians still use- their main focus was on instilling in me the knowledge of and love for Cairo- home.

And it was through their recollections that I soon came to hear the phrase om al-donya.

And so my questions shifted.

Why is Egypt called Om Al-Donya (Mother of the World)?

Perhaps the most famous answer to this question is that it “is the oldest civilization of the world” and yet to most om al-donya is a much more evasive concept. It is the memory of the calls of the karawan at dusk and the melodies of Om Kalthoum’s Ya Sabah El-Kheir and Mohamed Kandil’s Ya Helw Sabah ringing flowing through the city’s streets each morning. It is the recollection of an era during which the chivalry (gad3ana) of the Egyptian accounted more for its labeling as om al-donya than history.   It is the remembrance of a state of mind and time in which there was to life a certain quality of music- a rhythm that made up the ordinary fabric of everyday living.

By the time we moved to the Gambia several years later, Egyptian became no longer a vague identity that was both geographically and politically far off. The existence of a large community of “Arabs” meant that I came to think of myself as Egyptian (masreya) as opposed to part of something bigger. For the first time, I came to hear my Arabic as Egyptian Arabic. I recognized certain quirks as Egyptian humor.

My affection and attachment to the city grew through my parents’ narratives especially that my own knowledge of Cairo was limited to short vacations through which I saw very little of the city that is now my home.

When I moved back to Egypt to start my university degree, I was stunned by how little remained of the city that has been constructed in my mind for so long because the truth is, Cairo is a difficult place. It is easy to slip into endless complaints about the usual things: the traffic, the noise and the pollution. And yet what struck me most was that the dreariness which the city had come to accept its own injustices. For years, it seemed to me that to live in Cairo was to internalize the notion that you had to be on one side of some kind of privilege or the other.

And then came January 25. The single most vivid memory and dear memory of the revolution to my heart was the sound of “Ya Masr, it’s been a long time, we have missed you” reverberating within my chest as I watched brows contract and mouths outstretch with a unity that I had never seen before and through which I regained my sense of belonging to the space that I had felt had been robbed of its sense of shared humanity.

But until now, I find that no words can unpack the remnants of three years of triumph and defeat, of dreams and downfalls, of the sheer contradiction bred on Cairo’s streets. It seems that now most headlines and literature on Egypt reflect a dichotomy in which you are either lead to believe that there is no hope in the country or to believe in a false sense of progress.

As time wears on, my motivation for starting this blog was the need to create a space in which narratives, experiences and visions from and about the city can be shared. A space in which we can move beyond than this dichotomy.

A place to remember Om Al-Donya.

In And Out of Place

This week features a piece by Sara Salem, a PhD scholar based in Cairo.

Throughout my life I have gone through different phases in terms of relating to where I am from or where I belong. Growing up in Zambia with an Egyptian father and Dutch mother meant that a restless feeling of not quite being settled was always part of my life. During my teenage years I remember this expressing itself as a dramatic quest to find out “who I am” and “where I belong”—something that should probably be attributed to the fiction I liked to read or drama shows I liked to watch rather than some universal human need to belong somewhere. I quickly grew out of that and the question didn’t seem to matter so much anymore. When I was 16, I moved to Egypt, when I was 22, I moved to the Netherlands, and for now I live in California. There were times, of course, when I did think about where I felt more comfortable (Egypt), where I had the most numerous memories (Zambia) and where I felt more out of place (the Netherlands). But these were isolated thoughts, not part of some pattern of not-belonging, and so I didn’t pay attention to them or see myself as going through some life-long identity crisis.

Kafue, Zambia

Kafue, Zambia

It was during my time in the Netherlands when something shifted and I started to think about identity(ies) again. It was a combination of my deepening interest in feminism and postcolonialism, as well as an intense homesickness I felt for Egypt, that made me slowly start thinking about where I belong and where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. The homesickness I was feeling made me interrogate it because of its intensity. Why Egypt and not Zambia? Was I romanticizing Egypt? Was I trying to create some bond with it that was more fictive than real? And I think because of how intensely I felt, I slowly began to be more critical of myself and my position in Egypt. Put simply: I didn’t grow up there. It felt like half of the time, there were so many subtleties and intricate details of everyday life that I just didn’t know because I hadn’t been there. Language, symbols, movies, songs—it seemed like everything was just out of reach.

And could I really call myself Egyptian if I didn’t know these things?

But this, too, passed. The question of belonging comes and goes. In some contexts it gets amplified, in others it becomes unimportant: it is always relational. And of course in many instances being from different places is an amazing experience to have. You see the world differently and in many ways I know that I believe in the things I do because I have had multiple experiences of living in places that are very different from each other. And because of that, the ups and downs of feeling out of place are completely worth it. There is something to be said about not just traveling but actually living in different countries, and seeing details change over time. Political details, social details, personal details. And in the end it becomes so easy and necessary to connect everything: how is what is happening in Zambia and Egypt similar, and how is that related to a British colonial past and a neocolonial present? And more interestingly, how and why is what happened in Egypt different from what happened in Zambia? How is the Netherlands part of this, and how do all of these details tie into a global hierarchy? All of this is not just political or abstract, but also personal. These histories and relations affect anybody living in these contexts.

In these multiple journeys I have found that literature in particular has helped me navigate many of the questions surrounding identity. Edward Said’s autobiography, of course, has been among the most influential in terms of dealing with being “out of place.” Memoirs in general serve as poignant reminders of the ways in which many others often share the questions we face. Whether it was Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage or Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed: A Memoir, stories and experiences of people I can relate to have been very important. More recently Chimamanda Adichie’s work has also been enlightening and comforting, as she broaches topics that are so familiar despite her own contexts being those of Nigeria and the United States. The extensive literature found in postcolonial studies, fact or fiction, has also been vital in trying to understand the different identities I have and the ways in which these are influenced by history, by politics, and by people.

So does this mean that “home” is wherever your loved ones are? I wish it were that simple, but I don’t think it is. Home is complicated because so many things go into creating it. I feel most at home in Egypt, where my family home is, where I’ve spent my most formative years, and where I simply can’t imagine not living. But there are also (many) moments of doubt and many instances of feeling out of place in Egypt. That’s probably something I will feel anywhere, and so it doesn’t bother me too much anymore. In a world where nationalism has come to play such a decisive and important role, often negative, it’s probably best to also see the many benefits of not quite belonging.


Follow Sara at @saramsalem