Sunday, January 31, 2021

Give Up Your Trash

42.Give Up Your Trash (31 January 2021)

Part of the nearly invisible "army" of children
subsisting on what they can scavenge from
Beirut's trash. (23 Dec. 2020 - Geitawi - Beirut)
There are large receptacles throughout the city streets of Beirut, where people take out their trash, and trucks come several times each day to empty them. It’s not an ideal system, but it is superior to the way things were done into the post-war period of the 90s, when any street corner was fair game for piling up household waste. Those whose windows faced these trash heaps, in order to combat the unappetizing smells and sights, resorted to constructing small shrines of saints, complete with statues, candles and greenery; for reasons of piety people would refrain from dumping trash in front of a shrine, and so would seek out other corners to pile up their refuse. The proliferation of makeshift shrines throughout the city is a testimony to those days.


           
Slowly but surely people got used to the “dumpsters” placed curbside every few blocks or so, even though it took some time for them to place their trash inside them, and not on the ground beside them. It also took some time for people to wait until after 5 pm to take out their garbage, so it would not rot and exude a stench under the hot Mediterranean sun. Over the three decades since the end of the war these lessons in urban coexistence have experienced deterioration whenever a crisis has overtaken Lebanon, especially in the interim between the ending of landfill contracts and the beginning of new landfill contracts.

A hopeful sign that winter snows will help avert
summer drought. (23 Jan. 2021 - Mt. Sannine)
            In the aftermath of the Beirut Port explosion in August, with one-fourth of the city turned into ruins and then into a construction zone, piles of discarded rubble accumulated once more, as they did in the early 1990s, when the downtown area was sacrificed on the altar of the newly-elected Prime Minister’s construction company. But this time the rubble, twisted metal and broken glass piled up both in as well as around the trash receptacles. In fact, so much refuse accumulated that the sanitation company was unable to keep up with the collection, and only until a month ago has the situation returned to “normal”. Yet to accept the current state of waste management as “normal”, one must quash any musings on where all this refuse is dumped after leaving your neighborhood.

            Recently I was taking our household trash to the receptacles a few steps outside the front door of our building, expecting to toss it into the bin, perhaps see a few cats jump out in fright at the airborne garbage bag, and then with a satisfied smile on my face for a job well done, turn on my heels and head back inside. Instead I came face-to-face with a young Syrian boy in grimy clothes, who extended his hand to take the trash bag from me so that he could rip it open and inspect it for saleable items. Obediently, I handed over the bag, turned and left uneasily. I wondered if I had better Arabic language skills, would I have engaged him in a conversation, no matter how brief? What could I have said to this refugee child, part of an army of unmasked children who scour the city’s trash bins, alone or in groups, to find recyclable or saleable objects and make a living?

Dusty roads can be swept, but what
about the children who live their
lives there? (26 Dec. 2020 - Bourj
Hammoud - Photo: Paul Haidostian)

           
These are not the only non-Lebanese children who have taken up permanent residence here. Some have become fixtures for us, begging at certain intersections – young mothers sitting on the sidewalk, holding infants or sending toddlers up to passersby to beg for money; young boys weaving in and out of traffic to sell a package of paper tissues; or other young girls, tapping on car windows, girls whose noticeable maturing will make them likely targets for a different kind of selling… and then young motherhood.

            In the midst of an economic meltdown, Lebanon has had one of the strictest lockdown programs in the world, possibly because it has few other ways of holding the coronavirus at bay. Its hospitals – minus about five that were ruined in the port blast – are almost at full capacity, mostly with coronavirus patients. Social services for the general public are notoriously few and far between. Financial assistance to needy families is non-existent, and agencies, such as the ones our church Union administers, do their best to reach those they know about. Donor organizations, such as the World Bank, have begun assistance programs to the poor, but they themselves will be handling the distributions of funds, not trusting governmental institutions to do the job properly. Public trust, essential for any society to avoid implosion (such as events witnessed in the American capital earlier this month), is on the wane wherever one turns.

Idle cranes at the port, in a country whose
lifeblood is imports. (21 Jan. 2021 -
Karantina - Beirut)

           
These stresses on society have erupted into frequent clashes with the state security services, most notably seen currently in the northern city of Tripoli. Tripoli is home to great numbers of poor as well as the hometown of some of the very wealthiest in the country. One can question the motives of some of the protestors in attacking state institutions, but they should not be the only ones to be questioned. There are the regional masters, who each have their following, both within the political structures as well as among many on the street. But it cannot be denied that the poverty quietly overtaking Lebanon is due to the questionable motives and actions of those in seats of power, both inside and outside “officialdom”. Any possible alleviation of the virus due to a vaccination program might bring and end to the lockdown and free those dependent on daily work to again find their daily bread for their families, but it will also bring the unaddressed social-economic-political crises back to the fore.

The new definition of "roadside café". Or
perhaps a return to the old. (13 Jan. 2021 -
Qobaiyat - Beirut)

           
Being in a 24-hour-a-day lockdown may sound like paradise to an introverted person like me, 
but there are limits to its appeal. Whereas previously I was able to have long, solitary walks to do errands, now I am required to apply for approval for any excursion (usually granted within minutes for things such as doctor’s appointments, trips to the pharmacy or bakery, etc.), and only within the immediate neighborhood. For things such as produce or grocery shopping we have to place orders by phone and have the seller deliver the items to our door. Language differences make this state of affairs all the more interesting. I send a voice memo to the grocer: “I’d like 1 kilo of apples.” “Red or yellow?” comes the voice message back. “Just yellow, please.” And when the delivery boy unloads his scooter and I lug the produce up to our apartment, and as Maria and I start unpacking them, of course the apples are red. Mind you, the conversation was in English, not Arabic.

            Ordering from the big-name supermarkets is another adventure. We get SMSs saying “Next day delivery!”, and that encourages us to give it a try. Seated at the computer, we go through page after page of items in no particular order. Sorting them yields less-than-satisfactory results, because we are not seeing things that we know the store stocks. As we scroll down the items start showing buttons such as “out of stock”. This is one of two labels visible on the pages, the other being “Made in Lebanon”. That’s fine, we are more than happy to “buy local” when possible.

LebCat 42: Junior, watch carefully how a pro
does it. (26 Jan. 2021 - Geitawi - Beirut)

           
But when we come to the “checkout” page, and enter our name, address and location pin, we are shown the available delivery times and days. Ten days from now? Really? Calling the help line is of little help, because it is apparent that live persons are not the ones in control. But we bite the bullet and go ahead with the order. But the next page doesn’t open. And there is no indication of what might be the problem. Back to the help line (an email chat, which may be answered right away, or if it’s evening, the next day). We are told to do the very same thing we just did. Meanwhile, the delivery slot gets delayed by a day. Are you using such-and-such browser? No, there is nothing that shows what browser we are required to use. These sorts of adventures continue, and we decide to remove whatever items we need quickly and only order things we can do without for ten days. Or is that now two weeks? Oh well. So we call our nearby mini-market, and get the staple items we need brought to our front steps… an hour after we call.

            These days are teaching us to center on the things – and the people – that truly matter. The situation is compelling us to give up quite a few things that we became accustomed to, some good and some not. But we haven’t given up everything. On Christmas Eve (Jan. 5) we were overjoyed when two church youth groups (3 persons each, but, arriving at almost the same time, became one 6-person group) stopped by our building for a moment of caroling, reminding us of the hope we have regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves this day, or this year.    [LNB]

Thursday, December 31, 2020

What Have We Learned

 41.What Have We Learned? (31 December 2020)

Repurposing last year's steel Christmas tree
that they never got around to dismantling
(there was an uprising going on for a while).
(19 Dec. 2020 - Karantina - Beirut)


The year has come to a close, but the “course of study” we embarked upon in this most unfavorable of years has not ended. It’s an opportunity to check what, if anything, we have learned up to this point. This is not a complete list, and is not in order of relevance, so feel free to add what you’ve learned. The learning must continue.

            First: that physical boundaries, though not irrelevant, are not as impervious as we imagined. That terrible plague afflicting far-away China quickly transformed into the entire planet’s concern. Thanks to the way we moderns live, transporting the good and the bad is laughably easy. Some of these rapidly spreading things may be worth celebrating, but others present a grave concern. Here in Beirut, unlike in past days when we wrote letters and waited weeks for a response, or requested an overseas telephone line from the operator to make a rare phone call, now we enjoy the ease of instant and frequent connection with our families, most of whom live in North America. Of course, with the pandemic still running wild we are also using the same methods to communicate with friends and colleagues right around us.

A crèche in front of a ruined building facing
the port explosion site, at a Christmas fair
in the hard-hit Mar Mikhael area.
(22 Dec. 2020 - Mar Mikhael - Beirut)

            And yet there is a serious downside to the removal of that which distinguishes one nation from another, one culture from another, one set of values from another. The growing expectation that people everywhere (who, of course, will be technologically interconnected) should hold but one view on major issues, and only disagree on insignificant matters is the enemy of inquisitive and critical thinking. Which explains why countries get polarized, when one group is unable to force other groups to conform to its views. And that polarized world is known today as Planet Earth.

A do-it-yourself Christmas float sponsored
by a local taxi company, complete with an
actual, live sheep among the statuary.
(18 Dec. 2020 - Mar Mikhael - Beirut)

            Second: that small countries like Lebanon and Armenia, after a century of being game pieces on a great political playing board, continue to look to the larger powers of the world as if they were benevolent organizations. Not much learning has happened, despite the crises and misery of this year’s events. Lebanon continues on its happy way, with yesterday’s warlords acting as today’s party heads, standing firm upon the rights of their small fiefdoms at the expense of the suffering population. Armenia, which had almost three decades to build a strong state and progress in its political awareness based on geopolitical realities, instead merely took upon itself the trappings of an exemplary state, complete with a recent bloodless “revolution”. Yet it continued to be emotion-driven, to the point of conducting a defensive war based on making its citizens and the Armenian Diaspora feel good about how things were going. It remains to be seen whether Armenia will chart a different path hereafter, and acknowledge its failures so as to learn from them.

Clementines at two dollars a kilo (at the
official exchange rate) or 37 cents a kilo
(at the street rate).
(7 Dec. 2020 - Mar Mikhael)

            Third: that Armenia’s traditional adversaries, meaning its immediate neighbors to the left and right, are still bloodthirsty and have not removed that subhuman trait from their national consciousness after centuries of being steeped in a sanguinary culture. Yes, there are a few reformist voices from within both countries, including some who are imprisoned for their views and others who have fled their native lands, but at the helm of these countries are jaded realists, supported by other jaded realists, who know all too well how to play the game of politics in this fallen world. The wise old Armenian saying would be instructive at this point (concerning human relations; canines are able to be trustworthy far beyond humans), but only if there are ears to hear: “Befriend the dog, but don’t drop your stick.”

LebCat 41: Ready-boxed for easy gift-giving:
just wrap and surprise your loved one!
(29 Dec. 2020 - Geitawi - Beirut)

            Fourth: that the children, youth and adults of today’s world, including (especially) those in the contexts in which we live (Middle Eastern and Armenian), will make a strong positive impact on their world, but they must first trust each other. Or else they will forever be looking for “a better place”, yet never finding it. We must all begin as visionaries and idealists, continue as good listeners and learners, and progress into the future as those who are not afraid to live with “dirt under their fingernails” and uncertainty over where their efforts will ultimately lead. And so, the first One to trust is the Lord.

            This is my prayer for these times and for this world. This is my hope as well as my plan for serving in the place God has led us, particularly among Armenians in Lebanon and Armenia. May we all be more courageous and faith-filled in the New Year.    [LNB]

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Know Thyself

40.Know Thyself (29 November 2020)

No Independence Day celebrations on Nov. 22,
but a large, hand-painted flag was hung over
the damaged buildings in central Beirut
(24 Nov. 2020 - Beirut)
Sunday morning in Beirut… the last day of a two-week lockdown, with hints of more to come

after the New Year’s holiday, since the COVID-positive test percentages are not decreasing. A sunny day, and all is still, as driving is forbidden on Sundays. No sounds but the loudspeakers broadcasting church services, mostly the Armenian Apostolic liturgy from churches in Nor Hadjin, Khalil Badawi, even across the Beirut River from Bourj Hammoud. Church bells and chants… and the sound of Israeli drones. They’re up there practically every day; yet on quiet days like today their sound can even be heard inside, behind closed doors and windows.

            My mind drifts from our balcony in Beirut to those Armenian soldiers in Artsakh (the correct historical name; but if you are a big fan of Soviet nomenclature, you can go ahead and call it “Nagorno-Karabakh”), soldiers in their trenches and posts, some of whom we have a close personal connection to, trying to fight a conventional war against drones similar to what we hear all the time. Bought from the same country, not coincidentally, as well as from another nemesis of Armenians, Turkey. The Turkish ones are made from components imported from all over the world, Europe, Canada, U.S., and others. All sold to countries that hold their hand over their heart and swear that the technology will never, ever, ever be used against unarmed civilians.

Businesses, large and small, closing
permanently. So, why bother replacing
window glass? (31 Oct. 2020-Accaoui, Beirut)

           
Oh, it was a bloody war, and many civilized and uncivilized countries had a part in it and bear responsibility, if they do any self-examination: those who indignantly protested against it (but did little else), and those who said, “Hey, Armenians, don’t take it personally – it’s just business”; that sponsor and importer of Islamist militias and Turkic settlers into the Caucasus; those who promoted the anti-Armenian propaganda and lies emanating from Azerbaijan and Turkey; and not to forget those who had other “strategic” interests to pursue and couldn’t really be bothered by the dismemberment of an ancient people from their soil. It was just another news story in a media and online environment that has many interesting wars and disasters and flashpoints to flit to and from. Everyone in the news-ish industry was able to leave it behind after the infamous Armenian-Azeri-Russian cease-fire document of November 10.

All 970 of my office books, back in our moving
boxes from 2017, waiting for the refurbishing
to finish (2020-11-20 - Geitawi, Beirut)


           
But Armenians haven’t moved on. They can’t. The sorrow, shame, disgust, self-loathing, recriminations, protests, calls for resignation, fund-raising, speech-making, mourning, desperation, search for abducted soldiers and citizens, belated attempts to have countries recognize the Republic of Artsakh, appeals to human rights groups, appeals to cultural preservation organizations, more sorrow, more shame, and on and on… have swallowed up Armenians’ souls worldwide. I have felt that we Armenians are now living inside a horror movie whose plot continues to unfold, with no ending and no credits. Like many others, I am wishing to awake from this nightmare and find that it was not, in fact, a re-creation of the human devastation of the 1915-1923 Genocide and the subsequent decades of cultural genocide. It’s quite strange, when you think about it—complaining about being in a nightmare while unable to sleep properly.

Maria showing the neighbor girls how to knit,
while one of the moms awaits some news
from Artsakh (15 Nov. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

           
In the context of this national disaster I am forced to come to terms with the ancient saying, “Know thyself”. Before knowing your friend or your enemy, it is necessary to know yourself deeply – what drives you, what confounds you, what blinds you. Knowing one’s friend or even one’s enemy can provide an important window into this crucial self-knowledge. And since Armenians apparently have more of the latter than the former, it would follow that knowing ourselves should be a fairly direct matter, one to which we can readily apply ourselves. However, this 44-day war clearly showed how little we know our friends (such as they are), or our enemies (who were more than we realized), or even ourselves (who think that songs and poetry can win wars). Our flawed understanding of how to live in this sin-filled world expressed itself grotesquely in the self-confident misinformation shared with Armenians the world over each evening by the army’s press spokesman. He invariably ended with the words: “Don’t worry – we are winning.” It also appeared very clearly in the self-justifying speeches of Armenian leaders after the cease-fire treaty was signed. It was more subtly expressed in the three decades of public theft and unaccountability since Armenia’s “independence”, and in their lack of preparation for this inevitable attack by Azerbaijan and Turkey. It was seen in the century-and-a-half old, romantic, self-deluded attitude of certainty that the West will come to the rescue of Armenians “because of our dark eyes”. It is seen now in the rapid implementation of road construction, cultural destruction and appropriation, and ongoing propaganda disinformation spread by Azerbaijan. It is visible in the dazed finger-pointing and calls of “traitor” by one Armenian to another. We have not known ourselves or our weaknesses; we only see our accomplishments. And we have blinded ourselves with the pride that we are somehow valuable to this world’s powers that be.

Christmas trees on each balcony, but no glass
(24 Nov. 2020 - Beirut)

           
Not only this, but our theology has reflected that same misunderstanding. We have a long list of why we think God will play favorites and give us advantages that he won’t afford other nations. This is not to say that we do not have a unique, valuable, irreplaceable cultural and religious heritage, a history that predates the “winners” of this war, and a multiplicity of things of which we can rightly be proud. But that cannot be the basis of a hope-filled, faith-filled, self-giving Christian nation. As well, none of those treasures or that history can form the basis of an intelligent, balanced, and farsighted strategy of nation-building. Will we know ourselves more fully as a result of this catastrophe? Even if it only be “as through a mirror, dimly”, we have no choice but to make the effort.

The bird never stood a chance.
(26 Nov. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

           
Watching the American election from overseas was akin to watching a fan’s amateurish remake of “Survivor”. Days upon days, weeks upon weeks of bewildering events and announcements before and following Election Day provided an unwelcome diversion from the depressing news that was crushing us – and only us, it seems – each day. Whatever transpires in Washington these next several weeks will do little to improve the lot of the millions around the world, struggling just to stay alive, including Lebanon and Armenia. Meanwhile, will America come to know itself, and see who and what it is clearly from within; and also learn something from those on the outside, from those upon whom it makes not just an impression, but an indelible imprint for good or ill?

            Here in Lebanon the same ancient question applies: do we know ourselves? Do we understand what drives us to see some things and ignore other things, both good and bad? Do we note that we are being made to play by “rules” that have been at work since the end of the Civil War, rules that keep communities divided and competing with each other for privileges? A few days ago the caretaker Interior Minister said, “95% of Lebanon’s judiciary is corrupt”, to which, tragi-comically the judiciary responded, announcing that it was going to prosecute him for making such a statement. As Armenians say, “If I say ‘leb’, you should understand ‘leblebou’ (chick peas).” It was his polite way of saying that the system is rotten to the core. Will anything be done to remedy this? Can anything actually be done? To which I say, “Who runs Sicily these days?”

LebCat 40 - "Don't make me get up, I just found a
nice, warm spot." (19 Nov. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

           
Following the disaster here in Lebanon the cabinet had enough integrity to resign. They knew that they no longer had credibility with its citizens, and could not in good conscience stay in their positions. The theater that subsequently is (still) playing out here in the capital is another story, a story in which “everyone, that means everyone (kullon, ya3ni kullon)” is back on stage. Compare and contrast this with what happened following the strategic disaster in Armenia… What more can I say?

            Somehow it seems appropriate that in this maelstrom we were able to gather with our neighbors (including our three families in our building – a sort of permanent “quarantine”) for a Thanksgiving meal, complete with a turkey imported from the U.S. Tensions and uncertainties were temporarily suspended, even though we all felt the sorrow over the death of our neighbor’s brother during military service in Shushi. We enjoyed the blessings God has granted us and knew this about ourselves: during this season of isolation we have not been abandoned by God or by one another.   [LNB]

Friday, October 30, 2020

Where Credit Is Due

39.Where Credit Is Due (29 October 2020)

A hotel clad in metal sheeting, similar to what Beirut’s
banks did to guard against protestors. But this has a
message. (28 Oct. 2020 - Downtown Beirut)
Here from crisis-ridden Beirut, as Maria and I look anxiously toward war-stricken Armenia and Artsakh (Karabagh), while living in a world reeling from a pandemic, while refugees flow unabated from their impoverished and unstable homelands like tributaries of a sorrowful river, and while second-class citizenship in “first-world” countries hangs like a cloud of fear over people of color, we struggle to comprehend how quickly we got mired in misery so early in this ill-fated century.

            They say that one should avoid speaking ill of the dead. Yet, it is impossible to avoid recounting the dead people who prepared this dish that this region is “eating” today. One of those dead people of course is Josef Stalin, who in the early 1920s tried to win the support of Turkey, as well as cut down the aspirations of the Armenians struggling to their feet after the Genocide, and perceived as a risk to the Soviets, capable of asserting themselves at some point in the future. Well, guess what? Here we are in that future, and the nightmare that Father Stalin and Beria (both Georgians, btw) cooked up for us has come true. Those two demons are peacefully decomposing, and we are struggling to exist. Their calculated act of “giving” historically Armenian regions to the rule of Turks or Turkic peoples set up the scenario that is playing out today.

Someone with a musical sense of
humor created a group that is
trying hard to cover up Beirut's
wounded heritage buildings before
the winter rains wreak their havoc.
(29 Oct. 2020 - Gemmayzeh, Beirut)
            To those who rely on others to think for themselves (including those who play at editorial roles), I am compelled to remind them that Stalin never gave non-Armenian lands to Armenians; it was always the other way around. (Please, please, don’t take my word for it; read some history for yourself to check what I’m saying.) The Azeris got Artsakh and Nakhichevan. The Georgians got Javakhk. The Turks got Kars and Ardahan. And Europe and the United States got their oil access.

            Oil access for the West plays such a central role in the sordid history of the Middle East, but is too often footnoted, ignored or denied. From a safe distance people (including Diasporan Armenians) shake their heads and say, “Why is there never peace in the Middle East?” Is it because Middle Easterners are wild and untamed people, unable to be as wise or developed as Europeans or Americans (or other regional allies)? Or, as history has shown, is it because the West has for at least 200 years been in a tug-of-war (emphasis on the “war”) over who will be able to benefit the most from the reserves of crude oil that regrettably exist in abundance underneath the surface of these lands? Figuratively as well as literally, oil lies under the surface of so much of the Middle East, but it is pumped out and taken away from our view, so that discussions of current events ever remain on the top layer.

Lots of banners in lots of languages, expressing
hope that Lebanon will overcome its
overwhelming difficulties (29 Oct. 2020 -
Gemmayzeh, Beirut)
            There was a recent interview with chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, born in Baku, Azerbaijan SSR, to an Armenian mother. He likened Stalin’s incomprehensible and unjustifiable assignments of Armenian territory to a chess game, which Stalin expected to end in stalemate, since of course the USSR was going to last forever. Stalin’s aim was also to bring Turkey to the Soviet side, but the West moved Turkey’s piece on the chess board, granting it concession after concession, including their promised protectorate of a Cilician Armenian homeland. If shame existed in western culture, those countries would be hanging their heads right now.

            But since Armenians have no natural resources for outside countries to exploit, it remains ever the pawn in these international playing boards. Realizing this fact is not defeatism but realism, and if fully comprehended can enable Armenia and Armenians to formulate their strategy – hopefully – in dealing with this “Game of Thrones”. It has brought about unprecedented unity among Armenians worldwide, though sometimes tainted by fervent devotion to one or another political party in their countries of residence. Armenians are hearing the war being waged against them in the Caucasus portrayed as a “conflict” between equal forces, a “dispute”, something that they have been going at for “a looooong time”, an action of “rebels” in a “disputed territory”, and the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure (residences, churches, hospitals, schools, museums, etc.) as either accidental or “Armenian propaganda”. Anyone with the ability and the will to think and dig deeply will see how preposterous these statements are.

For obvious post-blast reasons, Salaam
Sweets, our favorite Arabic ice-cream shop,
moved from its original location. About the
same distance from us, thankfully.
(24 Sept. 2020 - Mar Mitr, Beirut)
           Thinking for oneself is an uphill battle in this world, where people have access to so much information – true, false, partly true, blatantly but boldly false, or too nuanced to survive in social media feeds. My highly unscientific view ascribes this allergy to deep thinking to the lack of a reading public. No longer do (many) people have the appetite or patience it takes to read a book or an extended essay. If something can’t be grabbed in a short glance as you scroll down your devices, then it’s “very complicated”. Our reward for adjusting our human capabilities to the least common denominator is that we have leaders and followers who are apparently incapable of thinking of the common good, and pour their efforts into shouting down or shaming anything or anyone who says differently. For this, we must give ourselves the credit.

Refurbishing, refurbishing, refurbishing. One
day I will get back into my office. (28 Oct. 2020
- Geitawi, Beirut)
            We are viewing all of this in a Lebanese context. One year has passed on the “revolution” – a year largely of failures, and a few bright spots of hope. Those who might have taken a different tack and led the country out of its sub-sub-divisions into a common goal for the benefit of all were sidelined and ultimately rejected by the established parties and powers. So, to no one’s surprise, the prime minister who resigned a year ago at the start of the “uprising” is back, and working on forming a “new” cabinet.

            Taking a walk through the broken streets of today’s Beirut brings upon me a heaviness that is difficult to describe. I noticed this early on that I am viscerally affected by what I see, and I audibly wince as I look about. It puzzled me for a while, but it made me realize that this amount of destruction displayed before your eyes draws you into the pain of others. Add this to your own pain, and you have to express it somehow. My expression is audible. And mental. There is still no credible explanation as to whom we can give the credit for the ruination of Beirut, or of Lebanon.

LebCat 39: Pre-freshman enrollment
in the AUB "Cat Club" is now open.
(22 Oct. 2020 - Bliss St., Beirut)
           
Rarely in my life (so far) have my exhausted days and sleepless nights been so filled with the sorrows of existence. It has turned my heart with a renewed and urgent focus toward a scripture that was my favorite from childhood: “God is our refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble” (Psalm 46.1). If we experience any peace in this world or in our lives, the credit is due to the Lor
d.   [LNB]

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Walking on Diamonds

38.Walking on Diamonds (23 September 2020)
A ruined building not far from the destroyed grain silos
at the Beirut port (31 Aug. 2020 - Karantina, Beirut)

When walking around the nearby streets in our still sunny weather of the past weeks, glints and glimmers from the ground invariably would catch my eye, and prompt me to go over to investigate the reason for the unusual reflection of sunlight. Might it be something valuable? Some lost treasure? The sensation, especially when the sun is at a low angle, is that I am walking on cut diamonds, treading on treasure. And my reflexes would tell me to stop and pick them up. 

Broken glass gathered together to state clearly,
"We are still here" (31 Aug. 2020 - Mar Mikhael)
            Yet nowadays, in post-post-blast Beirut, the phenomenon of glittering asphalt and pavement has become so common that I hardly notice it. So much broken glass, so many tiny shards have been scattered everywhere that I no longer have that same reaction of walking on jewels, as in the days immediately following August 4. The glass has not decreased (because the winter rains have not yet washed them away); rather, my perception has adjusted to this reality, and I tune it out.

Flying glass daggers - now there's a gaming
challenge (8 Sept. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

             Much as the windowpanes of some 300,000 homes in a 2 km radius were shattered that Tuesday evening, something else very important was shattered and scattered on the ground: the ability for people to see far, to envision, to dream, and to trust. They have eyes, but struggle to see; minds, but only partially perceive; hearts, but are afraid to hope. But unlike those glass shards in every crack and crevice of these streets, those battered thoughts and dreams are still diamonds, still of immense worth. And unless all of us move carefully, we will continue to treat those diamonds within peoples’ hearts as merely collateral damage, and carelessly tread them into the dirt of despair.

The view from our balcony after (another)
huge post-blast fire broke out at the port
(10 Sept. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

            My outlook may not be a majority view. In fact, as the vehicle called “the Lebanese State” continues to happily barrel off the roadway toward ditches and cliffs, my outlook may well have sunk yet farther into the minority. Nonetheless, I consider the people of Lebanon, as well as the Armenian population here and across the Middle East, as diamonds. There is little regard for what has fallen to the ground. We hear energetic defenses of this or that community, for the ultimate good of their politico-religious or religio-political followings, and not for the reviving of the country as a whole.

             The Bible urges believers in God to pray for their leaders regardless of what country in which they reside (I Timothy 2.1-2). Interestingly, the prayers are not supposed to be for long life or extended terms for the ruling class, but for a peaceful, dignified and godly life for the people. With a thick wall insulating leaders of every land from the people in that land, I am not sure how easily those in authority can grasp that sacred task of serving their people. It’s what we prayed for two days ago (Republic of Armenia’s 29th Independence Day), and it most definitely is what we continually pray for Lebanon.

A sidewalk prayer station outreach from a
nearby church (4 Sept. 2020 - Mar Mikhael)

            The true diamonds of Lebanon, the people you love to meet and talk to, in villages and cities, have simple needs, needs that those in authority find hard to grasp: the simple desire to live in some semblance of dignity and peace. That sort of environment would reawaken a drive to create and flourish in this land. It would remove the desire to flee halfway across the world to find some soil, somewhere, in which to place undisturbed roots and yield fruits.

Homeowners and shopkeepers are determined not to
be driven out (14 Aug. 2020 - Mar Mikhael, Beirut)

            But the drive to create and flourish has not vanished, as others (some inside, some outside Lebanon) have pointed out to me. It has helped me clear some of the funk enveloping my brain. There are some who are using their media platforms to share individual stories of hope and despair, showcasing the determination of some to rebuild and the needs of others for loving hands to support them. The beautifully-restored Sursock Museum with its delicate stained glass and hand-crafted interior, which was turned into splinters and glass powder, hosted a fund-raising concert in its gardens as an act of defiance, declaring, “I’ll be back!” The innovative Armenian band Garabala, which has been losing its members to emigration, one by one, prepared a most tender and even rejuvenating music video for the “For You, Beirut” online event. Friends who left Lebanon early in the year recently chose to return, knowing full well that they would be facing formidable challenges in their everyday lives. The middle-aged owner of what is arguably the best Arabic ice cream in Beirut, leaving his blast-damaged store of 71 years (it was his father’s before he took over) in an

Our living room/dining room, almost ready to move
back into (23 Sept. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

already crumbling house, has decided to open at a new location and keep innovating. A young couple realized that if they wait for the “right time” to have their wedding, set for 2021, it might never happen, so they held a simple and elegant church service and reception this month. So many diamonds, here and there, and I’m training myself to see them, hold them up to the light, and rejoice in the hope that each one represents. This does not minimize the pain of saying goodbyes on a regular basis to people we treasure. Nor will it necessarily alter the plans of those who have decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But it reminds us of our calling to care for those right around us.

            For the past three weeks we’ve been living/eating/working in a single room, the bedroom Sevag occupies when he’s here with us. We’ve been sleeping in our own bed, or at least we will until its time to repair the bedrooms. Renovations to our apartment are ongoing, and with any luck it will be completed in a week or two, along with the renovation of the Union offices (including mine) and the entire building.

LebCat 38: Is it safe to come out yet?
(9 Sept. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

            Walking around the city one notices not only the proliferation of scaffolding and the constant activity of construction workers, but a fair amount of homes and businesses that have been left undisturbed since the explosion. We know it will be years before they are touched, if ever. Yet we have chosen to focus on that which is changing, and to harken to the voices of those who openly declare, “Lebanon belongs to me, and not to the criminals who allowed this to happen.” There is still a long road ahead. Rebuilding will not fix all that needs fixing here. But it’s a start.  [LNB]

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Fifth World

37.The Fifth World (15 August 2020)
Ruined windows and doors from the Armenian Evang. Central
High School (8 Aug. 2020 - Geitawi - Beirut)

When I was an unseasoned theological student many moons ago, Maria and I came to Lebanon on a fellowship program for study in a “Third World Country”. That term is now considered uncouth, and is usually replaced by the term “developing country”, referring to those countries lacking the economic, health and educational status of those at the top of the list. Back then I was surprised that Lebanon was even on that list, because I knew it as a prosperous, if war-torn, country. But I was eager to go there (here), to learn the Armenian language and grow in my understanding of being an Armenian and experiencing Armenian Evangelical heritage firsthand. What better place than Beirut, even if it was in the midst of a civil war?

Karma isn't supposed to miss its target, except when it does
(14 Aug. 2020 - Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Back in the days of the Cold War people spoke about countries belonging to the First World (west of the Iron Curtain), the Second World (the Curtain’s “other” side) and the Third World (no curtain). Decades later, someone came up with the idea of the “Fourth World” to describe stateless people. Yet today, almost four decades later, Lebanon has been violently thrown backwards beyond even the Fourth World to a new category I am creating on the occasion of explosion that devastated probably one third of the capital and environs. Since August 4, here in Beirut we are now living in the Fifth World.

The restaurant's name is "This is how the world
is" (14 Aug. 2020 - Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            We spent the entire month of July sweating through sleepless nights because the government was unable to purchase untainted fuel for their diesel-powered generating stations, or unable to offload the fuel to the power plants, or was busy suing the Algerian company that sent the bad fuel, or couldn’t broker a deal with the Central Bank to release money for paying for new shipments, or any of a dozen other reasons. The country was receiving 2 to 4 hours a day of electricity, and the rest of the time the plethora of private generators in Lebanon, including the one here at the Union headquarters where we live, were filling in the gap. And also dumping tons of particulates into the air. When 11 p.m. rolled around most generators took a break for the night, leaving us and many others to pretend to sleep while a film of sweat emerged on us like a second skin. That “treatment” lasted over 30 days, and preceded the explosion at the Beirut Port on the evening of August 4th. Strangely, since that fateful date the electric company has been providing full nighttime electricity, with some spotty coverage during the daytime. What, did somebody buy us a miracle? Is this in order to pour cold water on the protests?

Beirut's grain silos, built 1968-1970, which
shielded part of the city from the blast, but leaving
the country with a one-month supply of wheat 
(30 July & 14 Aug 2020)
            Why talk about any of this? Because it is emblematic of the woes the Fifth World imposes on its subjects. At least five decades of massive corruption and ineptitude is now shamefully on display for the world to see. And to take advantage of. Local groups are either decrying or supporting the current government or political system, depending on which power they are pandering to. In this unbelievably bad combination of circumstances (it seems that’s the most logical explanation at this point), and with the arrival of an unending chain of visiting diplomats and their entourages, the local political scene continues to polarize as each group has its turn groveling, and the length of Armenia Street/Mar Mikhael has turned into one huge NGO bazaar. It’s a day of great sorrow and humiliation for Lebanon on many, many levels.

            The deepest sorrow is reserved for the regular, non-ruling-class Lebanese people, who for decades have struggled to cope in this abnormal and exceptionally corrupt environment, and now have the dubious privilege of shedding the greatest amount of blood, sweat and tears as they witness their carefully managed homes, schools, businesses and futures explode then crumble, bit by bit, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, family by family. Alongside the sorrow for all of this loss there is an outpouring of rage. Some of it is opportunistic rage, but there is also the honest rage against successive iterations of “leaders” and their “handlers”. Lacking an awareness of the common good, their aim continues to be the pursuit of large amounts of wealth by wringing the country dry – or beyond dry. The pool of talented, dedicated young people, including Armenian young people, is evaporating. The country’s lifeblood is draining, leaving a drying swamp.

 

Part of the traditional character of the
Gemmayzeh area, now in ruins
(14 Aug. 2020 - Beirut)
           But opportunism is still at play, even in the midst of this tragedy. The classic heritage homes in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, some turned into rubble, others still standing but sorely damaged, are now the target of vultures: the “agents” (called “simsar” in Arabic) who are offering despairing homeowners a little “fresh money” in exchange for these properties. Just as was conspicuously done in post-war Beirut, turning a bustling city center into a wasteland consisting of a couple of giant structures and acres of empty parking lots, today also there is a nascent movement to do the same in these heritage neighborhoods, likely to eventually to fill them with tall, empty buildings. I have to wonder, where does all this construction money come from? Considering today’s moribund Lebanese banking system, they are likely not locally funded.

            Despite our church and youth activities being suspended, and our “gatherings” limited to the ether of the Internet, our son Sevag made his annual trip to be with us. He got PCR-ed before leaving the U.S. and PCR-ed again at the airport upon arrival, but took it all in stride. For him – and

Lego time with Sevag! (19 Jul.  2020 - Geitawi-Beirut)
for us – the important thing was to be together. We did a little touring, most significantly to the Roman ruins at Baalbek, but also spent time at home listening to LPs, reading stories to each other, looking at old pictures, playing the “Pandemic” board game (some dark humor never killed anybody, right?), going to bed at 11 p.m. when the generator got switched off, and enjoying our “extended family” from Armenia here on the top floor of our building. Their little ones took to him quite rapidly for the most part, and “Lego with Sevag” became a highly sought-after activity in our living room. It was our mini Children’s Conference – with one leader and three children!

Glass, glass and more glass; day 1 of cleaning
the apartment (5 Aug. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)
            As if the oddness of this visit were not enough, one evening when we went for a socially-distant visit with the Haidostian family in Haigazian University’s Mugar colonnade, what we at first thought to be an earthquake made the ground shift like a carpet being shaken out, and then a huge boom, and instantly smoke and flying glass filled the air. It was August 4, and we had been spared the terror of being at home, which is a bit over one kilometer from ground zero. By comparison, Haigazian is twice that distance, 2.4 km, from the port explosion site. Whomever we spoke with said the same things: “I thought it was an earthquake.” “I thought a bomb had gone off in the next street.” “I thought an aerial attack had started.” And so for his last two days Sevag joined us in the task of sweeping up shattered glass and assessing the damage. Just as he had shared the 2006 war on Lebanon while visiting us, now also he shared this catastrophe, making this yet another unforgettable trip as he witnessed firsthand Lebanon popping way back into the Fifth World. That’s quite a collection of unforgettables he has.

LebCat 37, poised to enjoy a crunchy morsel
(27 July 2020 - Baalbek)
           
Early in his visit Sevag was trying to solve a puzzling change in our neighborhood and environs: an absence of cats. I hadn’t noticed it until he pointed it out, and realized that my walks around the area in recent weeks had, in fact, been devoid of felines scurrying away as I passed. This made him wonder, could the rapid increase of poverty and unemployment and the growth of food insecurity in Lebanon have anything to do with these missing cats? Hmmm, makes me wonder, too.   [LNB]