Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Like an Old-Timer

17.Like an Old-Timer (29 August 2018)

Togetherness (mostly) over kebab at the Bakalians!
This time with Sevag and a bunch of friends
(20 July 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
         When taking some visitors around Beirut recently, I realized that I was talking like an old-timer. Remember, you don’t have to be old to talk like a senior citizen. I was pointing to this place where there used to be such-and-such school, and the other place where so-and-so used to live, and on and on. I’ve only lived about a dozen years of my life here (and not even my formative years), but here I was, talking about the place as if I had been here all my life. To be fair, I can talk in the same fashion about nearly any place I’ve lived, but this place is nowhere near where I was born.
         So, here I was giving the “insider’s tour” of our neighborhood, from the post-Genocide era, to the pre-Civil War era, to the ups and downs of the past 3 decades. It offered a strange satisfaction, a deeper sense of belonging, while at the same time reminding me of the responsibility to pass along the heritage I have inherited (and chosen), particularly the Western Armenian and Armenian Christian heritage. The fact that I might know more than most people about this background is largely irrelevant. There is so little I know, and so much catching up I have to do to begin to grasp it all… even as an old-timer… or a perceived old-timer / know-it-all.
The theme-word for this summer’s youth
conference was “dukhov” (on the hat), a Russian/
Armenia word meaning “with spirit”. Ha.
(23 June 2018 – KCHAG, Monteverdi)
         One of my new favorite spots to eat is a little hole-in-the-wall kebab sandwich place, a 10-minute walk from home. The proprietor and sole worker there is a youthful and light-hearted, 70-something Armenian woman, whose friendliness and focus on providing high-quality food is a rare commodity. Eateries in this city can be pretty snooty places, even cheap eats, but Angele easily finds a way into your heart, and you into hers. She gets up before dawn each day, chops her fresh onion and parsley, gets to the butcher for fresh meats, switches butchers if she feels they are slipping in their quality, and lines up her skewers in small quantities in the refrigerated display for her regular customers. When I stopped by she talked about how, a few days ago, Persian Armenian visitors to Lebanon kept coming back day after day, even bringing friends to eat there. Sometimes Angele recruits willing friends to help with the chopping, but she is the one and only cook. Puts the charcoal on, sets the blow-drier to intensify the flame (they keep breaking down, and her brother keeps fixing them), peels the skin off the tomatoes after she cooks them, tosses on the right amount of spices to make a delicious sandwich… and charges almost nothing for it. At every turn she thanks the Lord for helping her. “It’s enough for me to live on – that’s all I need, praise God.” In a country of debt-based living, it’s an outlook on life that a lot more people need to share.
A heart for figs that grow out of the walls of Roman temple
ruins (25 July 2018 – Niha, Beqaa)
         The summer zoomed by us. We started out serving as counselors for the youth camp, then I got to be recording secretary for the church union’s annual meeting, and in between we got to see brother-in-law Vicken for a very brief visit. After that we spent a month (sort-of together) with our son Sevag, who was making his second annual appearance here. We enjoyed Lebanon for a few days, visiting Rayaq, where a lot of Armenians settled after the Genocide, until they emigrated to Armenia in 1946. We ate the most flavorful – not sugared – Arabic ice cream (in the Beqaa village of Saghbine). Sevag then did his second annual stint as a leader at the Armenian Evangelical Children’s Conference in KCHAG while we departed for Armenia to get ready for yet another big conference… “Zoomed” is the word.
Wrapping up the Armenian Evangelical Youth Conference
(15 Aug. 2018 – Hankavan, Armenia)
         Over the past months Maria and I had been filling our days and nights as directors of the worldwide Armenia Evangelical Youth Conference, organized by the Armenian Missionary Association of America for its 100th anniversary. (Read about Day 1 through Day 14 here.) Sevag, along with the Syria & Lebanon group, joined us a few days after we arrived Yerevan, with about 140 other youth and mostly young leaders from a bunch of different countries for a two-week conference. (Read his interview in Armenian here.) The most memorable part of the plan was, predictably, the service opportunities the youth had, in teams of 4 to 10 people, heading out to various cities and villages. Each team did something different, whether helping run Vacation Bible School, or making jam, or doing housecleaning, or planting rooftop gardens, or visiting lonely elders in border villages, or refurbishing dwellings, and on and on. The conference got them culturally enriched and spiritually challenged, and then provided them an outlet to give to others a portion of what God was filling them with. Good, good times.
LebCat 16 and associates: We will soon take over your planet
with our fuzzy bodies and our laser eyes. Meanwhile you must
feed us (18 Aug. 2017 – Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
         Emerging mostly unscathed through all of this, Maria and I realized anew that this kind of leadership is something we need to encourage, advise and challenge in others. Because, simply put, we are old-timers! Happily, there are at least a few out of the youth with whom we worked throughout the summer who will likely do very well as tomorrow’s and today’s leaders.
         News update: it seems the ants noticed that they were getting very little social media traction from their antics in our apartment, so they took a break from bugging us. That and a bit of spray from a store that sells organic stuff seem to have done the trick. For now.
         September has nearly made its way back into our lives, so it’s time for both of us to hunker down again for the new academic year. With the summer conferences behind us, we can focus on the tasks we were sent here to do. While we continue to be integrated deeply into the fabric of life here. And gladly fulfill our roles as old-timers.  [LNB]

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Something Familiar

16.Something Familiar (10 June 2018)
What? Hoagies? This isn’t Philadelphia. But not
to worry. It went out of business. (9 May
2018 – Beirut)
            I was as surprised as anyone. And all I can conclude is that people are overly polite, or they have no answers for ant infestations, or they no longer read my blog. After telling the world how bad things were in our apartment, I found that I had to approach others to solicit advice; they were not going to come to me. Even if they were also waging the same war. That’s part of my American cultural outlook, to share advice and suggestions without waiting for people to ask. Sometimes (a lot of times) it gets me in trouble. The outcome is that now we have a couple of possible solutions that we are working on. Stay tuned.

            When you leave a place where you’ve lived for a substantial amount of time, as we did last year, from time to time something kicks in that I wouldn’t call nostalgia. More like a global positioning function in your mind that either makes you notice things that look familiar, or makes you long for the familiar in your daily life. I fully realize that this happens no matter where you are at or where you have been. You try to locate yourself in the world you inhabit.
Kebab night at the Bakalians. Wrapping up a year of discipleship
meetings the right way. (8 June 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Objects are the first things to catch your attention when they remind you of something back home. Of course, “back home” is a rickety term, especially when you have made a series of major relocations, as we have. We are more than bi-cultural, and our children are moreso. To describe this, people have come up with a term called “third culture”, which doesn’t mean three cultures, but rather “neither this nor that”, neither belonging fully here nor there, but to a combination of locales and ways of thinking and being. That pretty much describes us, and can help us to identify with people like Abraham and Sara in the Old Testament, who picked up and relocated (and kept relocating) out of obedience to the divine command. Or like Moses, who fled his native Egypt as an outlaw, and named his son “Alien”. The Arabic name “Gharib” has this meaning, and once I actually met a fellow in Armenia with this name.
German pride, on the streets of Beirut. Why not?
(6 June 2018 – Mar Mikhael)
            Similarly, smells, tastes and sounds can also drag your mind back and forth, which is a particular challenge for us, because some of the smells (of food, for example) here are the same ones that filled our home when we lived in the U.S. But the thing that tugs the hardest at our hearts is the search for familiar people. Their faces, their voices, their presence. Sure, we can look at old pictures and remember, or do a video call and pretend we’re near, but the gift of being in the same room with someone dear to you… well, that’s priceless.
There’s even a Lebanese flag flying from a balcony. I guess they
didn’t hear that Lebanon didn’t qualify this time.
(2 June 2018 – Bourj Hammoud)
            Visitors from the U.S. showed up in recent weeks, with the AMAA meetings and centennial celebrations here, and they certainly enjoyed seeing us as much as we did seeing them. While I was walking to Bourj Hammoud to take care of some errands, and I cut between the cars stopped for a red light. I got slightly annoyed at one of those drivers, however, honking his horn in stopped traffic. Seriously, where was anyone going to move? As I continued walking, minding my own business, I heard, “Badveli! Badveli Nishan!” It was the honking driver. One of our visitors from the U.S., who was trying to get my attention. My annoyance quickly vaporized, and I did what any self-respecting local would: I held up traffic as we exchanged greetings, right there in the middle of the street.
A huge-screen TV stadium/pub, complete with bleacher seating,
under construction near our place, just in time for the start of
the World Cup (10 June 2018 – Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
            The other day when I opened up Facebook (bless its cold, lifeless soul), there was a picture of a family gathering in the 1990s – one of the memories Facebook thought I should be re-sharing. I didn’t. But I paused a moment to count the number of familiar faces that were no longer alive, and could only be accessed by looking at a photo or closing ones eyes and remembering. And a third of that group are no longer alive.
            Fortunately, and despite the longing for those who are separated from us by an ocean, there are a lot of others nearby whose familiar faces cheer us up immeasurably. Despite all the busy-ness of our lives here, those moments are what builds a new sense of “home” where we are. We’ll still rejoice when we go to meet loved ones arriving at the Beirut airport, like Vicken in 7 days, or Sevag in 40. But for our dear friends here (and one set of Maria’s cousins left in Lebanon) we are rapidly becoming part of their familiar surroundings. And that feels good.
The final rehearsal of the “Armiss” choir, with soloist and
flautist, before it’s “return” the next day. (2 June 2018 –
First Arm. Evang. Church, Beirut)
            A week ago it was a great experience to conduct the “Armiss” choir during the AMAA Centennial Worship Service. After an on-again/off-again decade, and a hiatus of three years, the group is back. They sang four choral pieces, and sounded cohesive, as a choir should. So many people were appreciative, and some were astonished that there are these talents in our community. Maybe they thought all the talented people had left the country? My favorite comment was, “Keep working. You have to give annual concert.”
LebCat 15: A protected species – cats on the American University
of Beirut’s campus (21 Mar. 2017 – Ras Beirut)
            Speaking of familiarity, it’s that time again. The time when you’re not sure what country you’re in, because every sort of flag is flying from all sorts of places. Yes, football’s Mondial (World Cup) is back. It’s the easiest way for Lebanese to be another nationality without the drawn-out application process. This is pretty important stuff – the church and youth retreats later this month have included the game broadcasts in their schedules, so as not to have a meeting during some of the important matches! [LNB]

Sunday, May 6, 2018


15.Infestations (6 May 2018)
A last-minute flier, in case you are confused by the
new electoral laws, let’s make it simple for you:
just vote for our list. (6 May 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            It’s Election Day here in Lebanon. Like the movement of populations to their home towns as recorded by Luke (in Jesus’ birth narrative, 2.1-3), today people are traveling to the places where their family records are held. This is not a reflection of where they currently live, and you often hear a surprised reaction when friends learn where their friends are going to vote. Husbands and wives may even go to different polling places, too, to choose slates (or is it individuals?) for a variety of political parties vying for a majority in the Lebanese parliament.
            In the prior nine years, since the last parliamentary election, there has been a change in the already byzantine electoral laws, involving redistricting and reassigning numbers of seats for each religious sect (also byzantine), trying to move towards proportional voting, and allowing expatriates to vote in Lebanese consulates around the world (except for those who are flown in by various factions), and, well, you get my point. Grasping the “what” and “why” and “how” of all of this requires you have a Mensa membership. What is evident is that there is little talk from the candidates about change, and a lot about control. The body language in the campaign posters infesting every square meter of the city says it all: arms folded over the chest. Practically every single candidate is posed in the same fashion. There’s even a candidate whose last name means “folded” in Arabic, whose arms are folded. “You may want to know what I’m going to do if elected, but I’m not going to tell you. Just vote for my party’s list.”
Armenian Evangelical Intermediate (Torossian) School Choir at
Armenian Martyrs’ Day commemoration (24 Apr 2018 –
Bourj Hammoud)
            The joke is circulating in Lebanon that if you stand in one place for more than two minutes, someone will come along and hang an election poster on you. But behind this proliferation of multi-storey posters there is, of course, a proliferation of payments being made. Private buildings, public spaces, even taxis have all benefited from this largesse. All the while, the amount of “eyescrapers” (see blogpost 13) polluting the cityscape has skyrocketed, if such a thing were possible.
            Will this infestation of posters be cleaned up after the elections? Yesterday morning’s high winds seemed to take matters into its own hands, displacing banners hung from every highway and bridge in Beirut. My expectation is that the winners will put up new banners in place of the old, and the losers will just take them down as they figure out what to do next.
White powder that kills ants and cockroaches. Of
course it’s safe. It’s certified by the Board of
Health. Just keep it away from children. (6 May
2018 – Beirut)
            Then there’s Armenia.
            Peaceful protests in March against the infestation of self-interest, catering to oligarchs, impunity and corruption in the higher echelons of the government swelled, and by April there was a huge popular movement in the streets of Yerevan, large enough that even the popular media outlets started noticing it. We are still in the fog of it all, so we can’t say what is happening, or what is driving it, but it seems that the people have found their voice. Those currently in power are bearing the brunt of this outburst, but there is enough blame to go around for all of the corruption in all of the years since independence. It is quite entrenched, and the anticipated election of a new prime minister on May 8 will start a clock ticking for that new prime minister (Nikol Pashinyan, I assume) to clean up the house. I hope Armenia has the stamina for that cleanup to come about.
            Maria and I have our own small “infestation” battle we are waging. It is against the residents of our newly-refurbished apartment who have not heeded our memorandums that they are not welcome here. I’m talking about the ants. The little, almost invisible ants. The ones that we encounter on a regular basis. Under the countertop edges. Across the microwave. In the corner of the shower. Around Maria’s desk. On my leg. They’re ubiquitous. We have been told that it’s a seasonal problem, or that they’ll go away if everything is clean, or that this or that insecticide will stop them… but nothing has. I figure that our extermination efforts are probably poisoning us more than them. Having written this, I’m expecting an onslaught of advice, telling us what we should be doing, or what we aren’t doing. Thanks to all in advance.
Beirut International Jazz Day 2018 – the Zela Margossian
Quintet from Australia, featuring the still-amazing talent of one
of my former students from when I was pastor at the Ashrafieh
church and school (29 Apr. 2018 – Downtown Beirut)
            Yesterday we were in KCHAG planting trees. The 50 juvenile umbrella pine saplings were bought at a discount from a nursery in the south. Over 50 youth from all our churches, along with a couple dozen “mature” types, came together for this project. During our opening worship time and orientation session I got to talk a bit about how God has appointed us stewards of the land. And then we set off to the task. Enthusiasm has no age limit, so everyone got into the act. Children and youth were driven by the excitement of doing actual labor in their own campground.  The older generation was driven by the faith heritage they had experienced there, and the tangible evidence they were witnessing of it being passed along to the next generation.
            But it was the result of an infestation.
Young and old, Kessabtsi and not, joining in the fun of
tree planting at KCHAG. Note the brown, diseased pine
tree at the top of the photo (5 May 2018 – Monteverde)
            All across the region a small worm, the “pine processionary moth” larva (known here in Arabic as “doudet as-sandal) has been quietly attacking these pines, which produce not just shade and oxygen and beauty, but also the pine nuts so important to local cuisine. As you scan the horizon from KCHAG, you can see the brown tops of trees that have been infested, hundreds of them, and you know that the trees right next to them will be the next to go. This worm is not new, but its threat is at an unprecedented level. Why are they such a threat?
            Specialists say that there are two reasons, one an easy remedy, one not. The one that is not is climate change. It’s warmer here, and what used to be killed off by colder temperatures is not being eradicated. KCHAG, being below 800 meters above sea level, stays on the mild side, summer or winter. So, putting aside the important work of combating human contribution to climate change, that’s out of our hands on a local level.
LebCat 14: Excuse me. Is there some legitimate reason why you
stopped petting me? (15 Apr. 2017 – Ras Beirut)
            The “easy” remedy, the locally-based one, is actually quite difficult. This worm has a natural predator, the cuckoo bird. It loves this worm. And its flesh is inedible because it eats these bitter larvae. However, it is a bird, and in Lebanon there are hunters with rifles. Hunting is a “sport” here, one that has caused a decrease in the migratory bird population, and has heavily impacted the local ecosystem. And here in Lebanon, the hunters’ motto is, “If it flies, it dies.” If this bird were allowed to propagate, the worm infestation would be under control. So instead the KCHAG committee, with the guidance of experts, is compelled to cut down diseased trees, haul the wood away and burn it, and use a chemical spray to save the lightly affected trees.
            And also to plant new ones. Because despite all of the types of “infestation” in society and nature, there is life, and a future, and hope (Jer. 29.11-12), as long as we trust in God. [LNB]

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

More Music

14.More Music (18 April 2018)
A church’s Palm Sunday parade, complete with children and
adults waving palm branches, guitar accompaniment, singing…
“Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” in Arabic…
(25 Mar. 2018 – Burj Hammoud)
            Something that has always fascinated me about Middle Easterners, and about Lebanese in particular (that context with which I’m most familiar) is how everybody seems to know all sorts of Arabic songs. Let one person start singing or humming a line from an Arabic popular (or folk) song, and everybody joins in, singing along, clapping (helpful if you don’t know the words), and getting up and dancing (cue the dabké dancers!). Television shows from this region, featuring hosts/guests/contestants often have an on-stage band of Arabic instruments, and laced through the program are musical snippets or complete songs. If a soloist is singing the song, those on stage and those in the audience heartily sing along. It doesn’t fit the TV genres in the U.S., where there is a very hard line between stage and audience, and between the role-players on stage.
New talents in a student worship band at an Armenian
Evangelical high school. The guitarist just won an award at a
festival in Gyumri, Armenia (16 May 2017 – Ashrafieh, Beirut)
            Music seems to be an integral part of life here. There is a type of music all around, and people use their voices to “musically” ply their trades. A man pushing his “tabla" (rolling table) or pickup truck, calling out from one block to the next what he’s selling. Another pickup (aptly named) truck calling out for people to bring out their scrap metal for “recycling”. A fellow on a motor scooter squeezing his bulb horn as he goes, selling the local equivalent of a soft pretzel, called “kaak” (a large purse-shaped sesame bread, filled with sumac and thyme). The music of church bells or the five daily calls to prayer from the minarets. The Lebanese singer Fairuz filling the morning airwaves in just about every taxi, service car, or bus rumbling through the city streets. As noisy a city as is Beirut, there is still discernable music throughout the day and into the night, with the pounding from clubs wafting through the darkness.
            But I wish it were more. I’ve always wish for more music.
Beirut International Jazz Day 2017 – Ali Jreidi Quartet, with
Shahan on bass! This year’s event features a group led by one of
my students from the 1990s (29 Apr. 2017 – Downtown Beirut)
            When so many other things came and went, music was the “constant” in my life, beginning with music lessons I received in public elementary school in the U.S., then onward to things like pit orchestras, playing oboe, alto sax, cymbals, even the sousaphone (sort of) in marching band, entering a high school “battle of the bands”. In my first attempt at a higher education I switched my major from sociology (I had no idea what sociology was) to music, and then realized that where I was studying (sorry, Muhlenberg) was no place for someone seriously pursuing music. So, off to music school I went, and that pursuit continues to this day. Consult my complete résumé (as yet unpublished) for all the gory details.
            So far, since moving back to Beirut – it’s been 14+ months – I have played with church musicians in a variety of settings. I’m conducting two choirs. I’ve worked up a number of choral arrangements for said groups. I’m mulling over the digitizing and updating of the Union’s hymnal (hold on; did I just hear someone say “hymnal”…?) and puzzling over what to do with the youth songbook/ lyric slides/ accompaniment tracks in use here. Four weeks ago I presented a public lecture on Bach’s Johannespassion. And this is all supposed to be just one third of my work responsibilities.
Warmups before the concert: the emcee of Haigazian’s event
sings his opening speech to the tune of “My Way”
(14 Apr. 2018 – NEST Auditorium, Hamra, Beirut)
            But I don’t just wish for more music; I wish for better music.
            A few nights ago was the performance of a student musical event I directed (about which I’ve previously written), bringing Haigazian University students together for a pretty good and varied program, if I do say so myself. After months of work with them, and me bugging them about general musicianship issues (e.g., tune up before you start your performance); or about musical details that would improve their performance (e.g., make sure to not to pronounce “t” or “d” when it is “th”, as is the habit among Armenians, or as “z”, as many Arabs do); or about stage presentation (e.g., the soloist always bows first, accompanist second); these 18 students rose to the occasion, and exceeded expectations – their own and the audience’s. But not mine. By the last week I knew they could do it!
            Note: most of them were Armenians. Partly that’s a function of the university that was on stage, but partly it is precisely because who they are. Cultural expression is fundamental to the identity of this particular group called “Armenians”. Though it has diluted considerably with the westward leaching of the community from this region, music especially is still practiced in homes here and performed on church and school stages. And, like in Arabic culture, I find a lot of young (and old) Armenians here able to recognize and join in singing Armenian music after hearing the first few notes. Even though I probably know much more 20th century American music than they (I’m not limiting myself to rock), but I rejoice to see how much Armenian music is part of their lives, and by extension, my world here. And I desire more of it for my life.
A sample of the election posters covering the city. Some declare
the tie between their party and the country, some criticize the
current status quo, some look like a fashion shoot, some are
relying on magic charms or the “evil eye” to win, some just
scream in frustration. A number of Armenians are among
the candidates. (Mar.-Apr. 2018 – Beirut)
            Continuity is the challenge. Just as the number of people who read Armenian literature (or any literature for that matter) is plummeting, and both young and old use their English keyboards to hatchet their connection to the Armenian alphabet, so it is with all of cultural expression. We Armenians have overdrawn and misspent our cultural reserve account. And we will need to aggressively reinvest in that account (in people, really) if we’re going to have any hope for flourishing in the years to come. As human life becomes more fully mechanized, the urgency increases for every culture to produce music and artwork and literature and history and more, in order to remain human, to remain culturally viable, and to retain the spark of God’s image within us – albeit alongside our great need for God’s redemption.
LebCat 13: There is obviously an agreement with the owner
for keeping the seat warm. Hmm…  is there a possible future
in politics for this cat? (11 Mar. 2018 – Burj Hammoud)
            Does it really matter? Some think and act as if the Middle East is “finished”, and preach that it’s a waste to invest anything more here, financial, cultural, human, or any sort. But it’s not. There is life and creative output around us, despite the uncertainty and misery emanating from policies and weapons aimed from distant lands at this region. Certainly, what happens here politically (May 6 is parliamentary election day) is partly driven by local calculations, but it is more a reaction to the “weather” outside.
            As helicopters swirl overhead and huge election banners cover every available vertical surface, we need to help each other focus on things deeper and higher and more lasting. That’s part of why God put us here. For my part, I’m going to keep thinking, keep writing, keep making music, and I’m going to help others to do so as well. It’s what matters.   [LNB]