Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Are You from Paradise?

23.Are You from Paradise? (27 February 2019)
Looking deceptively like a paradise. (23 Jan. 2019 –
Ain Mreisse, Beirut)
            No one could accuse us of moving to “paradise” in coming to Lebanon. Just to give a brief whiff of what I mean, the Armenian papers recently published a statement from the nearby Bourj Hammoud municipality explaining (or insisting) that it was not responsible for the terrible garbage smell that has been filling the air in recent weeks. The smell is originating from one of many garbage dumps the government has created up and down the coast (also inland) over the years, where every sort of trash (including millions of plastic bottles as well as chemicals that should not be put in a seaside landfill) is piled high, then flattened out into the Mediterranean, trampling underfoot international treaties and responsible ecological stewardship. And the health of all, men and women, young and old, educated and illiterate, citizens and refugees, believers and agnostics alike.
Let’s say you want to walk on a Beirut sidewalk
instead of the street. Go ahead, give it a try.
(15 Feb. 2019 – Hamra, Beirut)
            Recently Maria and I entered a store to buy something, and the shop owner, detecting that my Armenian accent was unlike the local Armenian style spoken in Bourj Hammoud, asked me (in Armenian) with a bit of a sarcastic tone, “Are you from paradise?” I don’t think he was referring to my Pennsylvania roots (I’ll wait while you look up that place name). It struck us as a strange comment to make to a customer, and it took me a moment as I tried to figure what his intent was. Maybe he was looking for a pretext for charging full price (plus) for what I was buying? So, as lightheartedly as I could muster, I pointed upwards and said, “That paradise? I hope that’s where I’m headed!” He responded by saying, “It’s all the same, there or there, it’s all the same place.”
            OK, now I was confused. So I smiled and let him go on with his… was it a rant? a dissertation? I wasn’t sure of all the ramifications of his lecture to me. But I am sure that many, many people here consider the west – and my country in particular – “paradise”. When you are assaulted by the smells of rotting corruption, and you still don’t have regular water or electricity 30 years after the end of the Civil War, how can you fault people for feeling the way they do?
Maybe try this sidewalk? Careful not to trip over
the steps. (15 Feb. 2019 – Khalil Beddawi, Beirut)
            On the other hand, we’ve been idealizing the west for a long, long time. In the 19th century, when Armenians and others were traveling to Europe and the U.S. for their education, bringing back to their homeland in the Ottoman Empire the ideals and ideas of the west, it was inevitable that discontent would result, followed by flight from the homeland. Could they have seen the endpoint of their westward movement: a dissipation and dissolution of the people called “Armenians”, especially the western-Armenian variety? That discontent and abandonment also had another by-product; it brought about an infatuation with the west, which in today’s Middle East, combined with the disgusting aromas, the ever-increasing cost of basic goods and services, and the actions of an entrenched ruling class, and you have huge numbers of people, Christians and Muslims, looking to the west – to “paradise” – as their avenue of escape. A mentor of mine, commenting on the state of affairs here since the 1975-1990 Civil War, said, “They took a paradise of a country (Lebanon) and turned it into a garbage dump.”
Students at curtain call after their Vartanants program, along
with their stage director, Sister Nariné, who was transferred to
Beirut from Philadelphia… kind of like us! (25 Feb. 2019 –
Bourj Hammoud)
            Tomorrow is the celebration of “Vartanants”, commemorating a battle the Armenians waged in A.D. 451 to resist the Persian Empire’s efforts to convert them from Christianity back to Zoroastrianism. It is considered a decisive, defining moment in our history, when somehow the Armenian people found the courage to choose death with honor, rather than a life subservient to the dominant forces of the day. But where is that courage now? Occasionally it appears, but more often than not Armenians are driven by their fears, not by their ideals or principles.
            An elderly Armenian Catholic nun spoke of this at a Vartanants school program I attended a few days ago. She remarked how she had spent two weeks at an Armenian school in the Los Angeles area, and during recess time, not once did she hear one child speak to another in Armenian. And she challenged the Lebanese-Armenian parents in attendance not to give up in imparting Christian and Armenian values to their children, first at home, and then in Armenian schools. What is happening to us? What befell us to make us this way?
  Don’t give up just yet. Try this sidewalk.
(27 Feb. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            One thing that definitely shaped us into a fear-filled people was our centuries of existence as a repressed subject people in the Ottoman Empire. Armenians survived by keeping their eyes cast down to the ground, trying their best not to provoke the harshness of the surrounding tribes, who were the real authorities in their historic Armenian lands. Those tribes, still in existence today, and still active in the same ways, considered it their right and privilege to take advantage of the industry of Armenians in agriculture and the trades. A portion of what they stole always went to the government in Constantinople, ensuring that there would be no change in this status quo. Toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, when Armenians tried to organize to defend themselves and resist governmental and “irregular” terror, before and during the Genocide, they were frequently opposed by other Armenians who feared disturbing the status quo. This is how only a few Ottoman soldiers with guns were able to herd hundreds of Christians to their deaths in the Syrian desert.
            These fears are still alive and well inside of us, so that when a hint of trouble appears in this region, many of us (as well as other Christian groups) are among the first to pack up and leave. A sad contrast to our ancient Christian witness amid trials, as well as our capacity to endure as a distinctive culture group anywhere in the world, including Armenia. I wonder if Vartanants should be a day of national mourning for Armenians, in place of April 24 (i.e., Genocide Remembrance Day). Back then our forebears with their lifeblood took a stand “for Christ and for the homeland”, as the famous saying goes in Yeghishé’s “History of the Armenians”. Today? What remains of who we were?
LebCat 22: Nothing like a good morning stretch. Watch out for
what’s lurking behind the bench, though.
(18 Feb. 2019 – Qobaiyat, Beirut)
            What else, but the struggle, the urgency to continue the struggle, to seek God right where we are, and to not waste our energies seeking “paradise”. This is what every Armenian school is doing, at great cost, amid threatened funding cuts from organizations that should be increasing, not decreasing, their investment in these institutions. This is what every Armenian church is doing, though some would prefer to drop the ethnic orientation and just fit in with the local church scene. This is what every Armenian cultural activity is about, and what every Armenian choir is doing (like the Armiss choir!), what every individual does when opening up a Bible or a book in the Armenian language, or at least when reading about Armenians. “Struggle, struggle, unending struggle” is what a friend exhorted me to do when I wrote to him a few Vartanantses ago. It may not fit well in a world where people want to be entertained. But what sense is there in exchanging the weight of millennia of faith, history, culture and identity for something as ephemeral as whatever is “trending”?   [LNB]

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Drip Drip Drip

22.Drip, Drip, Drip (23 January 2019)
A brief respite from the rain, the city, the daily grind… at the
Pastors’ Retreat at KCHAG. (11 Jan. 2019 – Monteverde)
            For the past two weeks, for more days than not, all we had been hearing was the sound of rain. Morning and daytime and evening and morning. Sometimes we had breaks from the wet, but we accepted the steady “drip, drip, drip” as a necessary part of the winter season. Each dark and dismal morning I would get up and look out the window to see if it were really morning, and if it were raining… again. Once we had ascertained the day had started, and once the haze had cleared for a brief respite, we would look out the other window to see a brighter, whiter quilting over Mount Sannine. What we experienced as drip, drip, drip, they received silently, in the form of heavy snowfalls.

Norma paying a visit to our balcony/rooftop.
(23 Jan. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Our “early warning device” in our bathroom is the best indicator of the precipitation. When a single drop of rain falls, it pings on the “tarbouche” or “fez”, the cover on top of the vent pipe, giving us a more accurate weather picture than the TV or our phone apps. But it doesn’t show us the damage caused by the heavy rains, in a country whose infrastructure is not in optimal condition, and which won’t see improvement any time soon. All of this rain brought landslides to a number of areas, closing highways and causing traffic delays at every turn.
            Not only were the roads, drains and rivers unable to handle all of this, but the refugee camps, most of which are in the central portion of the country, were turned into swamp-like conditions. In some situations, the water flowing through them resembled whitewater rapids, which would not have been a problem for that farmland-turned-tent-city in “normal” days, but where in today’s world does “normal” exist?
            Schools, which closed for several days because of the storms, are now adding makeup “rain days” to the end of the school calendar. We in the city are awaiting the next deluge, and whose name will be heard over and over in the news. The big storm was “Norma”, followed by one with another Western name (which the Arab media changed to “Maryam”). Some are guessing that next, Norma’s husband, or boyfriend, or maybe even her “ex-” will show up…
The “tarbouche” on our roof. Actually looks more like a
Japanese-style wicker “kasa” hat. Which sounds pretty European
to me. But then the Japanese call Euro-style hats “boushi”.
Go figure. (10 Mar. 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Over last weekend, “drip, drip, drip” was replaced by “thump, thump, thump” – the familiar sounds of the Huey helicopters, audible from miles and miles away. Lebanon hosted an economic summit of Arab leaders earlier this month. Considering the ever-worsening economic state of Lebanon, this was probably a good thing to host, to give visibility to the problems the country and immediate region is facing. Most of those leaders said they were coming, but then after some locals tore down and burned one of the flags near the venue (and posted a video of themselves doing it, of course) to express a decades-old grievance, they canceled and sent lower-level ministers to represent them.
Graffiti that blesses and challenges passersby, long after the
artist’s death (Samuel Pashgian’s home,
22 Jan. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            But the summit went on, and again roads were closed (for security purposes), and people stayed home. So, instead of traffic jams on the ground, there was the incessant “thump, thump, thump” of the Hueys overhead. For soldiers in Vietnam in the 1960s, this meant that help was on the way. For us here in Lebanon, I’m not sure what it means.
            But the dripping sound is more analogous of things that we face, such as the steady closure of small businesses in favor of “outlet”-style stores in western-style shopping malls, and the emigration of their owners to Armenia. Like a slow leak under the kitchen sink, you don’t notice it until it’s already damaged the floor. This is just one of the indicators of how a sub-group of Lebanese society, such as the Armenian community, is being stressed. The society overall will be the worse if these small, industrious communities disintegrate.
A pointed message on an electrical post
(6 Jan. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            The slow attrition of church members, something seen around the world, can be seen here as well. People, for whatever reason, tend to leave very silently, such that only the very alert notice, and then have a window of opportunity to reach out to them. Fortunately, there is an active and committed group of church members, including many young people, who are taking note and trying to think of ways of keeping people connected and integrated to their churches and communities. They’re even thinking of ways to keep young people who find work in other regions of the Middle East to stay involved in the life of their local church, possibly making use of new technologies to bridge the physical distance. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to ideas that will emerge.
            I’ve resumed rehearsals for the Armiss choir, and we’re preparing to give a full concert in June. It will be hard work, especially to build their cohesion. Drop by drop (not drip by drip) we’re gathering singers, young and young-ish (my peers) to be a part of this, and hopefully for all four voices. Notice I did not liken the choir to a bucket. That was on purpose.
LebCat 21: A fat-cat, similar to the non-feline
variety so prevalent in the country, waiting for
a burger to fall to the ground.
(17 Jan. 2019 – Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
            There’s some very interesting graffiti around the city, and I don’t pretend to understand all of it. Some is ominous. Some is humorous. Some is objectionable. Some is a nuisance. And some is thought-provoking, like the wall in Hamra on which is scrawled “Free your mind – Kill your television”.
            It has been two years since we moved to Lebanon, and the excitement, the challenges and the rewards continue. It’s exciting that I am resuming my Arabic studies, after a 20-month “break”. It’s challenging to focus on just a few things, work- and personal-related, and to say “no” to a bunch of other things that legitimately need someone’s attention. (Something about praying to the Lord of the harvest…) Meanwhile, it’s rewarding to be part of a network of friends and colleagues who do their best to support each other. Early in the month I was part of our semi-annual Armenian Evangelical pastor’s retreat, in which colleagues from Syria and Lebanon came together for a 48-hour experience. It’s things like this that keep me grateful for God opening up the way for us to be here.   [LNB]

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Competition

21.The Competition (25 December 2018)

Only in Lebanon – a crèche alongside a mosque and a church, and
most of the visitors were non-Christians. (23 Dec. 2018 – Beirut)
            We finally made it back to the gym, after a two-month hiatus. And after almost getting t-boned in the first minute we were in the taxi, on our early-morning trip to the health club, our driver reassured us with a comment akin to what so many other drivers insist on: people in Lebanon, even at 6 a.m., don’t know how to drive properly. Yet every driver seems to say the same thing about every other driver. So, I’ve decided to look at the positive side: really, all of them want better behavior on the road. I can only hope that they’ll “be the solution” they’re looking for.
            Something else the driver said caught our attention. After complimenting Armenia on the amount of snow it gets (he was Arab), he expressed how happy he was for the rain here in Lebanon. Most people aren’t happy; they only complain about the inconvenience the rain brings to their daily routine, or their leaky roofs, or the country’s infrastructure. All real concerns, but not the only issues at play. When a rainstorm clears, or after days of rain, we look out our window in the hopes of seeing more snow on the mountains. Our driver, with his positive outlook on precipitation, beseeched God (because that is how you express yourself here) to send us at least 3 meters of snow, so that we would not have another dry summer without adequate water supply. Amen to that.
Let it snow! More accumulation on the mountains, and more on
the way. (21 Dec. 2018 – Beirut)
            We’ve attended a couple of concerts in recent days, which is another positive change for Maria and me. Much as we would love to have our full energy and attention devoted nearly 24/7 to our jobs (we wouldn’t actually love that, but that’s the conclusion you might draw from observing us), we have been making a little time for ourselves to enjoy some of what Beirut has to offer. We got to see an Armenian children’s choir, as well as a youth chamber ensemble. Admittedly, it’s difficult for the conductors to make music pleasing to the audience’s ear, but I am greatly appreciative of those children and youth who make the time for practicing and mastering their parts.
            Despite what people say or feel, time is not speeding up; it’s just that there is more competition for the existing amount of time. I find myself saying, “I don’t have time!” too often in the course of the day. What I should be saying is, “I can only focus on a limited amount of things, but I am lousy at saying ‘No’.” Or when I say “Yes” to so many things, I should add “and I don’t care about the quality of what I do” to be completely honest. 
            Going back to those recent concerts I attended: I can either be focused on the performance and let the designated videographers and photographers do their job, or I can sort-of listen while taking photos and videos of the concert. Which is what a lot of people do. When looking towards the stage and trying to enter into the musical moment, the view of the performers inevitably includes several glowing screens, quadrupling my viewing experience, I guess. At one concert I noticed the woman in the row in front of me reviewing a video she had just taken of the children’s choir… while the choir was still singing. To say that audiences need training in how to be an audience goes hand-in-hand with saying that people (myself included) need to be content with doing fewer things.
Choose whether you want to watch it live, or on somebody’s
screen. (22 Dec. 2018 – Beirut)
            It is incredibly quiet today – no car horns, no traffic, no people. It feels so unlike Beirut. Even the sound from a nearby minaret seemed quieter than usual. But that’s how Christmas is here. Everyone is at home, or away in their villages. Weeks ago local television stations geared up for the holiday, with their snowman- and Santa Claus-themed station IDs, including the sounds of jingling jingle-bells. A thoroughly American-style Christmas, right here in the Middle East. While this presents an incongruity with local cultural customs, or rather replaces them, it poses a different question for Armenians, who celebrate “Christmas” differently, and on a different date: Why bother being different?
Sunday School Christmas pageant, last day of Sunday School
before “Western” Christmas (23 Dec. 2018 –
Geitawi/Ashrafieh, Beirut)
            I have heard more than a few Armenians (and others) saying essentially that Armenians should “get with it” and celebrate Christmas the same date as “everyone else”; it’s said to be something “inevitable”, we just have to “face reality”. I’ve wondered about what is behind this drive to conform to the majority, and convince other Armenians to do so as well. Is it an aftershock emanating from the Genocide of a century ago, a “death wish” from a nearly-annihilated people who see no sense in continuing the struggle to exist? It is prevalent in so many areas of our individual and collective life. Here’s an example: Armenians typing messages in Armenian but using the English alphabet, and in two different dialects at that, without thought as to how this contributes to the decline (and perhaps the death) of the language. The standard used is “What’s the easiest?”, instead of “What’s the best – in the long run?” That’s without getting into the whole topic of “What does God want? Why did he help some of us survive?”
LebCat 20: Jazzcat hanging out behind the Blue Note Café
(2 Sep. 2017 – Beirut)
            In the best Armenian tradition, we don’t make Santa Claus compete with Jesus. Called “Gaghant Baba” by Western Armenians (“Father Calendar/Time”) or “Tzəmer Babi” for Eastern Armenians (“Father Winter”), the dancing, gift-bearing fellow makes his appearance to Armenian children on the last night of the year. Children (and sometimes willing adults!) recite a poem in Armenian, or sing or dance for him, and then he unloads his treasures and departs. Then, six days into the New Year, the focus is fully on Jesus, his appearance as a baby at his birth, as well as his appearance at his baptism as an adult. It’s a time for worship and proclaiming the best news the world has ever heard. Although it's not, if this were a competition based on the merits of how best to observe Christmas, the Armenian custom of January 6 wins hands-down. But if it’s just a popularity contest, well . .  .   [LNB]

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Strange New World

20.Strange New World (29 November 2018)
The Legend: Jim’s Steaks. Worth the wait in the cold
in a line out the door and around the corner.
(23 Nov. 2018 – Philadelphia, Pa.)
            Last night we flew back in to Lebanon, back to the familiar yet strange place we call home, returning from a “strange, New World,” to borrow the words spoken by Captain James T. Kirk of the starship Enterprise.
            Several weeks ago an opportunity opened up for Maria to receive some software training for her work at Haigazian University, so we decided it was time to take some vacation, making this our first trip back to the U.S. and to my family there since we moved to Lebanon early in 2017. It was also our first trip to Toronto (and to Maria’s family) since then.
Family reunion! Lara K. and her “Beirut family”. Thanks, Dan,
for taking the photo. (20 Nov. 2018 – Broomall, Pa.)
            The first strange thing to me was how “un-strange” so much of it was, right down to the roadways and the potholes, in the same spots I had left them in January 2017. It seemed as if I had only been away from the U.S. for two months, not almost two years. And worshiping with the congregation and singing in the choir at the Armenian Martyrs’ Congregational Church in Havertown, Pa., where I used to be the pastor, only strengthened my feeling of never having been away.
            Being with family was another one of those strange-but-not situations. I suppose that if our separation had been five years it would not have felt like it had been only a short while. But then I wonder about those dear to me, from whom I am separated by death, whose faces carry that almost-forgotten quality to my eye. Yet because of our common faith in Jesus we have the hope of an everlasting reunion. Now that will be a strange feeling!
New car “vending machines”. Order online, and the lift
brings  your order, as if it were a bottle of soda.
(27 Nov. 2018 – Philadelphia, Pa.)
            When Maria and I went into the supermarket in suburban Philadelphia, we were bewildered by the varieties and sub-varieties of practically everything one could imagine, in a store with enough floor space and stock to contain several of the largest supermarkets in Lebanon. We also felt the intensity of advertising in the U.S., and how it shapes you into someone who consumes and buys and buys more as a way of life. It is something we were able to clearly perceive as strange only because of the distance we had had from America these two years.
            But also strange – yet not – were the tents sitting on city sidewalks, which our son Sevag pointed out to us in the neighborhood where he is a high school teacher. In Lebanon I would have accepted that sight as something quite normal in present-day Lebanon – refugees are a part of life in the “new Middle East” promised us by an earlier U.S. administration. There in that section of Philadelphia the tents on city sidewalks belonged to the homeless, refugees of a different sort, indicative of a societal malaise that gets little attention.
Homeless encampment on a sidewalk in the
Kensington area. (27 Nov. 2018 – Philadelphia, Pa.)
            After only a few days in the U.S., another strange feeling beset me: I was forgetting who I was as an Armenian. In that short time my environment was so decidedly American that it was very easy for me to “revert” to the identity I grew up with and maintained, that is, until the 8th grade when I chose for a book report that so shocked me (my grandmother’s copy of Rev. Abraham Hartunian’s Neither to Laugh nor to Weep) that I realized I had to learn what it meant to be Armenian, and then relentlessly pursue it. I know that some prefer to reconcile everything into everything else, to find the “both/and” in every situation, but when you are part of a minority culture, that melding means the obliteration of your culture. Your existence becomes a mere “decoration” or something “exotic” for the majority culture to enjoy, and otherwise ignore. And that is a hard road to travel if you are a young person wanting to be true to his language and heritage.
A snowstorm welcoming us to Canada. And almost keeping our
plane from landing. (16 Nov. 2018 – Toronto, Ont.)
            What sadly wasn’t so strange to me was the refrain heard over and over, wherever we went (and wherever we are): “We need leaders. Where are the new leaders?” Churches need pastors. Schools need teachers. Community and cultural organizations need visionaries. And they all need donors who believe in their mission and will give generously. I told people that they will not appear magically from some far-away place, but will grow up from within the Armenian churches, schools and community, if they are taught and learn to value their faith and heritage in the face of the intoxicating effect of the “new” and “exciting” all around them.
The best place to be – with children and youth. Thanks, John P.,
for the photo. (25 Nov. 2018 – Havertown, Pa.)
            The most joyful moment I spent occurred during the worship service at my former church. As I had done for nearly 10 years when serving there, I piped a tune to bring the children to the chancel steps, where I would sit and give the children’s message. There are only a few children in that church, so I expected two or three. But some of the high-schoolers, who years ago had been part of this group of little ones, got up, and then others, and before long a big group of “kids” was gathered around me, sitting on the floor in front of me. I was floored… and thankful to God for the seeds of faith growing in those youth, who love their church and their faith so much.
LebCat 19: Double surveillance, with LebCat 17 checking out
the lower level (28 Oct. 2018 – Nor Amanos, Bouchrieh)
            When Lebanon celebrated its 75th Independence Day, following the news from afar we experienced a strange mix of emotions: wishing we were there, glad we weren’t caught in the incredible traffic jams from closed roads into the capital, as the army practiced for the parade, hearing the pain in so many social media posts about the day-to-day struggles of regular people, while the elite classes disregard their role in creating misery and hopelessness and a lack of desire to celebrate anything.
            Engagement in life’s challenges should not be a strange thing for a Christian (or for any human being), whether Armenian or not. The Apostle Peter in I Peter 2.11-12 was on to something when he exhorted the church to live as “strangers and sojourners” regarding fleshly entrapments, which is a far cry from advocating for a disengaged, “holy huddle” in order to wait for Christ’s Second Coming. That engagement is what will keep us vital and focused as we interface with the strangeness of the worlds we inhabit.   [LNB]