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]

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Usual


36.The Usual (30 June 2020)
Uneven stones and a gutter in the middle of the road were
replaced by a sensible street surface, courtesy of some
international funding. (13 June 2020 – Nor Marash –
Bourj Hammoud)
Imagine you, and all the people like you, got used to centuries of living your life in fear. But now your circumstances have changed. You get a chance to live in freedom. Before, you had to speak like those around you spoke, and follow the rules of the majority, the rules of the land, and not show any sign of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Now you are in a place where you are able to speak freely, build homes and businesses without worrying if they will be burned down, or whether your lives and your children’s lives will be in danger. Yes, there are some like you in other lands who still live in those conditions, but there are many more who now enjoy the freedom to flourish and grow. There have been hardships and setbacks over the years, but things are moving forward, and you feel yourself a full-fledged citizen. Still, in order to function as a minority you have to act and talk like the majority, especially if you have an opportunity to move outside your enclave.
            But recently the rhetoric in the land has changed. Some people are emboldened to speak out against you, to say that you are not full-fledged citizens, that you should limit yourself to your traditional neighborhoods. They add that those who oppressed you in the past had a right to do so, and that perhaps oppression and even attacks should be reinstituted, in order to “purify” the land, to make it more suitable for the majority. Mass gatherings are being held, and the flag of your oppressor is boldly waved as people shout praises to the names of the past, names that should only be associated with ethnic cleansing and second-class citizenship for anyone outside the ruling majority.
The revolution is on hold? Maybe, but the window washers
are not. (17 Jun 2020 – Beirut)
            Your own community cautiously raises its voice against this hate speech, and some of the majority join you in solidarity. But the winds have already fanned the flames of hate and oppression to the point of igniting open conflict, intended to draw you in to a losing scenario. Will cooler heads prevail? Or will the frustration of this “second-class” community erupt into violence?
            This is not an imaginary scenario. It is not an historical flashback to 1930s Germany, or 1950s (or perhaps present-day) America. It is not merely a sketch of the Ottoman/Turkish Empire from the late 19th century until now; it is a description of what is happening today in Lebanon. Yet it is the same ones behind the inflammatory events, hate-filled rhetoric and Turkish flag-waving; and it is the same Western powers continuing to cast indifferent gazes, or even give an occasional wink in abdication of the defense of human rights for the pursuit of strategic interests. Additionally, it makes me wonder whether that rig being built offshore, which strangely never seems to make the local news, has anything to do with all of this.
How silly of me to forget to leave my gun at home! Thanks
for the reminder. (17 June 2020 – American University
Hospital- Beirut)
            Following recent reports, locally as well as abroad from places like the U.S., has made me realize the necessity of understanding and confronting one’s own history. It is sobering to see so many people in conflict with each other, unable to read together, as equal citizens, the sad and forgotten and pain-filled pages of their own past, and then eventually reconcile to it and to one another. Meanwhile, iconoclasm proceeds apace, and not only are the statues of those deemed offensive toppled, but nearly any statue within view. It appears that in some quarters the just struggle for equal rights is being overtaken by the struggle for self-righteousness. When an offense is uncovered (and who among the human race – save for one – does not have a “past” to repent of?), the person ceases being a human and turns into a target. Soon there will be no one left to topple. Soon I fear that “history” will cease to exist or evolve as a product of dialogue, and will be relegated to “your history” and “my history”, much as we now end discussions with reference to “your truth” and “my truth” and other similar ways we avoid reflection, self-examination and growth.
Spring came and went, and we almot missed the
flowering trees! (26 June 2020 – Hamra - Beirut)
            We’re getting out and about a lot more than before. I visited what used to be called “West Beirut” for the first time in months last week, and noticed so many businesses dusty and shuttered. Strangely (or not), the curfews and what-not have not gotten in the way of construction (and destruction of heritage sites). A cursory glance around tells you that we’ve moved away from “lockdown mode” towards to the usual. I don’t say “the normal”, because so much in Lebanon needs improvement in order to qualify as “normal”. The other day as I was crossing the bridge from Beirut to Bourj Hammoud, I looked down at the Beirut River and instead of the clear stream I had been enjoying for several months, I saw once again the previously ubiquitous floating debris and waste headed to the Mediterranean. Like the rivers, roadways were also smooth-sailing these past months, but now they are back to being the usual – overcrowded – roadways. Such conflicting thoughts swirl around my mind – glad that workplaces (the surviving ones, anyway) are reopened; sad that people are back to “the usual” – polluting the natural environment.
            Despite it all, once the airport reopens (planned for tomorrow – we think) there will be an anticipated small or great crush of people wanting to come back to Lebanon for a visit. We’re all waiting to see whether the summer will bring a slight economic uptick, or will merely crown the country with a viral uptick. Meanwhile, round and round the local currency goes, where it stops (and who keeps spinning it), nobody knows. More than a few shopkeepers prefer to keep their stores shuttered rather than have to buy or sell in currency worth 1/3 of its previous value. Or was that 1/8 of its former value?
            Another thing that we anticipate when the airport is open for business again will be the departure of many Lebanese. When browsing a bookshelf full of old books being given away for free at a local Armenian bookstore, the clerk told me that more and more people are donating their libraries for giveaways. Others can now enjoy so many valuable books without charge. Sounds altruistic in this terrible economy, right? Until you ask the question, “Why?”
LebCat 36: Feline secret of social distancing: sit where
no one can sit near you. (15 Feb. 2019 – Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            The other day I read an insightful article about the importance of the Armenian Church’s See of Cilicia in the whole dynamic of the Armenian diaspora. The author called this patriarchal center, relocated here to Lebanon after the Genocide, a resource and an anchor, something to be strategically valued by all Armenians no matter their “affiliations”. Yet one of the reactions to the article seemed to write off the Armenian community in the Middle East as if it were a “business loss”. The commenter talked about “conserving resources”, since nobody’s grandchildren would be speaking Armenian anyway. This type of thinking (sometimes overtly expressed) arises from a lack of vision, and demonstrates capitulation to the pressures of living as a minority, gasping for air because of the dominant culture’s witting or unwitting pressure on your breathing. Our desire to survive and thrive must be based on a vision of a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29.11), trusting in the One who can raise the dead.
            Tomorrow is the 174th anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Church’s founding, and I’m once again preparing a YouTube broadcast for the church Union here. Hope and a future is what we strive for as Maria and I continue helping our church play an important part in the vitality of one small people group called Armenians. Though only a few realize the importance of even the smallest creature in nature's ecosystem, it does not diminish that creature’s need to continue for the sake of all. Just so our small nation, and our small church within that nation, and this world.   [LNB]

Monday, June 1, 2020

Sa Koronyan


35.“Sa Koronyan” (31 May 2020)

A March windstorm toppled the cross from the
red cupola of the Armenian Evangelical Church.
(31 May 2020 – Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
Over and over again, we are hearing from medical and epidemiological experts telling us, to the best of their knowledge and experience, that we are going to be living with, not defeating the Coronavirus. It will be just one more thing that we have to take into account in our daily routine. What that means in terms of our lifestyles, our long-range plans, the economies and habits of families and countries, is still to be determined. How it will decimate minority communities, is also to be determined, although we are already getting a taste of what is to come. The Armenian community here in the Middle East, such a crucial guarantor of the continued existence of the Armenian people the world over, is facing daily traumas as it fights for its existence. In the past few days we lost yet another Armenian school, the St. Agnes Armenian Catholic School in Bourj Hammoud, while two weeks ago the last Armenian School in Jordan closed its doors. Yesterday I read that one of the two local Armenian FM radio stations was forced to go off-air and continue (hopefully) as an Internet-only station. In at least as critical a situation as we face today, Middle East Armenian families a hundred years ago went without many things, including shoes and new clothing, in order to maintain their schools and culture, and they produced vibrant and tough generations. But today people’s values and priorities are… not the same.
Experts report that a majority of mini-pizzas are displeased with
the direction of the economy. (9 May 2020 – Watwat - Beirut)
            We were scheduled for a few months of home assignment (or “furlough” in missionary parlance) in the U.S. later this year, beginning in late summer, in order to travel and inform interested church groups about the work of our partner organizations (the church union and the university). Now, all of that has come under question, and our sending body is studying the situation, examining what governments and the air travel industry will do to recover from their current state of disarray. Making any sort of prediction about travel, or saying anything else about what life will look like “A.C.” is a fool’s errand. (“B.C.” = “Before Corona/ Covid-19”; yet although it is inaccurate, I use “A.C.” = “After Corona”; it’s a better abbreviation than “W.C.” = “With Corona”, no?)
Reaching out to those in need now takes the form of leaving
clothing and shoes where they can be taken without
drawing attention to oneself. (25 May 2020 –
Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            Tomorrow Maria will be venturing outside our home for the first time in 2 months, for a health checkup and a stop at Haigazian University. It will be interesting to hear her observations on this “release from captivity” when she returns. I know that I often dread venturing outside our home, particularly with all the protective items I am forced to wear. The Lebanese government now mandates wearing a mask when going outside, and is stressing the need to keep infection numbers low because of the lack of hospital capacity for those needing respiratory care for the virus.
            Nevertheless, my excursions outside the house have been more frequent, and not always negative. Three weeks ago a friend was driving me to do some grocery shopping, and I asked him to run by our old neighborhood, where we lived 20 years ago. What a refreshing visit, seeing old friends – the baker and the greengrocer – who asked about Maria and the boys by name, and were truly happy for this quick visit (and exhibited boundless patience with my stumbling Arabic). When we see how much we matter to people like this, who seek nothing of us but friendship, that’s when we feel truly alive, truly connected to this place.
Coronahair and coronahaircut. Apparently the barber
was quite satisfied with the job he did.
(29 May 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            If it is permissible to say, I intensely dislike this plethora of online meetings and digital gatherings that are sometimes touted as the “new normal”. I doubt that it’s a generational thing, because I know of young people who say the same thing, and like me do not reject the technology, but do not also consider it universally applicable. The majority of communication that is done nonverbally is virtually (pun intended) eliminated from these electronic methods, rendering human interaction shallower, and distances farther. It’s not a small world after all. My sister as well as my son, both school teachers yet of different generations, realize how little real teaching and learning happens in this “virtual classroom space”. They know very well how struggling students need the physical presence of an instructor who can “read” their body language and step in with the necessary support, encouragement and creativity to help them move forward. This also is the case with online worship experiences, something in which I have been heavily involved in the past 2-1/2 months. We are enduring the pain of human separation, a pain that will remain for the foreseeable future, as long as “social distancing” is required.
LebCats 35: Lebanon’s success in stemming the
spread of the virus is due to high levels of
cooperation – even among cats – with social
distancing principles. (31 May 2020 –
Geitawi- Beirut)
            A fun project that came about because of a need for musical content in our worship broadcasts was a “virtual choir”. For the nine participants it was our first foray into this type of production, where the musicians, each in a different part of the world, collaborated in recording a song. Listening to the piano track we sang our parts into our computers or phones – some of us singing more than one part. Then the files went back to Washington state from Oregon, greater LA, Philadelphia and Beirut to the producer/ accompanist, who turned them all into one wonderful online vocal ensemble. Way to go Shahan, Arek, Sako, Palig, Sevag, Garin, Talar and of course Maria and me! Not a bad way to deal with this “A.C.” world!
            As I was walking around Bourj Hammoud recently, searching in vain for an open money-exchange house so that I could obtain local currency and buy some groceries, something struck my ear as one Armenian woman was commiserating with another over the current social and economic situation. She said (in Armenian), “Sa Koronyan yete asang sharounagvi…” (If this Koronya continues like this…). I was past them a few steps before I realized she was not referring to a perfume, but had Armenianized the word “corona”. Maybe the Armenian community will be able to adjust and even thrive in this “A.C.” world after all.   [LNB]

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Privilege


34.Privilege (29 Apr. 2020)
The neighborhood getting disinfected…  every now and then.
(28 Apr. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
I’m going to miss these crystal clear mountain vistas.
            Now that the country is pushing itself to get back to work, the stillness we (who can afford it) have enjoyed is starting to recede into the mist – or the smog – of resumed auto traffic and factory output. The occasional whiffs of rotting garbage will be overtaken by a continual stench of dumps and slaughterhouse aromas. The big fish that a few weeks ago were sighted swimming in the Beirut River will go far, far away, as that waterway resumes its obligatory burden of carrying away toxic and untreated waste into the Mediterranean Sea from small and large riverside operations. The nighttime quiet, interrupted by the occasional passing car or motorcyclist flouting the curfew, and the darkness undisturbed by the garish glare of electronic billboards, all thankfully switched off to minimize advertising expenditures, will likely end all too soon. I will miss hearing the variety of birdsong that heralded the sunrise and celebrated the sunset, creatures praising their Creator, without the din of steel-belted radials on asphalt. It has been a privilege to experience, even for a moment – a fantasy suggestive of how Lebanon once was, or might have been, and could be, only if…
A crisp view looking southeast toward the high-rise hotels in
Sin el Fil. You can actually see the contour of the hills.
(22 Mar. 2020 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
            But the bane of too many cars and too much construction, of appropriation of public land for personal use, of noise and air and sight pollution will make its all-too-soon return, of that we can be sure, as Lebanon struggles back to its feet. And as warmer weather continues its steady encroachment on the cool, pleasant spring air of Lebanon, the heaviness and seriousness of a nation in crisis will present itself once again to a country much worse off due to this compulsory quarantine. Now, we will get back to an awareness of the hunger and the despair and the crashing and burning economy, and the protests that never really went away. A “post-corona” world for this and other second- and third-tier nations across the globe will reveal itself as a yet-deeper and ongoing nightmare, a dark and fearful status quo. Yet for wealthy nations who are able to bounce back from the current economic crash of this year’s corona-life, it will eventually become just a fading memory from which they will want to “learn lessons”.
A “socially-distant” visit is nearly as enjoyable as a video
conference for people who need to hug when they see
each other. (25 Mar. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Lebanon has been showing up in some international news outlets recently. It has been highlighted as a country that has managed the pandemic quite well, despite being in a disastrous economic state. The Prime Minister recently noted that the effort expended to slow the pace of this virus has diverted the cabinet from dealing with the very real, immediate and long-term perils of the country. Nearly half of the population is currently facing hunger, over half is unemployed, education is in a shambles, and the anger of the people, simmering since the curfew was imposed, has boiled back up. Rock-throwing, burning banks, blocking roads – albeit with masks and gloves – has resumed. The pound is now worth about a third of its previous value, and with each new day its worth is even less. As an Armenian community we wonder what the fate of our schools and institutions will be, with no money to operate them, no ability to generate income, and no easy way to utilize monetary gifts from abroad. All of this concerns basic needs, not privileges: food, employment, education, health care, and cultural identity.
A candle of remembrance on our balcony, on the eve of
Armenian Martyrs’ Day. (23 Apr. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            The “Centennial+5” of the Armenian Genocide was commemorated amid the unusual restrictions of these days. All the massive gatherings that characterize April 24 the world over were transformed into an evocative silence. Absent were the massive crowds ascending the hill to the monument in Yerevan, Armenia, “Dzidzernagapert” (which translates to “Fortress of Swallows”), and it practically became once more the haunt of birds. The creativity of Armenia’s organizers came out, though, as a series of musicians and singers took to a stage on the walkway leading to the eternal flame and performed throughout the night – for eight hours – while people throughout the world watched from their homes. Here in Beirut, as in many Middle Eastern cities, the observance was markedly different than other years. In the windy night air we lit candles at our balconies and listened as church bells were rung for 10 minutes, honoring the lives lost and the lives rebuilt. Somehow, with all of these obstacles and circumstances, or perhaps because of them, this year’s Armenian Martyrs’ Day seemed to matter more. It was a privilege to stand outside in the cold and see flickering candles of other Armenians, children and grandchildren of survivors, on windowsills in Khalil Badawi and Nor Marash.
This mannequin will be safe from the virus.
(20 Apr. 2020 – Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
            “Privilege” is a fairly sensitive term these days, especially in a country like the U.S., which continues to struggle with the issue of racial and economic disparity, starkly visible to those on the lower edge and nearly invisible to others inhabiting higher levels. I’d rather not call it “white privilege”, but rather “inherited privilege”. And it makes me wonder if those in Turkey realize they are the beneficiaries of the Turkish form of “inherited privilege”. So much of what they enjoy is as a result of those who were branded enemies of the nation, expelled from their homes and towns, driven to their deaths, and their properties and goods appropriated by those eager to enjoy what they perceived as “Armenian privilege” (can you say, “Incirlik”?). The words of politicians ring so very hollow, when they attempt to commemorate the Whatever-you-want-to-call-it Day, merely in order to avoid having to hold the feet of the privileged to the fire, so as to avoid offending an erstwhile “ally” and lose their privileges. Such a strange effect this “privilege” thing has on people.
            Too much ruminating for one post, of course.
LebCat 34: This creature actually looks quite accustomed
to the whole social distancing thing. (8 Apr. 2020 –
Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            But something wonderful has emerged from being forced to minister to Armenian Evangelical Churches via the Internet – we came to the preparation of Sunday morning broadcasts, with songs, scriptures and sermons. This has happily drawn our churches, pastors and people together as a single audience, spanning seven Middle Eastern countries, plus Armenia, plus France, plus the U.S. and Canada, to enjoy the message of hope in their mother tongue, Armenian. I am grateful to God to be here in Beirut, playing a part in all of this, and to hear testimonies of people who have been (for a number of reasons) far from the worshiping community now being drawn into Christian fellowship. It’s almost as if God knew something like this was going to happen, no?   [LNB]