Saturday, July 20, 2019

Not Bad for Your Age

27.Not Bad for Your Age (20 July 2019)
Just some old guy doing climbing for the first time
in his life. (25 June 2019 – Guthrie, Oklahoma)
So, how old are you?
            I was asked this question by children and youth at summer conferences in June, when we spent a month in the U.S., traveling around various cities in the southeastern quarter of the country. It was a new world for both Maria and me, and eye-opening in terms of the differences – as well as similarities – between our “Northern” (in the U.S. sense) outlook and that of the region in which we traveled.
            The first time was by a child in Alabama, at a Disciples (CC/DOC, for those interested) camp. We were giving a presentation about Lebanon the country, and where we live, and why we are there. We showed them a map, held up the flag, talked about Lebanon in the Bible, the cedars, and so on. The 4th and 5th graders before us were listening with rapt attention. “Any questions?” I asked. You have to be a fool or very quick on your feet to open the floor to questions from children. Clearly, I was the former, not the latter. First question: “How old are you?” Ahem. This needs a clever rejoinder. “How old do you think I am?” And they started guessing. I thought I should put them out of our misery, so I picked one answer and said, “We’re in our 60s. That’s pretty old, right?” Bless them, they moved on to other questions. These children included us in their program and their hearts, even filling our “warm fuzzies” bag with notes of appreciation and gifts (of candy and chocolate!) during the week.
When it rains on your summer camp… make your own fun!
Just make sure you’re sufficiently young before the belly-flops
in the mud. (18 June 2019 – Wetumpka, Alabama)
            Maria and I were serving as counselors to junior and senior high campers during most of our time in America. Their concerns and questions were similar in some ways to those of the youth here in Lebanon, but they seemed to be facing so much more social disintegration. The family situations they described expressed a deep longing for significant relationships not just with their peers (though that was very apparent in the way they bonded with each other), but also with caring adults. This was one of the fringe benefits of being with them: to experience their warmth even with us, coming from such a distance.
Bringing insights from the Middle East to the parable of the
Good Samaritan during high school camp.
(27 June 2019 – Guthrie, Oklahoma)
            Our role was that of “mission visitors”, so we had varying amounts of time to speak directly to these youth (and adults in North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma) about our work and our friends and partners in the Middle East, and to challenge them to consider taking one year or many years for “overseas” ministry. In one of the camps I told the youth, “Please consider spending some time serving others elsewhere in the world. You will learn humility and grace as you go in Jesus’ name. And you will also have the opportunity to view your country (the U.S.) from a vantage point outside your usual world. You might see this country in a different light, and see yourselves as others see you.”
The message is clear: “developers” are not developing for others’
sake, but instead hoping to catch the wave of climbing
property values. (24 May 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            The guys in my cabin in Oklahoma were high school juniors and seniors, and many of them had known each other for years from attending this camp. A lot of them at the camp, boys and girls, were preparing to enter the military. One afternoon during cabin time (how happy I was for those rest times!) one of them asked me, “How old are you?” Not having learned my lesson from the 4th & 5th graders, I said, “Guess.” The guys said numbers which were all over the place, and that made me smile. When I finally helped them figure out the right number, the original questioner said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look really good for 63. I would have thought early 50s. I mean that as a compliment.” And he was totally sincere.
            I’m not sure what to think about compliments like this, or about all those clichés about aging, or about only being as old as you feel. Good health, mobility and flexibility are important to a happy life, but sometimes I feel as if the line is being crossed over to the glorification of youthfulness. Life becomes a matter of feeling good (or young), just like churches often communicate, and not a matter of doing something that matters with your life.
Greening the concrete jungle: flowering plants after they got
their heads plucked off by passersby. (19 July 2019 –
Geitawi - Beirut)
            Again, the contrast these questions were drawing in my head was stark: we live in a place of the world where the signs of old age, the wrinkles, grey hair and bent back are still command respect in many families, even if official programs in this region do not always reflect that. Not surprisingly, it is the religious bodies here that strive to pick up the slack and care for elders – and children. It is why we have institutions like CAHL in Beirut and the Aleppo Armenian Home for the elderly, and why churches here run 5- to 8-week Vacation Bible Schools in the summer. It is why the church has its two KCHAG retreat centers, and why it operates Armenian Evangelical schools, imparting knowledge as well as Christian character with a biblical foundation. This is God’s vision for the church: to be a multi-generational family, a “home”, where respect and care is evident towards all.
Faith, beauty and hope through song at the “Armiss” choir
concert. (2 June 2019 – Beirut)
            I love old things, too. And it’s not just because I’m steadily becoming an old thing. The character that is expressed by things artistic or architectural, things that have stood the test of time, enriches my character and that of the environment. Yet I wonder if these old things can stand the test of money. As I (and others) have often lamented, the ongoing destruction of Beirut’s architectural heritage is most disconcerting. People (who knows who they are, or whether they are even local?) see land as something to profit from, and they aim to create the biggest (and often ugliest) structures they can, in order to gain the most from each square meter. In reaction to this, graffiti artists are creating pieces that express the urgency: “Old Beirut Matters”. Although those with bulldozers rule the day, perhaps sanity, and respect for heritage, will endure these times.
            A couple of days ago a woman entered the mini market I often frequent, brandishing clippers and a broken bloom, complaining to the proprietor, her neighbor, that people walking by her ground floor window boxes snap off blooms as they pass. She was frustrated at all the work she was doing to beautify this world of concrete. After she left, the proprietor turned to me, again in frustration, and said, “Am I supposed to look after her flowers?” Yet today he saw me admiring the plantings and said, “Do you like our garden?” The building across the street, where he lives, had window boxes at every window. I said, “Yes, it’s great! We need to see more green around us!”
LebCat 26: All that a cat could want – fresh garbage and
cardboard boxes! A slice of feline heaven on earth, as
Lebanon's trash crisis looms. (14 July 2019 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            The “Armiss” concert on June 2 went quite well, and had a full house. Afterwards I received many, many words of appreciation for it. The program did not include any new music, but rather traditional works, some new presentations of old music, and some old music that had not been heard for many, many years. I’m currently working on the video footage to create a DVD of the event. I hope that these sorts of events can continue bringing together what is both young and old, fresh and seasoned. Because it matters. It really does.   [LNB]

Friday, May 31, 2019

Friends and Others

26.Friends and Others (31 May 2019)
Friends gathering after a worship service at Emmanuel Church
to be with Pastor Harut Khachatryan, whom they met last
summer in Armenia. (16 May 2019 - Nor Amanos -
They say that it’s the tough times that show who your true friends are. This doesn’t mean that those who are not really concerned about whether you exist are your enemies. It just means that they aren’t your friends. Sometimes I wish that the term “friend” weren’t so commonly used so as to dilute its meaning. After all, in the Bible the term “friend of God” (applied to Abraham in James 2.23) is intended as a special designation, just as when Jesus called the twelve “my friends” (in John 15.15). Now, a “friend” is what you get when you click on a name. And then there’s the Armenian word, “բարեկամ” (paregam), which means “one who wills good”. Well, even Armenians use the word indiscriminately. Like “Paregam (friend), move your car from in front of my shop.” Said without a smile, but with the implication that you or your car might not remain unscathed.
My friend Angele Kebab slipped and hurt her
arm a few months ago, but now is back to
making delicious sandwiches!
(24 May 2019 - Nor Hadjin - Beirut)
            A few weeks back there was a car parked in front of a nearby apartment building. We have no idea whose it was, but from Saturday afternoon until Sunday morning, for over 14 hours, its theft alarm rang. The whole night. And nobody showed up to claim it and stop it. Fortunately, I lack the tools and the know-how to stop a car alarm. So I merely spent a sleepless night listening to it. My guess is that no one called the police (and their barracks are located right above the place where this car was) to locate the owner and make it stop.  Because, why bother? Not just the police, or the neighborhood, but people in general are easily influenced by the usual things that cause people to abandon responsible behavior. Self-preservation. Gain. Running into walls. Powerful people who make and enforce their own rules. And so, the alarm just keeps ringing all night. Not friendly. But only one night.
            Our regular grocer, a young dad named Attieh (an Egyptian), has officially weighed in: my Arabic is definitely improving. He mentioned it to someone who works at the same school – a high school – where I take lessons. So of course the news got to my Arabic teacher that there’s been progress in my speech, independently verified, so she was delighted, the principal was delighted, Maria was delighted, everyone was delighted. It’s nice having a regular grocer, not just so as to be compelled to speak the language and therefore improve, but also to be treated like a friend, when the cucumbers on display are a bit too limp, or the bananas a bit too long, and he’ll open up the good stash. And brag about your Arabic to others.
A sidewalk vendor. closed for the day, displaying
various Armenian symbols. And the words, "Jesus
loves you". (29 May 2019 - Bourj Hammoud)
            Yesterday I went to buy some traditional “Ramadan bread” – there’s got to be a different name for it, but for years that’s what our family has called it – from the baker at the corner where we lived from 2000-2003, in the Zarif area. Delicious stuff, with sesame and nigella seeds, nice and soft. The neighborhood used to be very heavily Armenian-populated before the Civil War, but now only a few families remain. They remember us – Arab, Armenian, Muslim, Christian, which means you need to go around to all the shops and say hello to all the shopkeepers who used to serve you. As I walked from Haigazian to our old neighborhood I realized that I wasn’t feeling the apprehension I once had due to my (then) limited (i.e., non-existent) Arabic. Back then, I tried to take one of my boys or my wife with me so I wouldn’t get stuck not knowing what to say.
            So I strode from the bakery across the street to Maalim Toufiq and greeted him (3 kisses, the proper way), asked about his family, and he asked how I was, how Maria was, how my children were. Then he introduced me to the other men there, who also remembered us from a decade-and-a-half ago. We talked a bit, he asked again if we were visiting or staying in Lebanon. And then an older gentleman walked in – remember, this is a small “produce stand” by western standards – and he introduced me to him, I wished them each a blessed Ramadan, and was on my way. Like old friends, which we are – both old as well as friends. (But I’m older than Toufiq.)
My little flying friend, waiting on top of the exhaust fan for
someone to come to the rescue. (31 May 2019 - Geitawi, Beirut)
            Today I noticed some kind of dust on the bathroom shelf, and heard a clicking noise from the exhaust fan above the shelf when I switched on the light, like a twig was hitting the fan blades. So I called the building caretaker for us to go up and look at the exit pipe. Nothing unusual there, though just to be sure that no nests could be made there I lowered the cover so that only a few millimeters of gap remained. I went back down to clear out whatever was stuck in the pipe, pulled the fan housing, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a juvenile sparrow, sitting on top of the fan assembly? It must have gotten in earlier in the day when there was a greater gap on the roof, and, unable to fly back up the narrow pipe, just sat there. Except that when we turned on the light (and fan), the blades of the fan were hitting its legs and claws, as I later realized when I saw blood spatters while cleaning up the fan.
LebCat 25: Caught in the act of slashing tires,
while the lookout just looks. Hey, they’re cats.
(22 May 2019 – Qobayiat - Beirut)
            Well, a friend (“paregam”) is one who wills and does good, right? So I got a towel, hoping that it would accept my good will and not flap all around the bathroom. I grasped the bird with the towel, tightly enough that it wouldn’t fly, and showed it to Maria (of course). “Show-and-Tell” never gets old! I could feel its heart beating, but since I am not an ornithologist I have no idea if it was normal speed or racing. Also birds do a great poker face, so there was no facial expression I could read. I wondered, was this bird badly injured? Was it able to fly before it fell in? I needed to take it outside, to our patio, and see what condition it was in (junior veterinarian, reporting for duty). When I took it outside and started unwrapping the towel it immediately flew off at high speed. Without even a parting photo op. No selfies of “me and birdie”. And I was relieved to see that.
            In two days I will be conducting a choir concert performed by the “Armiss” choir. The group worked hard, and I’m praying that all goes well. We’re expecting a good-sized crowd, especially after two radio interviews, a bunch of newspaper ads, fliers in store windows, Sunday announcements, and posts on our dear “friend” repository, Facebook. My greatest satisfaction will be presenting this as a gesture of good will, of encouragement and of joy to this strained city and especially to the Armenian community. That’s what friendship is. That’s what friendship does.   [LNB]

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Show Your Colors

25.Show Your Colors (27 April 2019)
The children sang and recited on Palm Sunday. I preached. Guess
who made the bigger impact. (14 Apr. 2019 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            A couple weeks ago, as I was doing some errands on foot, two different drivers, within thirty seconds of each other, stopped me to ask directions to two different hospitals in my neighborhood. A good test of my Arabic proficiency, now that I’m back to taking lessons for the last three months (at the nearby Armenian Evangelical high school). I was able to successfully understand their questions (in Arabic) and answer them correctly (in Arabic). Anyway, I hope so. Maria put it succinctly: “The problem is you look like you’re from here, which you’re not, and I look like I’m from somewhere else, which I’m not.”
Union President Rev. Mgrdich Karagoezian delivers the
benediction at the annual Easter Sunrise (this year, "Rainrise")
Service at KCHAG Conference Center. (21 Apr. 2019 – Monteverde)
            Strange coincidence, though, that I would be asked how to get to those hospitals, when we are living (and I am working) in what used to be a third hospital in our sector (Geitawi) – the former Christian Medical Center (CMC). When it was built (exactly 70 years ago), it was the largest of the three. And it was the one that had a reputation for accepting patients that the other two hospitals would turn away for lack of money. The other two are still operating, and expanding, and they have helipads on their roofs, and they still will turn away uninsured patients without up-front money.
On the wall of the Torossian Arm. Evang.
Intermediate School: “We will remember
and demand”. (21 Apr. 2019 – Baouchrieh)
            The CMC building is no longer a hospital (since the late 70s/early 80s), but is now our church Union’s headquarters (after a decade as Haigazian’s temporary campus, until 1996). Still, it’s interesting how many people we run into – shopkeepers, taxi drivers, etc. – who remember CMC, and who were either born here or were treated here after being turned away from those other hospitals.
            (Interesting footnote: the name “CMC” now refers to a new hospital near Haigazian University on the other side of the city, though the first letter definitely stands for something else.)
            In March, the daughter of one of CMC’s founding doctors, Dr. Peter Manoogian’s daughter Kate, paid her first visit to the place since leaving Beirut, perhaps since the 70s. She took her husband, children and grandchildren around the building and had very clear memories of what each room used to be. I, too, was interested in hearing about it and tagged along for part of the “tour”. I found out, for example, that our Union’s main reception room used to be the operating room, recovery room, and autoclave room. And I found out that she and my brother-in-law used to play together in the garden (now parking lot) behind the building.
Martyrs’ Day vigil at the Genocide Memorial,
Armenian Catholic Patriarchate. (23 Apr. 2019
– Geitawi, Beirut)
            Back in January we heard that Turkish flags had been hung by night at two Armenian schools in Los Angeles. The U.S. Armenian community was in an uproar, wondering who did it, why, etc., and many reacted with fear and anger. It was going to be investigated by the police as a hate crime, though the issue disappeared from the Armenian press. (Any info? Let me know in the “Comments” section.) Here in Beirut it’s a different ball game. Literally. When a certain basketball team plays against an Armenian club (whose star players are usually U.S. athletes… but that’s another issue), the opposing team trots out Turkish flags and dances on the bleachers to taunt the Armenian fans. Nothing “accidental” or secret about it. And nothing is really done about it. So Armenians do what they are able, and continue to defiantly display their tricolor at their sporting events, churches, schools, businesses, homes, cars and cell phone cases.
Flags of the Cilician Armenian kingdoms fly each
year from this building, courtesy of the sponsors
of the “Kohar” symphony of Armenia.
(24 Apr. 2019 – Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
            Must some legislation be passed, some official action taken, every time someone is offended at something? I understand that the intent of such legislation is to avoid a trend that might eventually lead to violence. But often it’s a hairpin trigger that sets off a reaction, seen in the trend of isolating, slandering, and dis-inviting those with whom you disagree. The outcome, especially for young people, is sad: young people ill-equipped to challenge an idea dispassionately and intelligently. Even if it’s a Genocide-denier, or someone who blames religions for all the ills in the world (there are plenty of those), or someone who thinks that this or that progressive (or traditional) cause should be the litmus test of whether you should be accepted as a full-fledged human being. Open debate is supplanted by shouting, silencing or sulking.
            April is the month that Armenians enthusiastically show their colors here in Lebanon (and Syria, and a lot of other Middle Eastern countries as well). On and around April 24 Armenians become a much more visible group in Lebanon. There are many people (young, educated people) here who have no idea about what befell Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks in the early 20th century, so it’s an opportunity to let them know. And when Turkey’s president makes his idiocy and mendacity public at this time each year (this year saying that what Turkey did to Armenians last century was “reasonable”, thus owning the guilt of his ancestors), it provides an easy opener to the topic. In addition, the homebound (northbound) side of the coastal highway out of Beirut was blocked for three hours on the evening of April 24 due to a massive demonstration, walking from Bourj Hammoud to the Catholicosate in Antelias. This gave rise for many locals to utter the word “Armenians”, but not in any complimentary sense.
Shuttered businesses on Armenian Genocide Day and giant forget-
me-nots on a building. Others went to work and illuminated their
co-workers concerning the day. (24 Apr. 2019 – Bourj Hammoud)
            For my part, I got to be the main speaker at this year’s Joint Commemorative April 24th Service for the Armenian Evangelical community in Lebanon.
            Today, as I was walking home from a wedding (two young Armenians marrying – what a joy!), on the back streets between the church and home, I noticed a gentleman in a suit and tie standing in the road ahead of me. Before I got near, he asked me (in Armenian, not Arabic), “Which road leads to Bourj Hammoud?” Was it my Armenian lapel cross, or the “forget-me-not” pin from the Genocide Centennial? He was too far away to have seen them. But I felt his pain, and we fell into conversation.
LebCat 24: Plant ’em in the winter, they sprout in
the spring. (22 Apr. 2019 – AUB, Beirut)
            The streets in Geitawi are like crab’s legs; if you are near the crab’s body and you choose the wrong leg, you’ll end up in a very different place than you had hoped. I told him that descending the stairs was the best way to where he was going, and invited him to walk along with me as I was also headed in that direction. We commiserated – in Armenian – about the unregulated and unplanned ruining of architectural heritage and the proliferation of multi-storey monsters in the city. “This country will break down under the weight of all this lawlessness,” he rued.
            Maybe it was my Armenian nose. Sometimes your colors are hard to hide, even from a distance.   [LNB]

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Decay and Growth

24.Decay and Growth (31 March 2019)
The huge, nearby Lebanese flag, struggling to unfurl while
soggy wet. Symbolic of the state of the state.
(31 Mar. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            “So, there’s this thing in the parking lot – I think it’s an ark. And a bunch of animals, lined up in pairs…”
            Well, not really, but March in Lebanon is living up to its Armenian nickname: “crazy March” (in Armenian, “khent Mard”). We were fairly sure that the cold and rainy days were over. We were down to the occasional overnight drizzle, with mostly sunny days and blue skies. Now it seems like we are living in a (concrete) rainforest this last day of March, with nonstop rain from the middle of the night throughout the entire day. It is so rainy that the huge Lebanese flag atop a nearby building is completely saturated (not easy for something made of nylon) and shiny under the floodlights illuminating it.
The “thing” in the parking lot is not an ark, but
a second, more powerful generator for the
building. Because uninterrupted electricity
is not in the near future...
(21 Mar. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            As with other rainy stretches, those who are impacted the most are those living in makeshift dwellings. Translation: that means refugees. It means about a fifth or more of the population of Lebanon. Yes, the Syrian war (or as some call it, “the war on Syria”) is still a “thing”. And Lebanon continues to struggle under the weight of these regional uncertainties. Fear and threats swirl in the wind. There are reports of some local relief workers warning refugees not to return home, for whatever reasons, or perhaps out of self-interest. And then there are the imperial fiats of far-away leaders. A Syrian comedian recently went on TV, seated behind a desk, signing a certificate. He held it up and declared that he was ceding California to Mexico. Then he added that his certificate has as much worth as the one announced this month concerning the Golan Heights. It appears that the storms here will continue here for some time.
            Spring does an amazing thing, though. It makes you believe that the corruption and decay all around us can, in fact, be transformed into growth. Decay is what helps all those ants and cockroaches stay alive, as they dispose of whatever is lying around, plant or animal. Hmmm, maybe I have that backwards; ants and roaches keep us from drowning in waste by eating garbage, which ends up helping to keep us alive. Now that’s a weird thought.
My nemesis: spring flowers. So pretty. Such
torture to my nose. Note the trash in
the background. (25 Mar. 2019 – Zahlé)
            So, trees and plants are budding. And I am fighting my nemesis – pollen – with the only weapons at my disposal: allergy pills and tissues. Green growth is returning everywhere, covering the trash thrown out of windows and dumped at night. But where is the healthy growth, or the ants and cockroaches, that will obliterate, or better yet, remove, the decayed leaders?
            Some cabinet ministers in the new government are trying to take actions to improve the quality of life here. One of the projects is to remove the concrete barriers that have proliferated all around the city since the year of assassinations in 2005. But everyone was so used to seeing concrete that they became disoriented. Even the police. A couple of weeks ago we were in a taxi on Hamra Street, and a police car pulled up to us and asked the driver if he knew where the Interior Ministry was. It was just around the block, but no longer behind barriers or with a security gate, and therefore unrecognizable. And remember, this is the police asking a taxi driver for directions…
A new greenhouse for food as well as education.
(25 Mar. 2019 – Ainjar)
            But there is so much more needing to be done, and the population is generally disgusted by the decades of unfulfilled promises by the same political dynasties that were killing each other during the civil war. There is an old fellow in our neighborhood who delivers the propane tanks for our stove (there is no such thing as a gas line or a gas utility here), and in between conversations I have with him about Bible passages, he mutters on about how officials are robbing people. One could dismiss it as the rants of a broken-down old man. Or one could compare what he says to the reality people face and come to a different conclusion…
Ecumenical prayer, followed by fellowship (and food).
(28 Mar. 2019 – Norashen – Bourj Hammoud)
LebCat 23: A regular customer at the nearby artisanal bakery.
But to sleep, not to eat. (19 Mar. 2019 – Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
            Yet we know we must inspire hope and commitment, and focus on mission and growth, or else we’re just wasting our time.  I truly admire the faithfulness of my church in serving the community through education, with a network of schools in the Middle East. Just to see how they do so much with dwindling financial support is a testimony to their wholehearted dedication. One of those schools, the Armenian Evangelical Boarding School in Ainjar (in the agricultural Bekaa area), has constructed a greenhouse in order to (1) grow its own produce for the children’s meals, (2) teach students about agricultural work, (3) inculcate a sense of caring for the natural environment, and (4) maybe even be able to sell some of what they grow.
            In yet another sign of spring growth, a few days ago twenty Armenian clergy – Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical – held a prayer and fellowship gathering in the Ss. Vartanants church in Bourj Hammoud, under the leadership of the heads of those three denominations. Although this type of ecumenical event is just starting here, there has always been cooperation between the churches and clergy in the region to some degree. But it is wonderful to see a clergy gathering coming into shape, much as we have had for over a half-century in the Armenian churches of Philadelphia. Now, this is the kind of spring I like to see, sniffles or not!   [LNB]