Monday, January 6, 2020

Stormy Weather

31.Stormy Weather (5 Jan. 2020)
Stalled construction – for now – in the downtown area, center
of the protests that began on Oct. 17. (27 Dec. 2019 – Martyrs’
Square, Beirut)
It’s Christmas Eve. And it’s raining fairly steadily, as it has been for the past several weeks. Youth groups from the various Armenian Evangelical (and other Armenian) churches are preparing to spread out over the metropolitan region to visit homes and sing the good news of Christ’s revelation to mankind. Throughout the night until the early hours of the morning they will be climbing in and out of cars and vans, cramming into elevators or traipsing up flights of stairs to carol and share scripture, as well as to distribute a custom-made gift to each household. And they will enjoy the chocolates, candies and other goodies prepared by each household they visit. And get drenched to the bone. And create memories that will stay with them until their old age.
Our neighbors and we prepared snacks for the carolers to
recharge themselves before going on with their caroling.
(5 Jan. 2020 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
            Today I found out from my son Sevag (in the U.S.) that in Aleppo this year the churches there will also be sending their youth out to carol and herald Christ’s birth. If this good news is sorely needed here in Lebanon (and it is very much needed), it is needed at least as much there. No surprise that the news went from the Middle East to the US back to the Middle East; it’s simply how the Armenian grapevine works.
Capitalizing on the tire-burning protest
movement. (21 Dec. 2019 – Nahr el Mawt)
            The season’s stormy weather seems to be the perfect analogy of what people are going through, and not just in Lebanon, but also in the region. People are teetering on the edge of a very deep cliff, and it seems certain that the country will be in freefall before too long. The dividing line between a liveable income and poverty is steadily rising, engulfing more and more people each week, and I expect that in a short while we will be seeing people focused on little else but how to get a some food on the table – if they haven’t sold the table by then. Banks are still limiting withdrawals of more than the equivalent of $300 per week, and they, as well as the exchange booths (an officially condoned, albeit black market, feature of the Lebanese economy for decades upon decades) continue to profit from the headlong fall of the Lebanese pound. Paper money (pounds, that is) is getting harder and harder to come by, and billions in local currency have steadily been relocated under the mattresses and in the coffee cans of homes throughout the country.
Some irony to chew on: poking fun at the
revolution with 22 karat gold gum.
(27 Dec. 2019 – Burj al Ghazal, Beirut)
            The other, uglier side of all of this is that for decades, politicians and businesspeople have embezzled and stolen and transferred billions in US currency out of the country, while the Central Bank has run banking affairs like an Amway franchise. Even after the uprising, when the writing was on the wall that this thievery was going to be stopped, those transfers to foreign banks did not stop. There is a reason why Lebanon has remained a “third-world” country for so long instead of developing into the jewel it has the potential to be: it’s called “greed”, described “to a T” in I Timothy 6.10.
            These unrelenting rainstorms (or snowstorms in the higher elevations) are laying bare the unkempt infrastructure of the country. Roads are being washed out, foundations are collapsing, more garbage is falling into the sea. The tourism and service industries (restaurants, etc.), which form such a great part of the (honest) income of Lebanese, have stopped dead due to the complete lack of foreign tourists and cautious spending of locals. These are not pleasant times for the country.
LebCat 30: On its usual perch, but appearing
more than a bit anxious. Cats can have
premonitions, right? (3 Jan. 2020 – Beirut Cat
Café, Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Last week a cemetery wall collapsed due to the hyper-saturation of the soil, toppling the deteriorating stone-and-cement construction onto the Damascus highway sidewalk in the Sodeco section of the city. The sadly ironic part is that it belonged to the old Beirut Jewish cemetery in a country that has almost no Jews left. Who will dare to take it upon himself to build a better retaining wall for that cemetery, I wonder? But if these storms continue, the outer wall of either the Anglo/Evangelical, French or Syriac cemeteries, all in a row, will be the next to fall. And then, maybe, the city will do a general reconstruction of all the walls – if there is any money left in their coffers.
            As business after business closes its doors, one in particular stands out for me: the Beirut Cat Café, in the Mar Mikhael area not far from us. I think of it as a “rent-a-cat” place, where for the price of a drink you can associate with willing felines for an hour or so and then leave; and if you are so inclined, you can apply to adopt one of them. Because of the impossibility of meeting their expenses in the declining Lebanese economy they are closing at the end of this month. What touches me the most about this particular place is that it represented a better side of humanity, where animals that are considered vermin can be seen in a different light. And that can have its positive effect on the way that people relate to the natural world as well as to each other. With its closing I feel that we are losing a part of our humanity, as ironic as that sounds. (Or a part of our felinity?) I hope it will open again some day soon, once these cruel storms have finished their destructive journey across the Middle East. 
LebCat 31: Blissfully unaware and uncaring at what is coming.
Probably better off that way. (3 Jan. 2020 – Beirut Cat Café,
Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            No matter what, we will greet the coming day as we (Armenians) have always done: "Christ is born and revealed; great good news to us all!" (Krisdos dzenav yev haidnetsav; tzezi, mezi medz avedis!)    [LNB]

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Canceled until Further Notice

30.Cancelled until Further Notice (11 Nov. 2019)
Last week all politicians’ faces adorning all buildings and
monuments (everywhere?) were removed and replaced
with the national flag. (11 Nov. 2019 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
This morning the taxi driver asked me, “What do you think will happen here?” It came as somewhat of a surprise; first of all, that someone would ask my opinion about Lebanon’s fate, and second, that a Lebanese person would think that I, as a foreigner, would have some sort of access to privileged information that would help to prepare for what is coming. At least that was the impression I got, though I realize that people sometimes have other reasons for asking such questions.
            The country is suffering from the aggregation of so many systemic problems: a deeply entrenched patronage system (thanks to the Ottomans, then to the French, and then to the Lebanese themselves); the acceptance of corruption as an inevitable way of life; the lack of a system of holding people accountable (hardly an institution in the country functions without some “irregularities” in operations or hiring); the dependence on stop-gap measures to keep things rolling along, as they have been for decades since the end of the civil war; the partnerships of local groups with outside powers, each with its own agenda. Of course it is the bit-players, the regular citizens, who are badly buffeted in this local/international drama being enacted before our eyes.
Optimism and camaraderie ruled the day of the human chain,
which included an attempt to pass a bagged manouche sandwich 174 km (108 mi.) from Tyre to Tripoli.
(27 Oct. 2019 – Nor Hadjin - Beirut)
            My taxi driver had been let go from his 10-year employment at a local firm just last Friday. A couple of months earlier he had decided to buy a taxi car and license, to better support his young family; now he is completely dependent on this work. Will he be able to pay his car loan to the bank? And does the bank care whether he can pay? Will it pressure people like him to come up with cash he doesn’t have? For a long time I have thought about how the government and economic setup here seems perfectly designed to frustrate and discourage especially the young people, who then leave the country. And this is a particular concern affecting the Armenian community, which is in such dire need of a new wave of honest, courageous and committed young people.
            Putting aside speculation as to who or what might be behind all of this, and who stands to gain the most from a destabilized Lebanon, the idealism and dreams of young and old were expressed symbolically two Sundays ago, when thousands of Lebanese (and others) stood hand-in-hand in a human chain along the Mediterranean coast, from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. It was a festive time, and brought out not only hard-core protestors, but tourists, families, young and old, men and women, visibly illustrating the dream they have of a country they can remain in and contribute to. Perhaps the image of that day will serve as an inspiration to work together to alter the trajectory the country has been on for so long.
“This is our sea!” Citizens are trying to stand up to the illegal
appropriation of the Mediterranean shoreline, in a city with
almost nil public space. (11 Nov. 2019 –
Ain el Mreisseh - Beirut)
            Yesterday a particularly delicious bit of popular protest occurred right next to the All Saints’ Anglican Church, where I preached. The church is struggling to find a pastor who is willing to come and shepherd this flock in Lebanon – and willingly endure all that one must here as part of the package. Nearby, next to the renowned St. George Bay, is a privately-owned bit of seaside which protestors took over, bringing their picnic blankets and breakfast, their fishing rods and swimming trunks. They said, “This is our sea, and we are going to enjoy it.” It appeared that they were prepared to bring their soap and towels and bathe there as well. Meanwhile, the church bulletin carried this unintentional commentary announcing a planned lecture / workshop: “The Life You’ve Always Wanted – cancelled until further notice.”
            As I traveled back home this morning and passed by the seaside showrooms usually displaying the latest and most expensive Porsches, Land Rovers, Lamborghinis, Jaguars and the like, I noticed something had changed: their glass-fronted showrooms were barren of vehicles. It’s clear that they already took steps to protect their valuable assets – those half-a-million dollar vehicles that no mere mortal in Lebanon could even dream to own. But there are plenty of people who just love to exhibit what they are able to (or appear able to) possess. It gives me pause to think that the cost of just one of those hunks of metal and plastic could lift one or two of our Armenian Evangelical schools free and clear of debt.
Garbage bins bearing the scars of the ashes and flames of the
beginning of the uprising. (9 Nov. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Drawing near to our home on the usually busy highway (today was a national holiday for the Prophet’s Birthday; plus, many gas stations are closed for lack of gasoline stocks, so the roads were practically empty), the bus approached the Électricité du Liban building. Around the entire perimeter fence was black bunting covering it, obstructing the view in or out, giving the entire block a funereal look. And blocking the street alongside were protesters in tents, vowing to stay there until the company, which receives the lion’s share of the government’s budget, provides 24-hour a day electricity. This, thirty years after the end of the Lebanese civil war.
            This morning’s taxi driver had gone to his bank last week to withdraw a sizeable amount of money from his account. No matter what he told them, they refused to release more than a small amount. So he resorted to yelling and screaming; he didn’t care what others in the bank thought. The manager sat him and his brother down, brought them coffee, tried to change their minds, and finally agreed to release a larger amount, but over a few days. This “show” is playing in bank branches throughout the country, and so the bank employee syndicate has declared that they are all going on strike as of tomorrow, until the country settles down. Yet those who have the strings in their hands are not in to be found in local branches, as we note every time someone of influence comes on TV to hold a press conference.
Some apropos theological reflection on the meaning
of this struggle. (26 Oct. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            To take our minds off of the struggles of the Lebanese, we need only turn our heads a bit eastward, to see the sordid drama playing out there. Just one example is the news of the so-called “Islamic State” (The Reboot) today claiming its latest accomplishment, in the ambush and targeted murder of the (unarmed) Armenian Catholic Community Head of Qamishly, Fr. Hovsep Bedoyan and his father, as they were driving to visit the Armenian Catholic flock in Deirezzor. The IS also set off a bomb in front of his church in Qamishly at about the same time they gunned him down in his car. Before his arrest and murder Jesus quoted the prophet Zechariah, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mt. 26.31). This is the intent of those committing these acts – them, their sponsors, and their enablers. But rather than answer in kind, we instead pray that wherever shepherds and leaders are struck down, or when people flee in fear or discouragement, that God will provide leadership, renewing and refreshing the witness of his faithful children.
            Complementing today’s events in Syria is this week’s Turkey/US Presidential Mutual Admiration Society meeting in Washington, D.C. Do we all remember what happened last time this pas de deux took place, two years ago? How the Turkish security detail brutalized American protestors on U.S. soil, and not only escaped the country through “diplomatic immunity”, but had the charges against them dropped? It reminds us that corruption is not just a Lebanese problem, and that Turkey’s ethnic cleansing career is alive and well, and not just a thing of the past.
LebCat 29: With all the AUB students away at
protests, work as a window cleaner gets off to a
leisurely start for this cat.
(11 November 2019 – Bliss St. - Beirut)
            Contrary to the impression I may have given up to now, not all is gloomy for us, though. Our mood has been shifted from the weeks of closed schools and banks by the presence (since September) of our new neighbors in the two vacant apartments on our floor. Two young pastoral candidates and their families are here from Armenia, to serve and learn in the Union and among our Armenian Evangelical churches. They are adjusting to the uncertainties of life here while also integrating with the Armenian community and bringing their insights, skills and devotion to God to all who interact with them (a lot of the time, that’s us). What a refreshing change, that utter silence is no longer the norm in our building in the afternoons and evenings!
            I hadn’t much to say in answer to the taxi driver’s question this morning. I have no secret knowledge, nor do I own a crystal ball that tells the future. But as we conversed, I told him, “Things may get worse, I don’t know. But I do know that all of us need to be careful what we say about each other, because in the end, everyone here has to be able to live together.”    [LNB]

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Devils and Details

29.Devils and Details (24 Oct 2019)
Smoke from tires burning on the Autostrade, filling the air.
(18 Oct. 2019 – Karantina - Beirut)
A week ago there was an announcement, replete with locally generated “great and unmatched wisdom”, in which the government here would begin taxing Internet-based (VoIP) communications (such as Whatsapp, Messenger, FaceTime). As many have already said, this was just the match that lit a blaze, the straw that rendered the camel a paraplegic, yet became an almost-inconsequential detail leading to the explosion of protests all across the country. The outcry and rage even targeted certain well-known leaders whom the populace heretofore has never dared to (publicly) criticize.
Shuttered businesses the entire length of the normally
busy Arax Street. (23 Oct. 2019 – Bourj Hammoud)
            So, the first couple of days we inhaled the acrid smell and particulates of burning tires, in addition to the ongoing stench of garbage dumps and polluted water. Those first few days also saw the emergence of a few disruptors who either were intent on destroying and looting private property, or reasserting the supremacy of their political party and its flags. Both types were quelled by Internal Security and Lebanese Armed Forces. Then emerged the chants of “Thawra! Thawra!” (“Revolution!” “Revolution!”). And the open-air party atmosphere. And the congenial “we’re all in this together” atmosphere.
            Later, other slogans emerged, as the
Push-back against multinational corporations… and an icon
of the protests, a woman kicking an armed guard where it
hurts. (22 Oct. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
demands intensified: “Kellon, ya3ni, kellon!” (“All of them, that is, all of them!”), so that no one group would think its leader exempt from the demands for a complete change in leadership – and a new political system, one not based on religious identity. If there are 3 million Lebanese in Lebanon, then thanks to television crews roaming in and among the various protests sites we are hearing what seems to be 3 million statements of discontent from young and old blocking streets and highways. Their words are crammed with emotion, seething with frustration at the struggle the average citizen has to endure for things like inadequate health care, expensive education, intermittent electricity and water, poor waste management, environmental degradation, unaffordable housing, corruption to the core, and so much more, including a sky-high national debt.
            But what has been absent is someone to take the helm of this movement and focus it into a clearly-defined direction. The prime minister gave a public address the day after the start of the protests, but it appeared to be directed to his political opponents. The president addressed the country today, a week after the start of these events. A decade and a half ago a handful of potential alternative leaders may have existed, except that they disappeared one by one in still-unsolved car bombings. Where are the new visionaries to keep Lebanese from turning against one another, expressions of which are beginning to emerge? There is only so long that an outburst can be sustained, and so what is sometimes (erroneously) compared to Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” may take some unwanted turns in the days to come. Chanting for overall change is a start, but the devil is in the details.
The last day Lebanon was able to focus on something besides
its protests. (16 Oct. 2019 – Bourj Hammoud)
            And speaking of devils, only a few short weeks have passed since great (and locally great) powers have decided against the Kurds in northern Syria. It is such a familiar narrative; the roles now played by certain peoples and countries were played a century ago by many of the same minorities and world powers. And the story ends the same: strategic and oil interests superseding any humanitarian interest or pang of conscience. Who will be the losers in these military “games” being played out in the region? You can start with the great powers, who again squander their names as they easily abandon their local allies (We all should bring to mind how Armenian brigades and the population were betrayed by Europe). Yet a greater loss is being shouldered by the people of the land, not just Kurds, but Assyrians, Chaldeans, and, yes, Armenians. The Kurds may rebound due to sheer numbers. But what of the Christians, who are the ancient residents of that region? One of the winners no doubt will be the incipient “Islamic State Part 2”, thanks to the support of some and the negligence of others. So many devilish details, too many to keep track of, that invaders will just say “Oops” to you after the fact, as you disappear into the oblivion of genocide, deportation, migration and assimilation.
LebCat 28: A flat cardboard box is better than
no box at all. Hanging out with LebCat 13.
(3 November 2018 – Bourj Hammoud)
            But back to Lebanon. The protests continue, and roads are still blocked; sometimes by protestors, and sometimes by rainwater flooding the highways (like today) due to poor infrastructure… another burden borne by the population. But people need something beyond the protests – and they need a just resolution, without being co-opted by outside forces. They need to be able to work, to eat and send their children to school, but also to dream about the future and marry and care for and protect their homeland. Will this be a moment of historic change for Lebanon and its unity, or will it end in disarray and divisions? My hope and my prayer is that the people will continue to gather under the Lebanese flag, something all sincere religious leaders desire, and something the Bible commands us to do: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29.7).   [LNB]

Sunday, October 6, 2019

It's a Sign!

28.It’s a Sign! (6 Oct 2019)
Children in uniform, and parents carrying school bags. A sure
sign that fall is here. (1 Sept. 2019 – Shushi, Artsakh)
For years our family has had a running (inside) joke. When we see street signs or billboards, especially ones with the name of a city or country on it, we call out, “It’s a sign!” Perhaps not particularly funny… except that I’m a pastor, and one of the features / challenges of pastoral life is the ever-present possibility of relocation. And behind that possibility is the art of determining what constitutes a sign from God, particularly regarding a “call”, and the related relocation from ministry in one city (or country) to another. The joke is that if you are looking for a certain answer, sooner or later a “sign” will appear, confirming what you have already decided on your own. And then you can credit God for the sign. One of those Achilles’ Heels of believers everywhere.
An “old” sign, lying face down on the ground,
defeated by a new pole and by the company
that bagged a contract for replacing every. single.
pole. in the city. (18 Sept. 2019 – Khalil Badawi)
            In recent months in Beirut there has been a sprouting of metal posts and brand-new signs on sidewalks all around the city. Considering the narrowness and impassability of most sidewalks in Beirut, this has been an unwelcome intrusion to us walkers. And considering that the existing, if somewhat beaten-up, collection of traffic signs throughout the city was doing its job just fine, it makes one wonder whether there is something more behind this proliferation of poles than traffic concerns. In such an opaque and … not altogether “clean” … system as exists here, who knows? Rumors about this and a slew of other topics are pretty much all the general populace has to go on, as it tries to make sense of the rough road it has been on for decades.
Will they be able to break Mr. Sevag? An intense scavenger hunt at
the Children’s Conference. (7 Aug. 2019 – KCHAG, Monteverde)
Having the thrill of my life, leading a trained choir in concert, the
“Varanda” ensemble, while Zakar looks on. I wonder what he’s
thinking? (5 Sept. 2019 – Shushi, Artsakh)
            As a sign of how full the summer has been, two and a half months have passed since my last blog post. Why? Meetings and more meetings. Sevag’s month in Lebanon, including some vacation time with him, and a week in KCHAG, with Sevag in the children’s conference, and me in a bungalow, pretending to get studying done. Work in Armenia and time off in Artsakh. So much has come and gone. That trip to Artsakh (or Karabagh) was a memorable one, especially as Maria and I enjoyed the cultural and interpersonal riches of that region. I’ve reflected more about it in another place, but a highlight was definitely my being invited to conduct the “Varanda” childrens/youth choir in “Hayrenikis Hed” in concert.
Maria’s niece and family, recently relocated to
Armenia. And a penguin. (29 Aug. 2019 - Yerevan)
We were driven from Yerevan to Shushi by a young taxi driver who talked quite a bit about the hopefulness that is permeating Armenia since the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of last year. Yes, lots of things still need to be “fixed” in the country, but he insisted that the current government will get to it in due time. In contrast, a week later, on the taxi ride back to Armenia we had a different driver: an older, university educated man who worked in the Soviet system and the post-Soviet system, and is now witness to the current setup. His view of things was subtly skeptical, since there is movement going on, but not necessarily progress. He asked us a lot about Lebanon, and laughed, “So it seems that there are many, many similarities between the two countries!” He was referring to human potential, but moreso to the shared pitfalls.
Wait, is this town called "garlic"? The French side of the sign
reads like that Arabic word. Oops, my mistake. Good thing I’m
learning to read/understand Arabic! (10 Sept. 2019 – N. Lebanon)
            Armenia – and increasingly Armenians everywhere – speak enthusiastically about one Armenia for all. The Armenian Diaspora (the majority of Armenians in the world) is frequently relegated to a temporary and passing reality. Yet, once upon a time, in recent memory, the slogan was, “A strong Armenia with a strong Diaspora.” No more is this heard. Once upon a time Armenia had a Diaspora Ministry (usually aimed at connecting Diaspora finances to needs in the homeland). Though the channeling of resources, human and otherwise, continues, that Ministry is no more; it was closed up last year and its work subsumed into the Assistant Prime Minister’s portfolio. The Western Armenian language is a “threatened” cultural treasure, but the only serious attempts to strengthen it are coming from Diaspora organizations. (Armenia also closed its Ministry of Culture last year.) These signs betray a lack of depth of understanding of the importance of the Diaspora for Armenia as well as for Armenians everywhere. And a lack of depth in the thinking of the disorganized Diaspora as well as official Armenia.
LebCat 27: I’m looking fine… but don’t those two guys in the back
know how to pose for a selfie? (26 July 2019 – Beirut Cat Café,
Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Here in Lebanon, a sign that summer is over and the fall is here is the appearance of children all over the city in their school uniforms and toting their book-bags. We are all carrying another weight, though, as we closed of one of our schools this summer (shrinking income and galloping debt). It is a sign, not that Armenian Evangelical education is no longer needed, but that this vision is being challenged by other factors outside the church Union’s control. In fact, all Armenian schools outside of Armenia face this challenge. As historian Dr. Yervant Kassouny states in his recent book (Reflections on … Diasporan-Armenian Literature, 2019), “Closing an Armenian school in the Diaspora is equivalent to closing an Armenian army base in Armenia” (p. 11, translation mine). The Armenian school, along with the Armenian church and the Armenian family, is the place where this particular nation (in the cultural, not the political, sense) trains for the battle to survive and thrive in a world that works hard at homogenizing everything, not just milk.
            Keeping your eyes open, paying attention to the signs of these times, staying awake and prayerful – these are the means we employ when facing days like these. “A little sleep, a little rest, a little folding of the arms, and your poverty (including your spiritual and cultural poverty) will come upon you like an unexpected traveler, or an armed robber” (Prov. 24.33-34).   [LNB]