Sunday, June 10, 2018

Something Familiar

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

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

Sunday, May 6, 2018


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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

More Music

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

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


13.Eyescrapers (27 February 2018)
Fifties-vintage (abandoned) Perla Hotel, dwarfed
by tens-vintage skyscraper (9 Feb. 2018 – Ain
Mreisse, Beirut)
            There is no single country that has a monopoly on unplanned, tasteless, meaningless growth, expansion, and “sprawl”. Before we left the Philadelphia area there was a fair amount of public protest about some church-owned property being sold to a developer, who would turn a wooded area, home to wildlife, creeks and impromptu footpaths into a housing and shopping area with a huge supermarket. I don’t know if the buyers were able to push forward with their plan since then. Popular protests notwithstanding, eventually, I suppose, money will have the last word.
            Here in Lebanon, however, money has the first word. Whether digging up open land or tearing down existing buildings, residents here feel powerless to stop the onslaught of “improvements” to their environment. The coastline is expanded by landfill after landfill, in flagrant violation of international conservation efforts. Pristine areas in the mountains formerly open to skiers become gated communities with private security standing guard and unheard-of amenities for the privileged. Stretch after stretch of shoreline is taken over by hotel and resort companies, turning public beaches into members-only areas. Open space, at such a premium in Beirut, goes unprotected and one by one those lots are excavated for yet another eyesore/skyscraper. An eyescraper. Your balcony or window view ends up being another building, much like it is for those living in Manhattan. If you can afford the top floors in the newly-built highrise, you get to see the sea. Otherwise, all you get is a concrete wall.
Rocks tossed from the bed of the old train tracks, making way for
yet another new highrise (23 Feb. 2018 – Khalil Bedawi, Beirut)
            Certainly, the same was probably said about the “old” highrises back in the fifties. But the necessary balance of green space versus buildings, well known to city planners and psychologists for the mental well-being of its residents, is so dramatically slanted towards buildings, you begin to wonder how people can so blithely trade their humanity for money. There is a wordplay in Armenian that says it well: “When you read ‘man’ (in its generic sense) backwards, i.e. ‘mart/մարդ’, man becomes ‘money’, i.e. ‘tram/դրամ’.
A newly-opened café in a renovated three-storey building…
with an electronic sign visible from low Earth orbit. (24 Feb.
2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Billboards are another genre of eyescrapers. The electric kind, that is. Advertising companies seem to be in competition with each other as to which of them can disturb as many people as possible. There are billboards located a 7 km (4.5 mile) distance from us whose brightness shines inside our apartment. Some of these eyescrapers are placed on narrow streets in the capital, shining their gaudiness throughout the night into apartments only a few tens of meters away. They pop up virtually overnight, turning the usual sidewalk to street to sidewalk obstacle course into a master-level challenge worthy of a TV game show.
Armenian Evangelical CHS dance ensemble performing at the
annual Christian Endeavor banquet. (25 Feb. 2018 – Nor Marash)
            Yet, I suppose all of this pales in comparison to the hand-held eyescrapers, the data-collection devices we naively call “ours”, which we find ourselves unable to part with for any significant amount of time. They deliver anything from praise songs to pornography to anyone from child to elder; they amazingly connect people throughout the world without regard to time zones or circadian rhythms. But what they drain from us is something that we need in order to function as human beings created in God’s image: the ability to be quiet and reflect on one’s mortality; the ability to care for those dear to us in a meaningful, personal way; the ability to act with courage and conviction no matter who is watching – or “like”-ing. And that touches the reality of the whole world today, not just Lebanon.
            Sure, I’m criticizing the donkey I’m riding on, and it may just decide to kick me off its back. But jumping (or falling) off might turn my eye to attend to things I can do to make a difference in my world.
Armiss Choir at their second rehearsal at Emmanuel Church.
(25 Feb. 2018 – Nor Amanos)
            Last April I put aside my Arabic lessons because my schedule got “too busy”, or as a friend named it, I lapsed back into “workaholism”. Now I want to restart my lessons, but the school I attended doesn’t have a class at my level (fairly basic) at the beginning of the day. Why go to language class first thing in the morning? Because Maria and I have started going to a gym three times a week. What a relief, and an answer to prayer! A local hotel has a pool shallow enough for Maria to exercise in, and enough treadmills, exercise bicycles, etc., for me to sweat on. Happy times!
LebCat 12: If you tied a stick to it, wouldn't it
look like one of those ostrich feather dusters
taxi drivers keep in their trunks? (22 Mar.
2017 – Beirut)
            And the happiness continues… A couple of weeks ago I began holding rehearsals for the Armenian Evangelical “Armiss” Choir, in preparation for singing during the Armenian Missionary Association’s Centennial Worship Service in June. Over 30 singers have shown up so far, young and old, and I’m hoping that number will go up in the coming weeks. It’s a joy for the singers to be making music together, a joy for me to train them, and a joy for the Armenian community to have another choir to enrich the cultural life here. This I am doing in addition to leading the choir at the Near East School of Theology. And in addition to helping organize Haigazian University’s Music Club concert. And aside from preparing to present a lecture in March (in Armenian) about Bach’s St. John Passion. Workaholism? Not when you’re having fun doing it, right?   [LNB]