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]

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Are You from Paradise?

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