Tuesday, January 3, 2023

With Whom Is God Pleased

56. With Whom Is God Pleased? (3 January 2023)

A glimpse of Christmas joy in the
neighborhood, powered by
(30 Dec. 2022 - Geitawi, Beirut)

Holidays in Lebanon, especially in the winter, have fallen off my list of favorites, probably in no small part due to the lack of electricity we (and so many other Lebanese) experience at home. The offices where I work close, meaning that our building’s generator stays off. Our subscription for supplemental power covers only about half of the day, anyway, bringing inside temperatures close to what is outside. And municipal power supply continues to emulate Halley’s Comet in its rare appearances. Combining all the national holidays with the ones of various religious denominations, plus Armenian holidays, here in Lebanon we experience close to a month each year of these “off” days.

            But there is another layer of distaste. Holidays are too often turned into platforms for social and political assertiveness, rather than times of rest, reflection, redirection and rededication. Firecrackers (and bullets) fill the air over neighborhoods where a particular holiday is most observed. Not to forget the obligatory firecrackers and fireworks launched at important life events, such as funerals and weddings, or your World Cup football team scoring a goal. We were able to watch three games of this year’s football “Mondial” in early December since we were visiting Armenia for a week. There, games were broadcast on Armenian state television for anyone to view. Here was a different story, as is the case with so many things. The sounds of firecrackers and nearby fans yelling would prompt us to refresh the official website in order to see the latest scores — a somewhat anticlimactic method.

Constructing the "New Year's tree" at the
Yerevan train station
(30 Nov. 2022 - Yerevan, Armenia)

            In this particular season the biblical phrase, “Peace on earth, good will towards men,” is widely touted, or more commonly quoted simply as “Peace on earth”, without involving men (in the generic sense) or good will. The more intricate version of Luke 2.14, “Peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased,” is avoided, likely because it doesn’t fit neatly into 21st century greeting cards (i.e., social media platforms and posts), and likely also because it states that there is a God, also implying that this God makes judgments. About us. Also not fitting popular sensitivities in these oversensitive times.

A garden of Armenian letters seemingly
growing out of stones, hopefully an inspiration,
more than just a tourist attraction.
(29 Nov. 2022 - near Artashavan, Armenia)
            Whether or not it plays well in mass culture, a question sticks in my mind: With whom is God pleased these days? My immediate guess is “no one”, as evidenced by the lack of peace on earth. The lofty goal of peacemaking is left largely untouched, while nations allegedly aim for (but fail to reach) the lower goal of temporary cease-fires. Yet even where cease-fires are attained there are always those who find ways to continue their aggression.

            Since mid-December and continuing into the New Year, Azerbaijan-sponsored phony “environmental activists” have been blocking the only lifeline for food or medicine or transit that Artsakh Armenians have, the “Lachin corridor” linking it to Armenia. Add to this the Azeri government and industries that are driving all of this, entities that blithely cut off energy supplies to Artsakh in the cold of winter. Add to this the inaction of those charged with keeping the road open, allowing the situation to be created. And finally add to this the meaningless verbal bravado (and little more) of world powers, busying themselves with statements and resolutions condemning the blockade, but unwilling to intervene in a sovereign country. If all of this looks and sounds like world powers’ failure to prevent the Genocide in 1915, there’s a good reason for that. Summing it all up, it immolates the dove of peace over the flames of war.

A mural depicting Old Beirut, in a park where
an old Beirut building was torn down.
(8 Dec. 2022 - Geitawi, Beirut)
            Peacemaking can be torn apart in various ways: by individuals, societies, companies, governments, you name it. It does not have to be done in the obtuse ways that Armenia’s rapacious neighbors are so fond of. Sometimes it can be as subtle as tolerating inept (fill in the name of your favorite country) governance, or by making self-centeredness and self-indulgence a societal value, or in disdaining others in order to elevate yourself.

            Yet despite all attempts to kill it, peacemaking is alive, and peacemakers are at work. Whenever we hear about or witness a teacher who goes beyond the lesson plan and above the minimum requirements to help her class learn to relate with care for each other, there peace is being inculcated. Last week I was in a store in Bourj Hammoud when an older fellow in tattered clothes stood at the door with his hand raised in greeting - not for a handout. The Arab worker (who happens to speak Armenian) addressed him affectionately, giving and receiving words of blessing; this, too, is peace-building. When someone in the course of a conversation asks me to pray for him right there on the spot, God’s peace hovers over both of us and enables us to express more grace to others.

Christmas bazaar at the Zvartnots Center,
which brings hope and love to special needs
(22 Dec. 2022 - Nor Sis, Bourj Hammoud)

            That message to the shepherds heralding “peace” at Christ’s birth is more of a challenge to self-absorbed humanity than a statement of present reality. The One whose appearance they announced made it his aim to establish peace through servanthood and a particular act of sacrifice. It grew more intense and pervasive as he grew “in stature and in God and man’s favor” . We might strain to see those around us who join him in this endeavor, but the thread that joins each instance together, shining with the angelic light seen outside ancient Bethlehem, is that of service.

            Serving others, motivated by love, produces peace. And only God himself can fill and refill that love.

LebCat 56: Since the electric company isn't
using these anyway, I'll just settle in.
(30 Dec. 2022 - Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
            Since “Armenian Christmas” is but three days away, an Armenian greeting on the occasion and a wish for God-pleasing peacemaking: Christ is born and revealed; blessed is the revelation of Christ!*   [LNB]

*Քրիստոս ծնաւ եւ յայտնեցաւ. օրհնեա՛լ է յայտնութիւնն Քրիստոսի։

Friday, November 25, 2022

Waiving the Flag

55.Waiving the Flag (25 November 2022)

Preparing for school celebration of
Lebanon's Independence Day
(17 Nov. 2022 - Geitawi, Beirut)
Now that World Cup football (soccer for you Americans) has taken over the world for the coming four weeks, enabling some pleasant diversion from the strangeness of these times, Lebanon is once again subjected to the ineptitude of its kleptocracy. No government here means no decision-making regarding broadcasting rights for the World Cup on state television. Which means that football fans, of which there are many, will not enjoy a month away from talk shows reviewing their all-too familiar daily miseries. Daily cheering could provide positive, natural chemicals to bring health to the tired bodies in this country, without having to scour pharmacies for artificial remedies. Instead, a very few people with the financial means to do so will watch the games at home, though many of them will suffer with Lebanon’s insufferable internet speeds, with frozen screens and with dropped connections.

"Green" transportation may not exactly mean
this (14 Nov. 2022 - Ghabi, Beirut)
            A recent news report about this situation in Lebanon showed photos of Lebanese with a multitude of flags of their favorite teams while also recording the fans’ dismay at being deprived of the tournament. They could paying for a month’s cable subscription in order to watch it, but that would be tantamount to telling your family they will not eat for a month. One person quipped, “Meanwhile our politicians are probably in Qatar, watching the games live.”

            It’s not surprising that Lebanese Independence Day, November 22, passed by this week with hardly a mention. Yes, there was a smattering of interesting broadcast advertisements with the independence theme, and an event or two was held for select groups of people. As always, students participated in their schools’ programs in observance of the day. There were even small Lebanese flags planted along traffic circles and roadsides. But there were no army parades or air force fly-overs, and no grandstands because empty chairs would have had to have been placed there for officials yet to be elected/appointed. What was in abundance were the many who expressed their dismay at the use of the word “independence” in today’s reality, since it is apparent to all that Lebanon’s problems and solutions are dependency issues, dependent on other, outside players. On Independence Day 2022 the flag was waived more than it was waved.

The best way to make music is to do it
yourself (13 Nov. 2022 - Geitawi, Beirut)
            It’s encouraging to see that despite all of this, rather than waiting for things to “get better,” people move forward to organize events and activities. This is most apparent to us in our church and university settings, though it is not limited to those circles. Concerts, plays, worship events, film premieres, lectures, debates, leadership training, conferences, infrastructure upgrades, publications, and of course, weddings! And this is just within the Lebanese-Armenian community! None of this means that conditions are improving. The economy is still floundering, the currency is still tumbling, the government is still somnabulate, and youth are still edging towards the exit doors. But there is a realization that consuming one’s time and energy in worry will not lengthen one’s days, and will only yield regrets for things undone or unattempted. So, I am glad when there are more activities that I want to attend than there is time to attend them.

An imaginary cedar of Lebanon, perched on
a narrow outcropping of rock... perhaps not
imaginary at all (29 Oct. 2022 - Gemmayzeh)
           Despite these robust signs, the present and future of the Armenian people is ever on my mind. For Armenia and Artsakh, for the near Diaspora and the far. Few Armenians learn from their past, though they study Armenian history in their school years. Names, places, events, dates, enemies are never in short supply, and swirl around in the minds of those with an Armenian education. But it is rare when your average “Hovsep” can appreciate the myriad mistakes and missteps that Armenians have made over the millennia, especially in the past century or two, up to this day, and then sketch a wiser path forward. Alongside this general concern (dare I say “worry”?) I see a glimmer of hope in my limited encounters with Armenian youth, as they wrestle with questions that their history presents, note similarities with today’s events, and ask “Can’t we do this differently?” Change will only happen when people are free to ask questions and pursue answers, not when they line up in rows and columns and follow leaders unthinkingly.

Something for children to play with on the
steps, but is anybody listening at the other
end? (17 Nov. 2022 - Mar Mikhael, Beirut)

            Leaders clothe their self-interests in patriotic rhetoric, and followers adopt that rhetoric, based on a limited knowledge of the dynamics and background. For small and unimportant peoples (like Armenia), the outcome is always in favor of those who can supply what large entities want. Mostly that means that those who have oil resources are treated with some deference, while those that don’t (like Armenia) have to figure out if they have something to offer to satisfy ravenous appetites. This is the way of the world, no matter that some consider themselves “exceptional”. And this is why the church is so important (as long as it doesn’t play political “world cup”), because it dares to love for God’s sake, not for gain.

LebCat 55: That's my nickname, and, yes,
that's my restaurant. (8 Oct. 2022 - Hamra)

These past few weeks we have enjoyed visits from people outside Lebanon, people who have dared to venture into this land of adventure. Our church’s annual meeting this week, usually held in the summer, hosted a group from Syria and Greece, and some of them had not been to Lebanon in years, despite being “just next door”. Earlier in the month there were visitors from Europe and the U.S., including a few who were here for the first time. We got to see our dear friend (and “boss”, as we affectionately call him) and share some relaxed time reflecting on life, work and ministry in this non-standard context. Although people tend to praise us for continuing to live and work here, as if it were just the outcome of our personal efforts, what is less visible is the support and encouragement we receive from many people, near and far, drawing us forward. And the unexplainable peace of God, helping us to keep our focus not on flag-waving and enthusiastic cheering for or against us, but on our calling from Christ himself.   [LNB]

Monday, October 31, 2022

How about Them Apples?

54.How about Them Apples? (31 October 2022)

The last few apples from a half-crate
bequeathed to us (5 Oct. 2022 - Geitawi)

As the people await the outcome of deliberations to select yet another paragon of mediocrity, ineffectiveness and corruption to lead the country, and as Lebanese, young and old, meanwhile engage in their mindless mimicry of that most worthless and idiotic of American holidays, Halloween, my mind goes to things of slightly greater value in this autumnal season. That, of course, includes the beauty of the changing colors of deciduous trees, visible elsewhere in the country, but hard to find in Beirut, where any sort of tree is happily sacrificed for the sake of building empty concrete-and-steel structures (if you know the right people). In our previous home in the east coast of the U.S., we reveled in that yearly shift from greens to warm tones, deep reds and bright oranges and shimmering yellows that heralded the cooling weather. When we come across the smallest evidence of those colors in the countryside, we experience a moment of joy and wonder at God’s handiwork refreshing our eyes and spirits.

Clouds on the horizon, and the sun
illuminating the illegal landfill on the coast
(13 Oct. 2022 - towards Bourj Hammoud)
            Another aspect of this season, also connected to our previous life in the U.S., has to do with one of the quintessential gifts of the land in the fall, namely apples. They are plentiful in Lebanon, and are available in several varieties, from sweet to tart. Sadly, apple cider hasn’t really caught on, but apple vinegar is prepared in great quantities for a variety of uses. For whatever reason this year (I leave that to your deduction), the market for apples is glutted, and domestic apple production is a losing proposition. When visiting Ainjar recently, friends there said that they are leaving their apples on the trees – and the ground – because they cannot sell them, and therefore it is meaningless to harvest them. And then they gave us a huge bag of apples, just gathered that morning, to take back to Beirut to enjoy. Fresh. No chemicals. Delicious. And unsaleable.

The neighborhood transformed into a street
in Egypt for a movie filming
(30 Sept. 2022 - Geitawi)

            Last week, on one of my shopping trips (which I do by foot, since I can get some exercise that way), as I entered a nearby fruit stand, I noticed that a middle-aged woman was talking with the grocer about apples, their price, the varieties and so forth. Probably just another interested shopper, I assumed. Until I was leaving the shop and saw that she and the shopkeeper had walked over to her car, where the open trunk revealed crates and crates of apples… And she was continuing to talk about apples and negotiate a price for them. It bothered me, not just because of the reason for the glut of apples in Lebanon today, but also about the state of the “middle class” here, which has taken to driving around to neighborhood fruit stands to sell a bit of their homegrown produce. And to add to the inscrutability of the situation, the cost to the consumer is not dropping as it should, but rather continually increases. It’s not just the poor who are bearing the brunt of the self-serving “leaders” running this drama, but all strata of society. As my mother used to say when astonished at something, “How about them apples?”

The odor of burning garbage can't hide the
beauty of wedding flowers and the joy of
a wedding! (15 Oct. 2022 - Khalil Badawi)
            The irregularities of life here have become something of a routine. Strangely, the near-complete lack of municipal electricity – a total of about 10 hours for the entire month of October – has made life more predictable. We know that whatever the schedule is for our supplemental power (“ishtirak”), that is when we have power, amounting to a little under 12 hours per day. Since we live in the same building as my office, that adds another 4 hours on weekdays. So, sitting in the dark, or shaving in the dark, or doing my online Arabic lesson while I wait for the lights to come on, is just another feature of life in Lebanon. Add to that the irregularity of the office internet, which the provider cuts for anywhere from a half-hour to 3-1/2 hours during work hours, and one becomes inured to things that would cause major emotional upheaval anywhere in the “developed” world. Except perhaps with looming energy shortages this winter, the developed world will know how the other 90% of the world lives (statistic courtesy of me making it up).

It's a bit of a drive to get there, but
at last I've found some equipment
to start my exercise program
(2 Oct. 2022 - Sawfar)

            I have a human Arabic teacher who has an amazing command of the language, and an amazing amount of patience with me and my esoteric interests. Fortunately, as a schoolteacher she is aware of all of the classroom tricks that someone in his 60s tries to pull off and keeps me moving forward. It will soon be six years since we began our lives here, and although I have accumulated a fair amount of exposure to the language, gaining facility in Arabic for daily interactions remains a hill I need to climb. Doesn’t help that my job is conducted mostly in Armenian with some English. We’ve begun to focus exclusively on spoken “Lebanese”, which I expect will propel me up that hill.

            I also have a mechanical Arabic teacher. It’s an “app” on my devices, and it has more than a few quirks. Those quirks help me maintain my interest (292 days in a row and counting). I particularly like the mispronunciations that the developers haven’t bothered fixing. Things like “tabibbouleh” for “tabbouleh”, and “shishai” for “shai”, and the American city “Safanennah” instead of “Savannah”. I’ve even taken to pronouncing those words the same way!

LebCat 54: Keep walking and mind your own
business. I'm working for the security
company (3 Oct. 2022 - Geitawi)
And I continue to invoke my mother, especially when I see the insanity around us and the barbarity inflicted on Armenia and Artsakh while everyone is looking somewhere else, and the self- and other-inflicted miseries overtaking so many. Things like this may no longer amaze me, yet I can’t help but say, “How ’bout them apples...”   [LNB]

Friday, September 30, 2022

A Time for Discomfort

 53.A Time for Discomfort (30 September 2022)

A rare day of low humidity, with a crystal-
clear view of Beirut from KCHAG.
(24 Sept. 2022 - Monteverde)

How much more surreal can things get? Yesterday the parliament met to make its first attempt at electing a president of the Republic. Hearing all the laughter and good-natured ribbing happening in the chamber, one might easily have concluded that there is little to worry about in the country, and that Lebanon is back to its glory days of the 1960s. Yet the upbeat mood in the room served only to highlight the deep disconnect between the people and their daily suffering and uncertainty on the one hand, and on the other hand those who are ensconced in the halls of power. Although this disconnect is arguably true in practically every country in the world, here it is as if a house is burning down, but the residents themselves must battle the fire alone, unassisted, running to and fro to find water to fill their basins and toss a few drops on the ever-heightening flames.

The building (at rear) where Armenian
orphan girls wove carpets after the Genocide
(17 Sept. 2022 - Ghazir)

            When people take up arms, even toy guns, and desperately enter the banks that hold their savings hostage, demanding their own money to be able to pay their own medical or business debts, it shows a deeply troubled society. They are depicted by news outlets as committing “bank heists”, as if readers were only capable of understanding Hollywood terminology. These are people struggling against the injustice and humiliation they have been fed continually for these past few years. The obliviousness of those who comfortably led Lebanon to this state, in local or international halls of power, only serves to increase our discomfort.

Reflecting on a day off, with the
help of a sculpture by local artists
(17 Sept. 2022 - Jbeil/Byblos)

            As we view the continued terror inflicted on Armenia by its un-neighborly “neighbors”, our discomfort multiplies all the more. The world today is witness to Azerbaijan’s push to impose military solutions on a weak and defeated country while the peacekeepers’ country is otherwise preoccupied. Yet once again, Armenians are demonstrating their political naïveté by rejoicing every time some Western government issues a condemnation of Azerbaijan, or a statement in support of the territorial integrity of Armenia. This same reasoning justified the international community’s lack of support for Artsakh’s Armenians during the war that began two years ago this week. Yet many Armenians the world over, in their self-imposed amnesia, continue to imagine that those statements will actually affect the reality on the ground. The reality is that this aggressor will take as much land as it can from Armenia, disrupting and destroying as many lives as it can, while big sister Turkey watches admiringly.

The streets around the Ashrafieh church &
school transformed into an Egyptian street
for a movie (30 Sept. 2022 - Geitawi)

            Meanwhile, despite the discomfort caused by events near and far, we are comforted in some measure by the beginning of a new school year. Armenian schools in both Lebanon and Syria welcomed their students back this month, providing much more than an Armenian education, as crucial as that is for the health and strength of Armenians everywhere. They are also providing a point of stability in the unstable world these children and adolescents inhabit. The daily conversations of adults around them, centering most often on continual worries about finances and the crashing currency, is being offset to a degree by the rhythm of the school day and the school week. Yes, the schools face deep financial challenges, especially if they have not yet installed a solar electric system on their grounds, and have to pour large amounts of currency into fueling their generators. Yes, this is aside from the inevitable school closures resulting from unexpected events, likely to increase as the current President’s term comes to an end. But it is an act of love and hope, based not on circumstances, but on vision and convictions.

Guitarist Ayman Jarjour transfixes the
audience with classical, Spanish and
"Oriental"-flavored pieces
(27 Sept. 2022 - Minet el Hosn)

            A moment of beauty I recently enjoyed was a guitar recital by the brother of a former student from my Haigazian teaching days. Aside from being a fundraiser for a rehabilitation center in Lebanon, the event provided a feast of musical delights, filling the church’s sanctuary for one hour with the sound of that one guitar (and the regular dings of someone unable to detach from Whatsapp). It was a gift that the guitarist gave to an audience hungry for something that would lift them up, if only for a brief time. As Fred Rogers’ mother told him when he was young and afraid, “Always look for the helpers. There’s always someone who is trying to help.”

LebCat 53: An exquisitely striped "McCat",
frequenting the location where it's most
likely to be fed - just not by me
(11 Sept. 2022 - Ain el Mreisseh)

            This is the way of the world. There are those in challenging places doing their best to help others, even at the cost of their own comfort. And there are others who seek only their own comfort, no matter how many others must suffer as a result. This is a “scalable” truth, applicable to societies as well as world powers. Though countries only occasionally enjoy peace, they are often oblivious to the role they themselves play in the natural, political or human disorder around them. More likely, though, they lack the moral grounding needed to admit their role in the hardship they cultivate.

            Yet this is the very same world into which Christ Jesus entered, into which today he leads his disciples to share words and works of comfort and hope to those truly in need of it, and to engage in the struggle for what is right, true and beautiful.   [LNB]

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Powerless Living

52.Powerless Living (31 August 2022)

Demonstrations that closed the coastal road
on the second anniversary of the still-
uninvestigated and still-unpunished Beirut
Port blast (4 Aug. 2022 - Marfa' - Beirut)

From time to time, it almost seems as if it might be possible to get used to being without electricity every single night. I can entertain this fantasy thanks to the local generator subscription we have, which supplies us with enough power to cool our bedroom from evening until midnight, and then we can manage to sleep with just a battery-powered fan until around 4 a.m. As well, one can almost endure the powerless hours during the day, in between the times of generator supply. Almost. Because it’s not just the lights that are off for 12 of each 24-hour period, but everything gets interrupted, whether in your work life or your home life. A recent expat, living in some far-away, amazing land where there is electricity all the time (are there such places?), wrote to me yesterday: “We’re in an age where you can maybe live without lights, but not without internet.”

After two days of overflowing trash, it
seemed like a dream that collection had
resumed! And just a couple hours later:
magic! (30 Aug. 2022 - Geitawi)

            And so, today our internet access stopped. Dead. Completely. Landline phones, internet, whatever you would need to get through your workday. Striking workers? Lack of fuel? Something else? The reasons are myriad. The cellular system is (still) working, but who can afford to pay cell phone rates just to do a bit of online work or to communicate with colleagues locally or overseas? The key word here is “communication”, a common factor in all that doesn’t work in Lebanon, whether institutional or personal. Communication is what the powerful in any relationship and in any land attempt to keep within their control, and when possible, they communicate the particular version of events that they want people to think. Yet as the “powerless” in every land are increasingly able to take greater control of the story of their lives, they can communicate their stories to each other and to the outside world in a more complex, and truer, way. Except when there is no electricity. And no reliable internet. And no steady water supply. And no waste management And no government.. And hyperinflation. And no access to bank accounts. And…

After most of the grain silos collapsed this
month, a sign appeared: "No justice without
accountability" (28 Aug. 2022 - Marfa')
            One of the narratives the powerless in Lebanon are continually subjected to is how the government made this or that deal with this or that country to supply fuel to their environmentally-deadly power plants in order to add 3 or 4 more hours per day of electricity (up from 0 to 1 hours per day). And then they hear how there is this or that banking obstacle that came up. And then they hear that there is this or that infrastructure issue that came up. And then they hear that there is this or that political party that is preventing it from happening. And then they hear that the government doesn’t want to fall under American sanctions* by getting the wrong fuel from the wrong source that might pass through the wrong country. Meanwhile, threats of the country plunging into “complete darkness” continue to echo, though, as a news website recently noted, “those who have private generator subscriptions are unlikely to feel the effect of a state-wide blackout.”

At what is possibly the best Arabic ice cream
spot in Lebanon. Says Sevag: "Excuse me,
photo is taken, please hand that over right
now." (26 July 2022 - Saghbine)

            There are many, many people here who are powerless to do anything but subsist without power. They cannot afford (as we can) to buy generator subscriptions to fill in the huge gaps in the municipal power supply. Their homes remain in the dark, and their refrigerators are useless, and their nutritional intake suffers, and their health declines, and their ability to obtain health care when they inevitably need it… vanishes. Meanwhile the young and resourceful continue leaching from the country, leaving their families and their heritage far behind…

            Yet amid all of this, today I was witness to an example of benevolent involvement in the struggles of Lebanon, as well as an intelligent grasp of the country’s needs. The Japanese Ambassador to Lebanon, H.E. Okubo Takeshi joined Lebanon’s Minister of Public Health, Firass Abiad, M.D., to dedicate equipment that the Japanese have donated to the Karagheusian Assn.’s Primary Healthcare Center in Bourj Hammoud. The Ambassador spoke of the commitment of his country to support the Lebanese people (making this important distinction in his words). Then Dr. Abiad, showing an unusual grasp (for someone in government) of the health care crisis in Lebanon, told the audience how the country for too long has invested large amounts in tertiary health care and ignored developing primary health care, thereby rendering basic health care unaffordable to people of modest means. He also described his plan to restructure the allotment of health care funds to the primary type. It was refreshing to hear someone with a vision, someone in a position of authority who is interested in improving what has been handed him, rather than blaming others for his lack of action.

Dr. Abiad addressing the audience, following
Amb. Okubo's speech  (31 Aug. 2022 -
Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
            Before the program, when the Ambassador arrived and was being introduced to the clergy, I got to greet him with the phrase I had been coached on and had been practicing for a whole day, including in my sleep the previous night. “Kakka, oai dekite kouei desu.” It is a most unfortunate coincidence that this phrase begins with a word that in Japanese means “Your Excellency”, but in most of the languages I know means something quite different. The important thing is that the Ambassador understood my stumbling Japanese, “Your Excellency, it is an honor to meet you,” and responded in English with, “Very pleased to meet you, also.” The other important thing is that no one else who heard my greeting reprimanded me for saying an indelicate word to the Ambassador.

LebCat 52: "Wait, is that... a pig flying? Oh,
yes, this is Lebanon!" (31 Aug. 2022 -
Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
            One of the famous Japanese sayings invoked today was “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” What more appropriate way is there than this, to think about how the powerless in this world can persevere and continue their struggle. My mind especially goes to the One who was beaten down, but rose again, he who is ever on the side of the downtrodden, Christ Jesus. He was considered powerless in the eyes of the world, but his purported “weakness” was wrongly estimated by those in power. His victory over death, and his promised Coming, are the basis for hope of all those under the weight of personal or societal failure. He is the One keeping us going, especially when the lack of power – or vision – looms large around us, whether here, in Armenia, or anywhere.

            And yes, we still cheer like Santa Claus just showed up whenever the power comes back on!   [LNB]


(*The country that does its utmost to prevent foreign meddling… by doing what they don’t want other countries doing.)

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Land That Honor Forgot

51.The Land That Honor Forgot (31 July 2022)

Kindergarten graduation is a big deal here!
(17 June 2022 - Nor Marash)

A couple of weeks ago, as I was leading the washing-machine repairman up the steps in complete darkness, the tiny lights of our cell phones revealing the steps before us, I apologized that, after a long day of work, I had to make him walk the steps and not take the elevator. Deflecting my apology, in Arabic (and some broken Armenian, as he used to work in Bourj Hammoud) he said, “Haram, Beirut, haram that such a beautiful city as you is like this, haram!”

            “Haram” means “shame”. And supposedly the Middle East is one of the many regions throughout the world that operates around an “honor/shame” culture, something the West has great trouble grasping. Not that the West doesn’t use the term “shame”; it does, but only when attempting to shame others, and no longer as a means of self-examination or personal reform. Here, shame is part and parcel of each day, and especially in today's Lebanon, with the abundance of shameful situations. Yet although so much is shameful, those responsible for engineering this state of affairs over the years have no sense of shame… and therefore no honor.

The "Cine Vendome" steps have been
upgraded to include a playground!
(24 June 2022 - Mar Mikhael)

            As Maria, Sevag and I were driving on a “highway” through an agricultural region last week, we happened upon a two-vehicle accident, possibly a head-on collision or a side-swipe. Scattered across the road were bits of produce and wooden crates, and sprawled on the shoulder were women and men in their colorful garb, being attended to by paramedics next to a Red Cross ambulance. Men standing around were not helping traffic to get past the scene, as car after car slowed down to see what was going on, and even to chat with those on both sides of the road. What a shame to see these agricultural workers – not Lebanese, of course – who had a short while earlier been crammed into these vehicles to take them back to their camp after a day’s work. Who feels compassion for these injured women and men, even though there would be no produce in the markets if they weren’t out in the sun each day tending the fields?

Traffic jam on the Stepanavan-Vanatzor
roadway. (8 July 2022 - Armenia)

            Earlier, when driving in the other direction on this same road, we happened upon another traffic jam. There seemed to be no reason for it in such a small town, until we saw a bakery outlet with a couple hundred people in front and across the road from it, anxiously waiting for a delivery of Arabic bread. Why was there a “bread crisis”? Because the legislature was discussing the terms of international funding to enable Lebanon to buy wheat, and how much it should cost, and whether wheat subsidies should be lifted. While these men (only a handful of hardy women dare to serve in the parliament) were debating, the people were panicking, experiencing the shame of having to wait in line for bread, when their leaders have absolutely no food worries.

"Mer Shougan" (Our Market) on Arax Street,
to promote the home-based products of
(10 July 2022 - Bourj Hammoud)

            And to add more shame to this scene, the army and police had to intervene to keep the order at this and so many other bakeries. Men on this side, women on that. Lebanese in this line, Syrians stand over there. Accusations intensify about who is buying up the stocks of subsidized bread to sell at twice the legal price to people who have no choice but to pay that amount, about who is smuggling bread out of the country to sell elsewhere, just as subsidized medicines are hoarded and sold in countries far from Lebanon.

            These God-given sensitivities – shame and honor – have often been misused when they are detached from personal conscience and used as weapons for controlling others. But in our current situation they are merely a veneer of words used by the powerful, devoid of meaning or effect, papering over the corruption within. John the Baptist (Matt. 3.7-12) and later Jesus Christ (Matt. 12.34-37), when confronting the corruption of their day, challenged the powerful to change direction or else face relentless justice from the God they no longer feared. Honor needs to be seen in honorable actions, not just in long-winded speeches or televised soundbites.

Facing the explosion site, memorials to
those killed in the Beirut Port blast
of 2020 (photo by SAB - 30 July 2022)
   As if fatigued from the hypocrisy and mendacity swirling around the abortive investigation of the Beirut Port Explosion of August 4, 2020, today part of the damaged grain silos collapsed in a plume of dust, debris and fungus from the fermenting grain within. These fifty-year-old silos, which held nearly the entire grain reserves of the country, are among the heroes of that unforgettable day. Their structural integrity shielded half of the city from destruction. Though inanimate, they hold a place of honor alongside the heroic first responders who were cut down on that summer evening; a level of honor that those who were sworn to protect and lead the country will never achieve – save for their total, systemic and true repentance.

            We’re finding ourselves approaching our refrigerator with trepidation, since the power (from all three sources) is off more than it is on in these hot and humid days. It used to be that stocking up the freezer and putting leftovers in the fridge put our minds at ease for coming busy days. Now we play the game “What’s That Smell?” when we open the fridge. Good smell? Thumbs up. Bad smell? To quote my college roommate’s slogan, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

            Maria and I had our first bout of CoVID-19 last month, as we were preparing to receive our son Sevag and then travel to Armenia together. See plans, apply wrench. After the readjusted Armenia trip concluded and we returned to Lebanon, Sevag had his first bout of the disease. We were grateful that we didn’t have any loss of smell or taste (refer to preceding paragraph). And grateful that we were able to provide him with at-home care.

LebCat 51: "It's simple: you climb up this
grapevine, push one of those switches down,
and then someone comes out to his balcony
and starts yelling. You meow and he throws
you a treat when he comes down to switch it
back on." (24 June 2022 - Geitawi)

            Sadly, I am getting less exercise, after realizing that the circuit breaker for our supplemental electricity could be relocated right outside our apartment door (refer to my Jan. 2022 blog) and not down a bunch of stairs and out at the end of the street. Now they easiest thing in the world is to make a mistake by turning on the hot water tank or flushing the toilet, and then saying, with a smile, “Oh well, no problem!” and just open the front door and flip the switch back on. Talk about living in the lap of luxury!

            What concerns me the most is that those among whom I work – Armenians and Lebanese – will lose their sensitivity to the tools God gives to keep their consciences alive. The poisonous examples are so very prevalent, and only with divine help and concerted mutual support will we avoid this plague, this collective degradation – whether in Armenia, in the Diaspora, or here.   [LNB]