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]

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Departure Lounge

12.The Departure Lounge (28 January 2018)
The third of four groups of carolers in
front of our (and the neighbor’s)
door in the wee hours of Christmas
Day (6 Jan. 2018 – Beirut)
            We were enjoying our “last supper” with Lara, waiting for Hovig to take us to the airport for Lara’s return trip to Armenia. It had been a relaxing, fun, all-around great eight days of family time together. Suddenly, the neighbors across the hallway burst out of their apartment and began pounding on our door, hysterically screaming, “My!!! My!!! (in Arabic, “Water! Water!”). I rushed to their apartment to see what was burning, while Maria ran to our kitchen to grab a container to fill with water to douse the flame. When I reached their kitchen and saw a 26-year-old flat on her back with the family gathered around trying to rouse her, I rushed back to our place, grabbed the water from Maria and told her to go immediately and help them. That’s something I’m trained to do, after 38 years (this month) of marriage to an R.N. I consider it a finely-honed skill.
            The neighbors across the way were a Syrian-Armenian family from Damascus, who had come to Lebanon because they had been accepted by the Australian government to be relocated to Australia, albeit to a city where there is no Armenian community. Neither refugees nor tourists here in Lebanon, they consist of a widowed mother in her 50s and her three children in their 20s. Her fourth, the eldest son, had already escaped to Germany, and is working on obtaining a law degree there. They had been staying a few days here and a few days there for a month, until one of our pastors arranged for them to remain in a single place while they tried to get their affairs in order before their departure.
If it looks like we’re happy to be together, it’s because we are!
(3 Jan. 2018 – Beirut)
            Christmas Eve (January 5, that is) rolled around, and we were excited because Lara was going to bravely go out (only her third day in Beirut) with complete strangers from one of the church youth groups, to carol hither and yon in Armenian all night, something I used to do with my church’s youth 40 years ago back in Philly (albeit in English), something that stopped when members were no longer living in the vicinity of the church. We were also excited that four different churches were going to send their carolers to us, and in that way our temporary neighbors, burdened with fears from having lived in a war zone, along with the uncertainty about their impending relocation, would also enjoy the good news of Christ’s coming as each group showed up to sing (the last one arriving at 3 a.m.). And their faces were joyful! That night marked the transition from saying “hello” in passing to becoming “neighbors” in the local sense, where you stop by at any time, no invitation needed or expected, to talk and have a cup of (Arabic, of course) coffee.
            Oh, sorry… I left one of the neighbors passed out on the kitchen floor.
            So, Maria was doing her best to help this young lady wake up, while her younger sister and brother were yelling her name, and her mother was just yelling. Hysterics, in the not-funny sense. I stood at the ready, doing whatever Maria needed me to do, trying to calm down the mother, and eventually they got her up, onto a chair, and eventually into bed. But why had she passed out? Probably from not sleeping for two or three days. They had been going to a variety of local government offices for documents needed by the Australian embassy to grant them passage out of Lebanon, but they also had to travel back and forth to Damascus to get documents from there. They did that last trip to Syria in 24 hours, there and back. Lack of sleep, lack of proper food, and there you are on the kitchen floor.
Excursion with Lara to Jbeil/Byblos. Can you spot her in
this picture? (7 Jan. 2018 – Jbeil)
            Yet sharing this moment of crisis drew us even closer, as we listened to whatever they felt they could tell us. At first it was about their experiences in government offices here, trying to get their papers in order, and returning day after day, waiting from morning until evening, then being told to come back the next day. Later, they shared a bit of their past, and some of what they experienced during these seven years of war in Syria. Their neighborhood was surrounded on three sides by terror groups, giving them an unwanted front-line war experience. The mother said that one day a couple of years ago the army showed up, handed out guns to the men in her building (including her older son) and told them to defend it if Daesh (IS/ISIS/ISIL) broke through their defenses. This is a woman who had built her home bit by bit, saving up and doing improvements (like a roof and walls) as she was able, a woman who had the grit to study and sit for governmental exams at age 45 in order to get her high school diploma. She knew that this very real danger would soon reach both her sons. She called a friend who drives a taxi and told him to come by right away and whisk her older son away, out of the country, quickly, however he could. Eventually, she also sent her younger son to Lebanon, and then a few months ago, along with her daughters, joined him.
            As we sat and visited, and as they shared more and more with us, we spoke about how their lives were going to change radically in that “Western” country they were headed to. They would have peace and security, they would have cleanliness and order, but they would also be very lonely. I shared, “It’s an individualistic culture, where age, experience, family, and culture – aside from their own culture – are much maligned.” They were aware of this, and aware to some degree that they would need to adapt in many, many ways, including mastering English and gaining an education. They laughed as they related the story of a father sitting in a preparatory class given by the embassy, teaching about how to treat your children, Western-style: you musn’t hit them when you want them to do something, but explain to them why it is important to do this or that, etc., etc., etc. Yes, yes, yes, the father said he understood. But taking his child by the hand and leaving the classroom, as soon as they were outside the door, he soundly smacked him on the head for his disobedience!
For those who were worried that we haven’t yet gotten a set of
wheels, worry no more. (28 Nov. 2017 – Beirut)
            A few days ago we made another trip to the airport, this time taking this family, their eight suitcases and four carry-on bags, to leave them there to await the embassy agent who would guide them through until they boarded the airplane to their new life. It was a tearful parting, because they – and we – knew that they were not just leaving newly-found friends, but were also leaving a place of familiar comforts and terrors, and heading toward the unknown. I told them, “I’m happy for you, but I’m sad for our community. Each person who departs takes something away from us.”
            I often get the feeling that I’m living in a departure lounge. People are milling about me, doing the various tasks that are part of their daily lives, and their church and community life. But their one ear is on the public address system, waiting for their flight to be announced. Today after the worship service a fellow said to me, “You know, they all have their escape planned. All of them.”
            And now, a year after arriving, people are still asking us, “So, you’re planning to stay?” And we wonder how it is possible to be committed to a people and a place when you are mentally living in a departure lounge. Meanwhile, some, far away, are, as it were, sending text messages from those dreamed-about places to those in the lounge, saying, “What are you waiting for?”
LebCat 11: Sophisticated tastes, obviously, on
display in a jewelry store. Next to a falafel
restaurant. (28 Apr. 2017 – Burj Hammoud)
            Fortunately, there are many others here who know that a departure lounge is no place to live. We have cast our lot to be with them, to live and serve alongside them. Taking all the uncertainties and deprivations of daily life here into account, and realizing that the ill-advised and arrogant declarations of the rich and powerful elsewhere in the world are dealing crushing blows to people of all faiths and conditions in this part of the world, we are focusing on doing what is of lasting value. And there is so much to do in so many areas! …educational, cultural, environmental, and on, and on, and a great need for people who will keep their ear on God’s word, not the public address system.
            We came home from the airport that night feeling empty, feeling that loss. The day after, when the family had arrived in Australia, we sent them audio and text messages to encourage them. And we carried on with our week, praying for them, and we continue to do so. But we are resolved not to live in a departure lounge.   [LNB]

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Bless, Don't Curse

11.Bless, Don’t Curse (23 December 2017)

Who says there are no snowmen in Lebanon?
(7 Dec. 2017 – Beirut)
            One of the hardest things to do is to follow directions. The Middle East is a shining illustration of that difficulty. We have seen an improvement in this area since the last time we lived here 10-1/2 years ago, and we’re appreciative of those changes. A positive example: people do not immediately blast their horns when stuck in traffic, or waiting at a traffic light. Nonetheless, it often happens that people ignore what is known as the “common good”. There is a fierce independent streak in society here, or perhaps it would be better termed a disobedient streak. A negative example: they still blast their horns, even when they can see a legitimate reason for a delay, like an old lady hobbling off of a public bus.
            It is very easy to react against these kinds of irritants, and express that irritation by cursing what is wrong in the world, or the country, and then fall into a lifestyle of complaining. To rue the pronouncements of some far-away ruler that set this region in turmoil. To dismiss any sign of improvement in public works as a fluke. To wish annihilation on the ants that have taken over the kitchen and bathroom in our newly-refurbished apartment… There are so many reasons to “curse, not bless” because of the things that go awry in our everyday life.
I got to meet a celebrity: LebCat 7, in the flesh! Or the fur.
(4 Dec. 2017 – Beirut)
            Last week we encountered both an indirect “blessing” as well as some veiled “cursing” while at a Christmas Fair near our home. One amazing young lady engaged us in talking about her handmade products, so much so that you could feel the caring poured into each item. Yet when talking to a couple who are manufacturing innovative Lebanese-made items, they told us, “No! Don’t ever encourage anybody to come to Lebanon. Dealing with laws here is impossible. Whoever relocates here, after the first year, the glow and excitement is subdued, and after five years it’s completely gone.”
The Beirut Christmas Marching Band in Mar Mikhael.
(17 Dec. 2017 – Beirut)
            Something else we notice: when those around us talk to us about Europe and the West, there is an almost exclusive “bless, not curse” mind-set. It matters little to them that they are ignoring vast amounts of negative information about life in their dream destinations, nor that they are casting underfoot the blessings of their (often difficult) lives here. The template has been determined, the categories are set, and all that remains is to sort their list.
            Agreed, it’s hard to choose to bless and not curse. It’s an active choice that you have to make, because it’s not based on the current climate of your life. It’s not based on comparative fortunes (e.g., “We’re/they’re better off than them/us.”). Nor is it a choice to ignore the reality around you and not be wise in your observations. We find it to be a daily choice, in our conversations, in our lifestyle, in our prayers, and in our attitudes. Plus (for Christians), it’s a command from the top-level management. It’s a matter of obedience. So, we do our best to bless so that we can be a blessing.
The last few boxes to be emptied... finally!
(17 Dec. 2017 – Beirut)
            All told, we’ve spent ten Christmases here, and now at our eleventh Christmas we are still bemused to see the infusion of popularized Christmas imagery in local observances. Like fake snow. And reindeer. And English-language seasonal music. At the aforementioned Christmas Fair, there was a mini-Christmas parade going around the Mar Mikhael train station (now an exhibition center), complete with mini-marching band (five musicians) playing, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”. But since the marching band included a derbeke/dumbeg, I felt I could confidently consider it local!
            Tomorrow, (non-Armenian) Christmas Eve, local church services will be enhanced by Sunday School programs and pageants celebrating Christ’s birth, followed by (in the case of Armenian Evangelical churches) a week of evening services to reflect on the year soon to end.
LebCat 9: Does she look like she owns the
place? She does – the Nor Marash church.
Or is that her identical twin sister...?
(26 Mar. 2017 – Burj Hammoud)
            And what a year it’s been! A moving year, pun intended. We are just now getting our last things out of the boxes and into their places. So it’s feeling more like home, because we’re seeing more of our things around us. We would love to see the faces of our family members, too, but we’ll have to rely on technology to lessen the longing. Meanwhile, we’re looking forward to spending the first week in the New Year, including Armenian Christmas, with a young friend from our previous church. In 2016, Lara left her job in Philadelphia to spend a year (plus) in service to various communities around the world, because “now is the time”. For the last several months she’s been in Armenia helping at “Aleppo NGO”, assisting Syrian refugees. You can read her lighthearted and insightful posts at “Lark on the Move”.
            Wishing you... and our world… and especially the Armenian people… a better New Year, and the hope of Christmas. Because Christ was born and revealed! (Քրիստոս ծնաւ եւ յայտնեցաւ. ձեզի, մեզի մե՛ծ աւետիս։) [LNB]

Sunday, November 12, 2017


10.Bullying (12 November 2017)
The street where we live, dug up for new electric cables…
we think. Our building entrance is at the far left edge
of the picture. (9 Nov. 2017 – Beirut)
            One of the popular topics in various levels of society here is “bullying”. People are trying to bring some awareness to the topic on the local scene by holding seminars to help employees in difficult work environments, or by providing training for teachers to guide children to interact with respect toward each other. It’s a tough road to walk – to live without intimidating or being intimidated – because its expression in Middle Eastern culture is pervasive, and quite accepted. Having intrinsic rights as an individual, a very Western concept, is difficult to grasp in a culture that views groups and collectives as the basic building blocks of societal existence.
            But bullying is also the way that politics is done. And not just in the Middle East. Big countries bully small countries. We use sophisticated terms to describe it, and political theorists (from big countries) create ideologies and terminology to justify it, but it’s the same behavior you on view in any playground the world over. It’s part of what makes up our “unlovable” side, the side sorely in need of redeeming.
Arabic coffee and French toast, prepared on our new oven.
It’s what’s for breakfast. (4 Nov. 2017 – Beirut)
            So here we are, 10 days away from the 74th anniversary of the independence of Lebanon. And how are we celebrating? By wondering what happened to the country’s Prime Minister, Saad al Hariri. Someone in the royal family summons him to Saudi Arabia nine days ago for some reason, and before you can say, “Pass the tabbouleh,” the very next day (the very same day a purge happened in the political halls of the kingdom) Lebanon’s Prime Minister is sitting in front of a TV camera way off in Riyadh, reading a resignation speech that sounds quite unlike what he usually says. He claims he is being bullied, or threatened, and that Lebanon is being bullied, too. But big countries bully small countries. Powerful groups bully weaker groups. This is a reality that a seminar or training cannot easily change.
Sevag's and my view of the massive demonstrations twelve
years ago, protesting, among other things, former Prime
Minister Rafiq al Hariri’s assassination. (14 Mar. 2005 – Beirut)
            A lot is being said about what is happening, both in the local media as well as international. I’m not sure what is worth reading and what isn’t. (That’s why I’m not including a bunch of links here. Better that you read for yourself what’s current.) But none of that really matters, because the outcome is that everyone here is feeling bullied, and doesn’t know what to do about it. Except, maybe, to pick themselves off the blacktop and figure out what to do now. For some it means trying to leave the playground as quickly as possible. For others, it means finding a way to stand back up and not let the bullies have their way.
            Twelve years ago, the year the current Prime Minister’s father, Rafiq al Hariri, was assassinated, the Beirut Marathon Association decided to adopt the slogan “For Lebanon”, and to push forward with this international event to show the world – but mostly the Lebanese – that life will continue. This year’s slogan is for the anniversary year, “15 Years of Running Beirut”. Now, I don’t think that means what it says, but I have a feeling that in bringing so many disparate groups together for marathons in this country, May Khalil (the marathon’s founder and tireless promoter) and her crew might do at least as good a job as the professional politicians here.
After today’s 8 km race, with a slogan we can
believe in… (12 Nov. 2017 – Beirut)
            During the Prime Minister’s absence (he has since appeared in a live TV interview this evening), the organizers decided to dedicate this year’s run to PM Saad Hariri, to show a united front across all political and religious groups. This solidarity, being carefully expressed by political opponents in the country, may keep the Lebanese from any precipitous actions against each other. That’s a good thing, and it may also keep the bullies off the playground – for a while.
            Meanwhile, I ran/walked the Marathon’s 8 km “Fun Run” today, and lived to tell about it! There were tens of thousands of people in this race, so I got to the starting line 35 minutes after the actual start of the run. It took me 70 minutes to complete the course, and I only stopped once (to say hello to my favorite falafel maker, a young Egyptian fellow who was completely surprised when I went up to shake his hand). The weather was clear and beautiful, the participants happy and friendly, almost making you forget that you are living through yet another crisis.
LebCat 10: Surveying its kingdom in ruins. Actually the house
where Maria and family lived in the early 1960s, behind the
Armenian Evangelical College. Currently totally demolished.
(12 Mar. 2017 – Beirut)
            A friend of mine said yesterday (my paraphrase), “Enough of thinking defeatist thoughts. We have to move forward with a vision, convinced that we are doing good, and God will provide the resources.” Living in this environment is teaching us that “walking by faith, not by sight” (II Cor. 5.7) is not just an admirable ideal; it is crucial for our existence as Christians, as Armenians (in our case), and as humans who are determined not to succumb to bullying – whether ideological, or financial, or cultural.
            When I signed up for today’s race, it was mostly for me – to do a run two years post-cancer, to push myself out of my sedentary lifestyle, to see what my body can take in its sixth decade. But now I think that I’m not just running for the sake of the Prime Minister; I’m really running for Lebanon.
            Read my prayer letter and pray, too. [LNB]