Monday, June 1, 2020

Sa Koronyan

Musings of a wondering Armenian

35.“Sa Koronyan” (31 May 2020)

A March windstorm toppled the cross from the
red cupola of the Armenian Evangelical Church.
(31 May 2020 – Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
Over and over again, we are hearing from medical and epidemiological experts telling us, to the best of their knowledge and experience, that we are going to be living with, not defeating the Coronavirus. It will be just one more thing that we have to take into account in our daily routine. What that means in terms of our lifestyles, our long-range plans, the economies and habits of families and countries, is still to be determined. How it will decimate minority communities, is also to be determined, although we are already getting a taste of what is to come. The Armenian community here in the Middle East, such a crucial guarantor of the continued existence of the Armenian people the world over, is facing daily traumas as it fights for its existence. In the past few days we lost yet another Armenian school, the St. Agnes Armenian Catholic School in Bourj Hammoud, while two weeks ago the last Armenian School in Jordan closed its doors. Yesterday I read that one of the two local Armenian FM radio stations was forced to go off-air and continue (hopefully) as an Internet-only station. In at least as critical a situation as we face today, Middle East Armenian families a hundred years ago went without many things, including shoes and new clothing, in order to maintain their schools and culture, and they produced vibrant and tough generations. But today people’s values and priorities are… not the same.
Experts report that a majority of mini-pizzas are displeased with
the direction of the economy. (9 May 2020 – Watwat - Beirut)
            We were scheduled for a few months of home assignment (or “furlough” in missionary parlance) in the U.S. later this year, beginning in late summer, in order to travel and inform interested church groups about the work of our partner organizations (the church union and the university). Now, all of that has come under question, and our sending body is studying the situation, examining what governments and the air travel industry will do to recover from their current state of disarray. Making any sort of prediction about travel, or saying anything else about what life will look like “A.C.” is a fool’s errand. (“B.C.” = “Before Corona/ Covid-19”; yet although it is inaccurate, I use “A.C.” = “After Corona”; it’s a better abbreviation than “W.C.” = “With Corona”, no?)
Reaching out to those in need now takes the form of leaving
clothing and shoes where they can be taken without
drawing attention to oneself. (25 May 2020 –
Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            Tomorrow Maria will be venturing outside our home for the first time in 2 months, for a health checkup and a stop at Haigazian University. It will be interesting to hear her observations on this “release from captivity” when she returns. I know that I often dread venturing outside our home, particularly with all the protective items I am forced to wear. The Lebanese government now mandates wearing a mask when going outside, and is stressing the need to keep infection numbers low because of the lack of hospital capacity for those needing respiratory care for the virus.
            Nevertheless, my excursions outside the house have been more frequent, and not always negative. Three weeks ago a friend was driving me to do some grocery shopping, and I asked him to run by our old neighborhood, where we lived 20 years ago. What a refreshing visit, seeing old friends – the baker and the greengrocer – who asked about Maria and the boys by name, and were truly happy for this quick visit (and exhibited boundless patience with my stumbling Arabic). When we see how much we matter to people like this, who seek nothing of us but friendship, that’s when we feel truly alive, truly connected to this place.
Coronahair and coronahaircut. Apparently the barber
was quite satisfied with the job he did.
(29 May 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            If it is permissible to say, I intensely dislike this plethora of online meetings and digital gatherings that are sometimes touted as the “new normal”. I doubt that it’s a generational thing, because I know of young people who say the same thing, and like me do not reject the technology, but do not also consider it universally applicable. The majority of communication that is done nonverbally is virtually (pun intended) eliminated from these electronic methods, rendering human interaction shallower, and distances farther. It’s not a small world after all. My sister as well as my son, both school teachers yet of different generations, realize how little real teaching and learning happens in this “virtual classroom space”. They know very well how struggling students need the physical presence of an instructor who can “read” their body language and step in with the necessary support, encouragement and creativity to help them move forward. This also is the case with online worship experiences, something in which I have been heavily involved in the past 2-1/2 months. We are enduring the pain of human separation, a pain that will remain for the foreseeable future, as long as “social distancing” is required.
LebCats 35: Lebanon’s success in stemming the
spread of the virus is due to high levels of
cooperation – even among cats – with social
distancing principles. (31 May 2020 –
Geitawi- Beirut)
            A fun project that came about because of a need for musical content in our worship broadcasts was a “virtual choir”. For the nine participants it was our first foray into this type of production, where the musicians, each in a different part of the world, collaborated in recording a song. Listening to the piano track we sang our parts into our computers or phones – some of us singing more than one part. Then the files went back to Washington state from Oregon, greater LA, Philadelphia and Beirut to the producer/ accompanist, who turned them all into one wonderful online vocal ensemble. Way to go Shahan, Arek, Sako, Palig, Sevag, Garin, Talar and of course Maria and me! Not a bad way to deal with this “A.C.” world!
            As I was walking around Bourj Hammoud recently, searching in vain for an open money-exchange house so that I could obtain local currency and buy some groceries, something struck my ear as one Armenian woman was commiserating with another over the current social and economic situation. She said (in Armenian), “Sa Koronyan yete asang sharounagvi…” (If this Koronya continues like this…). I was past them a few steps before I realized she was not referring to a perfume, but had Armenianized the word “corona”. Maybe the Armenian community will be able to adjust and even thrive in this “A.C.” world after all.   [LNB]

Wednesday, April 29, 2020


34.Privilege (29 Apr. 2020)
The neighborhood getting disinfected…  every now and then.
(28 Apr. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
I’m going to miss these crystal clear mountain vistas.
            Now that the country is pushing itself to get back to work, the stillness we (who can afford it) have enjoyed is starting to recede into the mist – or the smog – of resumed auto traffic and factory output. The occasional whiffs of rotting garbage will be overtaken by a continual stench of dumps and slaughterhouse aromas. The big fish that a few weeks ago were sighted swimming in the Beirut River will go far, far away, as that waterway resumes its obligatory burden of carrying away toxic and untreated waste into the Mediterranean Sea from small and large riverside operations. The nighttime quiet, interrupted by the occasional passing car or motorcyclist flouting the curfew, and the darkness undisturbed by the garish glare of electronic billboards, all thankfully switched off to minimize advertising expenditures, will likely end all too soon. I will miss hearing the variety of birdsong that heralded the sunrise and celebrated the sunset, creatures praising their Creator, without the din of steel-belted radials on asphalt. It has been a privilege to experience, even for a moment – a fantasy suggestive of how Lebanon once was, or might have been, and could be, only if…
A crisp view looking southeast toward the high-rise hotels in
Sin el Fil. You can actually see the contour of the hills.
(22 Mar. 2020 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
            But the bane of too many cars and too much construction, of appropriation of public land for personal use, of noise and air and sight pollution will make its all-too-soon return, of that we can be sure, as Lebanon struggles back to its feet. And as warmer weather continues its steady encroachment on the cool, pleasant spring air of Lebanon, the heaviness and seriousness of a nation in crisis will present itself once again to a country much worse off due to this compulsory quarantine. Now, we will get back to an awareness of the hunger and the despair and the crashing and burning economy, and the protests that never really went away. A “post-corona” world for this and other second- and third-tier nations across the globe will reveal itself as a yet-deeper and ongoing nightmare, a dark and fearful status quo. Yet for wealthy nations who are able to bounce back from the current economic crash of this year’s corona-life, it will eventually become just a fading memory from which they will want to “learn lessons”.
A “socially-distant” visit is nearly as enjoyable as a video
conference for people who need to hug when they see
each other. (25 Mar. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Lebanon has been showing up in some international news outlets recently. It has been highlighted as a country that has managed the pandemic quite well, despite being in a disastrous economic state. The Prime Minister recently noted that the effort expended to slow the pace of this virus has diverted the cabinet from dealing with the very real, immediate and long-term perils of the country. Nearly half of the population is currently facing hunger, over half is unemployed, education is in a shambles, and the anger of the people, simmering since the curfew was imposed, has boiled back up. Rock-throwing, burning banks, blocking roads – albeit with masks and gloves – has resumed. The pound is now worth about a third of its previous value, and with each new day its worth is even less. As an Armenian community we wonder what the fate of our schools and institutions will be, with no money to operate them, no ability to generate income, and no easy way to utilize monetary gifts from abroad. All of this concerns basic needs, not privileges: food, employment, education, health care, and cultural identity.
A candle of remembrance on our balcony, on the eve of
Armenian Martyrs’ Day. (23 Apr. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            The “Centennial+5” of the Armenian Genocide was commemorated amid the unusual restrictions of these days. All the massive gatherings that characterize April 24 the world over were transformed into an evocative silence. Absent were the massive crowds ascending the hill to the monument in Yerevan, Armenia, “Dzidzernagapert” (which translates to “Fortress of Swallows”), and it practically became once more the haunt of birds. The creativity of Armenia’s organizers came out, though, as a series of musicians and singers took to a stage on the walkway leading to the eternal flame and performed throughout the night – for eight hours – while people throughout the world watched from their homes. Here in Beirut, as in many Middle Eastern cities, the observance was markedly different than other years. In the windy night air we lit candles at our balconies and listened as church bells were rung for 10 minutes, honoring the lives lost and the lives rebuilt. Somehow, with all of these obstacles and circumstances, or perhaps because of them, this year’s Armenian Martyrs’ Day seemed to matter more. It was a privilege to stand outside in the cold and see flickering candles of other Armenians, children and grandchildren of survivors, on windowsills in Khalil Badawi and Nor Marash.
This mannequin will be safe from the virus.
(20 Apr. 2020 – Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
            “Privilege” is a fairly sensitive term these days, especially in a country like the U.S., which continues to struggle with the issue of racial and economic disparity, starkly visible to those on the lower edge and nearly invisible to others inhabiting higher levels. I’d rather not call it “white privilege”, but rather “inherited privilege”. And it makes me wonder if those in Turkey realize they are the beneficiaries of the Turkish form of “inherited privilege”. So much of what they enjoy is as a result of those who were branded enemies of the nation, expelled from their homes and towns, driven to their deaths, and their properties and goods appropriated by those eager to enjoy what they perceived as “Armenian privilege” (can you say, “Incirlik”?). The words of politicians ring so very hollow, when they attempt to commemorate the Whatever-you-want-to-call-it Day, merely in order to avoid having to hold the feet of the privileged to the fire, so as to avoid offending an erstwhile “ally” and lose their privileges. Such a strange effect this “privilege” thing has on people.
            Too much ruminating for one post, of course.
LebCat 34: This creature actually looks quite accustomed
to the whole social distancing thing. (8 Apr. 2020 –
Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            But something wonderful has emerged from being forced to minister to Armenian Evangelical Churches via the Internet – we came to the preparation of Sunday morning broadcasts, with songs, scriptures and sermons. This has happily drawn our churches, pastors and people together as a single audience, spanning seven Middle Eastern countries, plus Armenia, plus France, plus the U.S. and Canada, to enjoy the message of hope in their mother tongue, Armenian. I am grateful to God to be here in Beirut, playing a part in all of this, and to hear testimonies of people who have been (for a number of reasons) far from the worshiping community now being drawn into Christian fellowship. It’s almost as if God knew something like this was going to happen, no?   [LNB]

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Cue the Locusts

33.Cue the Locusts (31 Mar. 2020)
It’s spring, but nobody’s going anywhere these days.
(24 Feb. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
Here in Lebanon we look with amazement at a panicking world that, upon realizing that the novel coronavirus was not going to remain a “Chinese disease”, began by decrying the enforced confinement and “social distancing” intended to slow the advance of this nemesis, because of the perceived injuries to their liberties. The puzzlement here continued as the reality of this pandemic set in, and country after country realized that their economies were going into a deep pit because people were unable to work and therefore were cut off from the income they relied on. It may sound callous, but Lebanese, who have been in an economic downward spiral for the last several years, thanks to the greed and incompetence of their leaders, exploded with rage in October that they were not going to take it anymore. It shut down the country and the already abysmal economy, sending banks into panic over the danger to their usurious profits, whereupon they took it upon themselves to prohibit depositors from withdrawing more than a couple hundred dollars a month. The service industry, already limping along due to the lack of tourism, saw nearly a thousand restaurants close in Beirut alone, schools lost three weeks of instruction due to strikes and road closures, and specters of a return to civil war loomed in the shadows. The country was not on its knees, but rather prostrate on the ground when this virus became a local reality. How much farther down can you get?
The list of coming events at a nearby restaurant.
(23 Mar. 2020 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
            I hope that no one would wish this situation on another, here or in any country. But it’s very tempting to say to the world, “So, how does it feel?” To face each day with fear, uncertain of what the future brings, wondering if death will snatch your friends, loved ones or even your own life? Yet there are so many people who face much greater trials than what most in the affluent world are struggling to comprehend. It is very easy to comprehend in lands under occupation, where walls are built to protect privileges. It is very easy to comprehend in places where refugees are used as political pawns. It is very easy to comprehend by those today continuing their jobs, with or without masks or gloves, who know that when the government says “lockdown” and “curfew”, it is effectively telling this subsistence-level stratum to starve to death. As many have commented, if rich people were to die from hunger, the world would find the will, the creativity and the resources to end that scourge. But those 9 million who die each year from hunger-related reasons remain out of the spotlight.
Not how a school playground is supposed to look in the
middle of the day. (24 Mar. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Oh, did I mention? We are under a nightly curfew. The government announced, and is enforcing, a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew throughout the country. This is in addition to closing all “non-essential” businesses, that is, anything that does not sell food or medicine. And if your water tank is leaking (every household has a water tank on the roof because of the sporadic delivery of water, 30 years after the Civil War ended… sporadic, like all the other utilities), well, you won’t be able to call someone to repair it. Anyway, he might not have the parts to do repairs because the banks have had a 5-month stranglehold on the capital that is needed to import goods.
How I spent my 16th birthday – telling “Dad
jokes” at a youth/veteran C.E. youth gathering.
(29 Feb. 2020 – Armenian Evangelical Church
of Ashrafieh, Geitawi - Beirut)
            The school year has taken a body blow in this crisis-upon-crisis mode we call “the new normal”. Administrators and teachers have hastily transitioned to “online learning”, a tenuous format that might enable learning to occur. When the October protests dragged on, schools were already beginning to implement some of these methods, and it increased as the months dragged on, the strikes continued and regularly turned into violent clashes between protestors and various security forces (there are so many here I can’t keep track). Yet students as well as adults are learning quite a bit from this current in-house confinement. In some cases children are in a healthier environment. No longer do they chant, “Revolution! Revolution!” (“Thawra! Thawra!”) when being let out for recess, as if it were a game. Others are at the mercy of their abusive or neglectful parents/guardians. Those who care for the latter, such as the Armenian Evangelical Boarding School in Ainjar, constantly carry that burden in prayers for God’s mercy.
            The last couple of “normal” things I did were to deliver a talk on Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist and activist who was assassinated in broad daylight in front of his newspaper office in Istanbul, and to attend a a wonderful lecture on Gomidas (or Komitas). Ironically, among the 300 of us sitting in the hall where that lecture/concert took place on March 8 were religious and community leaders and even a cabinet member, only one day after the government told people to avoid all crowds.
A tall tree at a nearby park, uprooted by gale-force winds
on Mar. 12. (25 Mar. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Maria and I were already doing most of our work online since we arrived in Beirut. Except for the worship services we attend and where I assist. And except for the “Armiss” choir that I direct. And except for the committees in which we serve. Now, none of that is happening. In their place we have video conferences and work online from home. The choir rehearsals are suspended. And in place of Sunday worship services in various churches the UAECNE (our church Union) has begun broadcasting a single weekly pre-recorded program, which I am producing. (Look it up on YouTube under UAECNE.) Pastors are taking turns preaching the sermon, and I am including a variety of recorded hymns and anthems in Armenian. It is an interesting initiative that will likely continue in some form as an audiovisual ministry, and will find a home on the Union’s website (coming soon, I hope), connecting people not only across the region, but helping those who have emigrated elsewhere to maintain some connection with their roots.
LebCat 33: Look, I don’t care what the
government says about restaurants closing.
I know you’re in there. I can smell the
rotisserie chicken, OK? (13 Mar. 2020 –
Geitawi - Beirut)
            On March 12, as we were beginning our days/weeks/months of seclusion, Lebanon and the region experienced several hours of winds at speeds between 100 and 140 km/hr. The roaring sound woke us all up, as objects were being tossed from one rooftop to another. The huge flag flying on top of a nearby office building was torn from its mounts and ended up somewhere far away, perhaps in the Mediterranean? The following day everyone was out surveying the extensive damage throughout the country. Strangely, though our electricity was never interrupted – just our sleep.
            The news out of the northeast of Africa is not good. A devastating plague of locusts is destroying crops and threatening famine to countless people. Could that be next on the agenda for Lebanon? We watch… and pray.   [LNB]

Monday, February 17, 2020


32.Exhale (16 Feb. 2020)

A building collapse due to decades of neglect by its owner.
Strangely, the ground-floor bakery survived due to renovations
by its renter. (29 Jan. 2020 – Tabaris, Beirut)
For about four months the country has been holding its breath. Actually, long before that the country had been practicing holding its breath, as the economy and policies of government upon government sagged and sagged over the years, to the point of rupture. This past week the newly-formed cabinet, still the target of some protests, received approval from parliament to begin the work of saving the country from total collapse. Lebanon has always convinced itself that it is too important for the countries of the region and the West to let it fail. And therefore, corruption, theft and mismanagement of the public sector have ruled the day for as long as people can remember. Well, surprise!
            People write and ask us how we are managing with all that’s going on in the country. Aside from the psychic stress everyone endures, we face no particular hardship, due to the special nature of our employment. But how are actual citizens faring? While walking through an upscale neighborhood last week I noticed a grown man standing next to a dumpster carefully going through garbage and removing what was edible to put in his bag. Heretofore I would only see scavengers searching for scrap items to recycle or sell; only after passing him did I realize what I had just seen. He was wise to choose a dumpster in that neighborhood, where the likelihood of good quality and quantity food waste is greater. Yes, poverty is steadily advancing, and is moving more people squarely into nutritional insecurity. This is the picture in the city, anyway.
Upper row shows the early days of the uprising, with mere
barbed wire festooning the Grand Serail and Banks St.
Lower row shows the serious concreting of the centers of
government. (Jan. & Feb. 2020 – Riad el Solh - Beirut)
            Among the political elite – and there’s an overabundance of them (too bad Lebanon can’t export them to raise a little cash allay part of the national debt) – it is in fashion to say, “Oh, I’m also against corruption. We need to join together and find out where all these stolen funds are, and make new laws, blah, blah, blah.” Lebanese who hear these speeches are disgusted by them, because of the well-known secret that those who today rail against corruption and incompetence are guilty of the very things they decry. The relevance of the Bible appears once again in these circumstances, perfectly described by the Apostle Paul: “You who teach others… do you teach yourself?” (Read Romans 2.21-23 for an excellent assessment of today’s “speechifiers”.)
This is what protestors think of Lebanon’s banks,
and what they did to express that sentiment.
(15 Jan. 2020 – Hamra - Beirut)
            Another casualty of the times is health care. If you have a chronic condition that requires regular medication, you might have to go without it for a couple of weeks until a new supply can be imported. If you are experiencing chest discomfort, you might brush it off and not see a doctor, as the healthcare system does not cover diagnostic assessments. You will eventually see the doctor, but only after an ambulance has brought you to the emergency department. Or the other door across the way. In response to all of this, more than a few doctors and some hospitals have set up weekly low- or no-cost consultation hours to help those falling through the cracks, and a number of them are even waiving their surgical fees for the truly poor. But how much longer can private citizens and organizations bear this burden?
            For years Armenian agencies have been used to taking up the slack as best they can in the absence of proper governmental services. Social service agencies have networked themselves to serve the many low- and middle-class Armenians (plus in recent years quite a few Armenian and non-Armenian refugees from unrest next door and next door to next door). The income lifelines these agencies have relied on are becoming increasingly problematic, while those they are caring for continue their need for care, irrespective of whether its being paid for.
            Also, for decades the only reliable retirement plans for Lebanese have been to either receive remittances from their emigrated children or move overseas to live with them. A third possibility exists: to keep working until you “drop dead”. No wonder there is a lack of seasoned retirees in the churches, a demographic that is the backbone of any healthy ministry.
And this is what many people feel about living
in Lebanon. (15 Feb. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Two days ago was the fifteenth anniversary commemoration of the assassination of PM Rafiq Hariri. Sevag, Maria and I were here at the time of that explosion, and we each have our memories of that momentous day. Schools, government offices and businesses close annually in observance of the day (and not because of St. Valentine). This year’s event featured the recently-resigned PM and political heir of his assassinated father, working the crowd as if addressing a campaign rally. The event also featured a video review of what’s happened to the country and its economy for the past 30 years, with the main message of: “It wasn’t my fault”. Each new event that occurs just makes this tragi-comedy more… interesting (for those drama fans out there).
            Actually, political assassinations are a way of life here. If you look up “Assassinated Lebanese” you’ll find a whole page dedicated to this, listing at least 36 public figures eliminated here in the past 100 years. And this doesn’t include attempts that only maimed their targets. If the government declared a holiday for each assassination, my guess is that an entire extra month the country would be closed for business!
Offstage at the C.E. youth event, anxiously reviewing their
lines, right? (11 Jan. 2020 – Armenian Evangelical Church
of Ashrafieh, Geitawi - Beirut)
            Lest it appear all gloom-and-doom here, in the midst of all of this the Armenian community is managing to continue its spiritual, educational and cultural output. Recently the Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal announced an initiative to develop the teaching and use of Western Armenian in Lebanon, which, followed by Syria, are the only places in the world where Western Armenian is a viable, daily language of family, education, and commerce. It may seem strange to westerners, or to those steeped in western thinking, that one of the callings of the Armenian church in all its forms is to maintain a strong cultural sense as it goes about its spiritual mission. Although it is valid throughout the Diaspora, it is nearly impossible to see by those who embrace the majority culture. For them, it appears that the church should be on a purely spiritual mission, often not realizing how their own Christian outlook is so deeply grounded in the dominant culture surrounding them.
            In January Armenian Evangelical youth presented (in Armenian) a post-Christmas view of the main players in Jesus’ birth narratives, reflecting not only on what was to come for them, but also helping young people think about what is to come right here where they are, and what their attitude of faith should be. I was grateful to be involved in the planning, and was thrilled to see the church filled with over 150 youth that night.
LebCat 32: This is my laptop now, since you refuse to give me
lap space. (24 Jan. 2020 – the late Beirut Cat Café,
Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Two nights ago a newly-published booklet containing a dozen photos and lyrics of the great Gomidas (you can look him up under “Komitas”) had its public release. The main speaker, Shaghig Khudaverdian, a lecturer at Haigazian University, who stated that the essential task for any people wishing to survive is to speak their own language and sing their own songs, and thereby continue to breathe on this earth. And as if to demonstrate this, three different Armenian school choirs (including Armenian Evangelical) took turns on stage to sing selections from Gomidas’ pen. Afterward, I had the honor of joining Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic representatives in congratulating the three choral conductors, and then dedicating the publication by pouring wine over it (in Armenian the word for this literally means “wine-dedication”).
            So, here’s a toast, which in many languages, including Armenian, goes: “To life!”   [LNB]