Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Nuts, Tents and Trees

2.Nuts, Tents and Trees (20 March 2017)
            You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, as the saying goes. Since I find myself in a very different environment than the usual church circles (i.e., I’m with 20- and 30-somethings in language school each morning), I have to get used to being a normal guy, and take care not to unconsciously put on “clerical” airs. It’s stretching me, and I think it’s also helping me be a “real” Christian person, not a stereotypical “religious type”. Hearing them ask me if I knew why people were walking around the city with ashes on their foreheads told me that these young Europeans have next to no religious or faith background.
The view looking south from our living room balcony.
            Our section consists of a class of six students and one teacher, and I win the prize of oldest student, hands down. Oldest student means that I’m the one who gets to struggle the most with learning the verb forms, subjunctives and adjectives and who knows what else in spoken Arabic. When called upon to say, “He wants to swim,” I easily mix up my hes and shes, and my singulars and plurals. Quite a lot of fun. Except when I realize that I’m making the same mistake time and again. In one of those moments of frustration last week I appended my fumbled Arabic sentence with one of my favorite interjections: “Nuts!”
            Well, talk about making an impression on others. (In Christian lingo, that’s called “your witness”… showing how God lives in a regular person.) The three Dutch, one German and one American, plus the young Lebanese woman teaching us, immediately burst out laughing. Why? They loved the expression, “Nuts”. They hadn’t heard that before (except for the American). One of them said to the other, “That’s great – I’m going to use that expression! ‘Nuts!’” My witness, indeed…
My shortcut to work, with rainwater gently cascading down the picturesque slope.
            Winter is the rainy season here, and one recent, rainy day I had left my umbrella open to dry in the passageway to the classrooms. It’s another of my American cultural artifacts – a very large, collapsible type. Seeing it there turned the head of one of the teachers on the way to her class, and she good-naturedly muttered (in Arabic), “Two or three refugees could fit under that tent!” My teacher laughed, and translated the comment for us. So, the following few (rainy) days that teacher asked me if I had brought my tent to class. Yet another witness…
LebCats 1 (a, b, c and d) – “Shajra Bsaynat"
            After work one day (yes, I do have a job besides learning Arabic) I was walking down the hill to catch the bus back to our residence at the Near East School of Theology in West Beirut when I heard some impolite yowling ahead of me. I turned the corner and looked around to locate its source. It was a tree… with two, no three, wait… with four cats on it, each with its own complaint. They were quite focused on each other, so they did not even bother glancing at me as I approached them to snap a picture. I chuckled all the way home. Then it occurred to me that I could tell this story the next day in Arabic class when asked to say what we did the previous day. All I would need to do is invent a new Arabic word. The next day I said, “I was walking to the bus after work when I saw a Cat Tree (shajra bsaynat).” The teacher pursed her lips quizzically, as she racked her brain to decipher what name of a Lebanese tree her student was mangling. So I took out my phone and showed her the picture. She laughed and cringed at the same time, handed back my phone as if I had just sneezed on it, and said, “Oh no shajra bsaynat! ... I don't like, I hate cats!” But even though cats disgust her, she still (to this day) repeats the name of that new variety of Lebanese tree to the class and to her fellow teachers – and laughs!

            So here they are… the LebCats! Hope you enjoy them. [LNB]

Wednesday, March 8, 2017


The view from our apartment
The view of the Mediterranean Sea from our kitchen window

1.Blinders (8 March 2017)
            It’s been five weeks and a day since Maria and I landed in the new place we call “home”. It’s a brand-new, familiar place. Beirut has been our home for nearly eleven years of our married life, and for Maria another seventeen from her birth until her emigration to Canada. We’ve been working pretty hard to fit ourselves in to the pace and style of life here. But there’s got to be a lot more retooling of our lives as we move along.
            It’s been four weeks minus a day since I started taking Conversational Arabic lessons, and today I had an experience that revealed just how much retooling I need. I’m in a class with mostly Europeans, and a few Americans thrown in there just for fun. We were reading a paragraph about “Karim”, and his work and eating schedule, something that could plausibly be part of any conversation outside the classroom as well. In Lebanon there’s very little that remains “private” (in the Western sense). The teacher had us write answers to questions about the text, in order to see just how much we were comprehending. “Karim goes to work at 7:14 each day.” I think to myself, why does she keep saying “a quarter after 7” when the text clearly states 7:14? Ah… my first bit of retooling for the day. Even if it says “7:14”, in Lebanon you don’t say the exact time – just the approximate time. OK, 7:15 it is.
            We went on to answer other questions. How long Karim works each day. When he comes home. With whom he eats. His meal times. The text says that he goes to work at “7:15”, then has his breakfast at 8. But my (Western) brain turned that around, and so I wrote: “Karim has breakfast at 7:15 and goes to work at 8.” Our teacher looked at me and said, “No…! of course not! He goes to work shee (“let’s say”) a half-hour early, and then he has his breakfast. When you get up, don’t you have your coffee (Arabic, of course)? Then you get hungry about 8.”
            Well, it’s true. In the mornings, I don’t eat breakfast because I’m hungry. I eat because that’s “what you’re supposed to do” (read: “what Americans do”). And then I get hungry mid-morning anyway, and go buy a man2ouché.
            This knocked me for a loop this morning. My cultural blinders got in the way of my learning. Over the years I’ve worked hard to teach people not to impose their cultural biases on biblical texts, but rather to let the Bible speak for itself. But here I was, thirty-six days after landing in our new life, messing with Karim’s life/work schedule, and implicitly telling all of Lebanon what it “should” be doing. I’d better include more deep breaths in my daily routine…
            Since Beirut is literally crawling with cats, and since most of my family is allergic to all but the digital kind, I’m going to include my photos of “LebCats” with my posts, as often as I can. Feel free to caption or even name them! [LNB]