Sunday, April 23, 2017

Keeping Promises

4.Keeping Promises (23 April 2017)
            Since Armenians found a safe haven here in Lebanon and other Arab countries, following their branding as an “undesirable element” in their ancient, ancestral homelands, the Armenian population has been “branded” as a positive, constructive, industrious, artistically-gifted element in their respective adoptive homes. I can’t count the number of times since I’ve arrived, when people ask my name, they say, “Oh, like the (local) television personality Nishan!” I smile and nod…
The very first Armenian Genocide monument in Lebanon (erected 1929), showing bullet damage from Lebanon’s civil war (Armenian Apostolic Cemetery, Furn el Shebbak)

            Once upon Ottoman times in Turkey, Armenians were known as the “loyal nation”. They didn’t have aspirations to take over the world – they just wanted to live and flourish in their various locations, whether villages or cities. They dreamed of being able to take a deep breath without being taxed for breathing too much. But Armenians made the mistake of thinking that their overlords would modernize their thinking. Now, a hundred and two years after the Armenian Genocide, and a week after Turkey acquiesced (by only a 51% majority) to its president’s power-grab, the whole world can see how ill-prepared Turkey is to abandon its repressive ways.
            But that 49% is a hopeful sign that things are changing in Turkey, albeit slowly. Turkey will continue to jail journalists and beat protesters. It will continue to allow the wanton destruction of Armenian cultural heritage in the eastern “interior” locations (i.e., western Armenia), far from where mainstream media employees like to hang out. Turkey will continue to play with fire, hosting and lending material support to radical movements like the foreign militias who today again (as they did in March 2014) attacked the Syrian-Armenian village of Kessab. Why attack today, and why attack a village where there is no military presence? Why, except to continue the Genocide that they began over a century ago?
            It is not outside the realm of possibility that this is a “Happy Armenian Genocide Day” card from Turkey, with a postscript “thank-you” for the release of the motion picture, “The Promise,” this weekend. If, as Jesus says in John 8.32, "the truth (i.e., his truth, in its completeness) will set you free," then those who deny the truth are in a prison of their own making. A pathetic, miserable prison. A prison from which those Turkish-sponsored extremists attacked Kessab again today.
Statues of Armenian orphans seated on the ground with their food bowls, outside the Bezikian Orphans’ Museum at the “Birds’ Nest” Orphanage in Jbeil (Byblos)
            Yet, the more inflamed with denialism the Turkish leadership and their radicalized citizens become, the clearer Turkey’s picture becomes to their “friends” (like the U.S.). And who knows? Maybe that awareness will translate into action for what is right, and true, and good… but I’m not holding my breath. Every U.S. presidential candidate, pandering to the Armenian constituency, has made the promise to call it a “Genocide”, and, once elected, they have all (except for Pres. Reagan) broken that promise, for reasons they find justifiable. And so, people groups, their languages and their cultures continue to be destroyed. And not just Armenians, either.
            Maria and I went to a cinema in Ashrafieh (Beirut) this weekend to see “The Promise,” currently playing throughout Lebanon. It is worth seeing, whether by someone completely uninformed about the subject, or by people like us, for whom the narrative was a painful reminder of a history we know all too well. It weaves through its dramatic story-line vignettes of actual events and persons. One of the most powerful aspects of the story was how the main character Mikael was determined to keep his promise to his betrothed, to his home village, and to his people. Do yourself a favor; go see it.
LebCat 3 has expensive taste in cars (1 Mar. 2017)
            Tomorrow morning, April 24, the entire Lebanese Armenian community will gather in the various churches of their various denominations to observe this somber anniversary. In the evening there will be a joint rally (organized by the three Armenian political parties) at Martyrs’ Square in the center of Beirut. Non-Armenian Lebanese will take note of how many Armenian businesses there are, because they will be shuttered tomorrow in observance of the day, and most (though not all) Lebanese will comment on how much the Armenian community has contributed to the well-being of Lebanon. Armenians have indeed been fortunate in Arab countries to maintain their Armenian identity while giving back to the places that welcomed them after the Genocide. It’s quite a different experience and a different outcome than where I grew up, with Armenians forever teetering on the edge of the “melting pot”.
            My next post will be something lighter. I promise.   [LNB]

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Donkeys and Questions

3.Donkeys and Questions (11 April 2017)
A racehorse, far from the Beirut Hippodrome
            Two days ago, on Palm Sunday, as Maria and I were making our way by car on the coastal highway to a nearby Starbucks for a post-worship cappuccino, our driver (and friend) said, “Get your camera ready.” We were right next to a McDonalds restaurant when we saw what he meant: a jockey was leading a horse. With a saddle. On the highway. Why? That’s easy to answer. It’s because the sidewalk isn’t big enough for a horse to walk on, of course.
            Asking the question “why” is not only one of the most valuable ways of learning, it is also the key concept of the past several weeks in my Arabic class. We are learning that in order to answer “why”, there are at least six ways of saying “because” in Arabic. Why? Because there are so many different reasons things happen. And because we are practicing our becauses just because. There’s so much more to learn . . .
My Arabic study-buddy, Hilmar, at a café (in Ain Mreisse), which uses old sewing-machine legs as tables
            You know the claim (or hoax) that there are a hundred different words for “snow” in some Eskimo languages. Why? Supporters of this claim say that it’s because snow is an important part of their lives (global warming notwithstanding). Well, we found out that there are five (and counting) ways of saying “friend” in Arabic. Why? Because friendships and relationships are so important in this culture. People you know and people you don’t know all get involved in your life, and some become your friends. Whether they are helping you park a car or stopping you on the street so you can help them find an address, I’m learning to value those relationships over what I used to consider my “rights”. Like the right to walk on a sidewalk without finding a car parked on it, or the right to pull out of a parking lot without finding a parked car blocking the exit. Or the right to have things go my way, or that my way is of course the right way. Did all of that sound very Western? It should, because that’s where I learned about “rights”, but not so much about the surpassing value of relationships. In this new environment it’s time for me to tell myself, as that arbiter of world conformity, Apple, used to say in its advertisements: “Think Different”.
            So why did we see a horse, and not a donkey, on Palm Sunday here in Lebanon? Well, it’s a fine horse, don’t you think? And anyway, we’re going to learn a children’s song in Arabic class that tells us “everybody has a car, but grandfather (jiddo) has a donkey.”
            We saw something else, too, this Palm Sunday. This unholy week. Blood and death in Egypt, attacks intended to exterminate Christians from a land that has been their home since Christianity was new. We have dear friends there, and we mourn, and we ask “why”. Especially, we ask “why” in our prayers to God, because we know that the only satisfactory answer to that question is something that doesn’t sound much like an answer: “Why? Rely on my grace. It’s sufficient.” (Check it out in II Corinthians 12.8-10.)
            And only a few days before that, we heard of a chemical attack in Syria, that was followed by an aerial attack on Syria. Why? Lots of answers are being offered, but little proof or sound reasoning. Why? Who needs proof when you’ve got bombs? No matter which of the five words for “friends” in Arabic we use, we nonetheless have many of them in Syria. What will come next, and how will they endure the unrelenting pressure on them to abandon their homes, livelihoods and roots. And why should they have to?
            In the aftermath of this week of horror, Pope Francis’ words this Palm Sunday are the sanest and most sobering thoughts I can pass along: “May the Lord convert the heart of those who sow terror, violence and death… and also the heart of those who make weapons and trade in them.”
LebCat 2 (11 Feb. 2017)
            Now it’s spring in Beirut, which means before long the snow will melt from atop Mount Sannine, and we probably won’t see rain (to speak of) until the fall. Yet since it’s early spring, everything is still green – a delight to the eye, and a balm for the soul.
            So, I offer you the next LebCat, caught in action (cat-action, that is) atop a car, a couple of streets over from where we live. I’d love to know what you think is in its “thought balloon”! [LNB]