Sunday, July 16, 2017

What I Really Meant Was


6.What I Really Meant Was… (16 July 2017)
Lebanese coffee manufacturer “Najjar” and its answer to the
single-serve coffee machines so popular in the west.
(30 April 2017 – Hamra, Beirut)
            For someone like me who considers coffee one of the basic food groups, being in a place like Beirut satisfies a deep longing in my heart. “Coffee hour” after church services does not consist of the watered-down version, but is simply, without question, Arabic coffee. If you want the other kind, generically called “nescafé” without the capital “n”, you have to ask specifically for it. And the reason that’s funny is because “nescafé” sounds like “half-coffee” in Arabic.
            In the U.S., someone came up with a single-service coffee machine you can put on the kitchen counter and generate fresh cups of various kinds of coffee, or if you like, various kinds of tea with a faint coffee residue flavor. And you can generate huge amounts of non-recyclable k-cups destined for landfills everywhere. The popular brand of this machine is something I pronounce “kouyrig”, which means “dear sister” in Armenian. I like my sister much, much more than these machines. Still, I was intrigued when, back in April, the local version of the “kouyrig” hit the market, claiming to consistently make the best cup of Lebanese coffee. With the same little trash-generating k-cups, in regular or cardamom flavor. As far as I know, the traditional method of cooking Arabic coffee in a pot over a fire is not in danger of being replaced.
The exact same type of Arabic coffee machine
at the place where I now take Arabic lessons!
(21 Mar. 2017 – U-Turn Center, Hamra)
            All of this brought to mind an experience I had seventeen years ago, way back in A.D. 2000, when we moved to Beirut as a family and I took up my new position as Campus Minister at Haigazian University. Imagine my delight in seeing something I had never encountered before: a hole-in-the-wall bakery on rue Mexique, next door to the University, which had a machine that brewed Arabic coffee! You put in a 500-lira coin (33 cents), chose what level of sugar you want, sat a disposable cup in the little ring (there we go with more trash-production…) and waited for the little “ibriq” (“coffee pot”) to fill with water, the correct measure of coffee, a touch of sugar, then cook the coffee, and when it was ready, it tilted on a hinge to fill up your cup! It became my new favorite hangout.
            I befriended with the woman who ran the bakery, me with my nearly non-existent Arabic, and her with her non-existent English. I found out that she was supporting her family, and that she was part Armenian, but didn't speak the language. We mostly used smiles, gestures and a few words to interact. One day I went to buy my usual cup of coffee, but when I tasted it I found it had no sugar. I drank it anyway, because you just don’t waste a good cup of coffee. Two days later, on my next visit to the baker, I decided I would be a proper customer (in my U.S. way of thinking) and inform the establishment owner of the problem with the coffee machine. And do so in Arabic (my only choice). So I said what I thought was, “The day before yesterday there was no sugar.” What actually came out of my mouth was: “There is no closed the day after tomorrow” (“Ma-fi sakkar ba3d bukra.”). I had changed “sukkar” into “sakkar”, and “the day before yesterday” wasn’t even in my Arabic vocabulary.
LebCat6 lives around the corner from our current
housing and keeps an eye… or two on comings
and goings. (2 Apr. 2017)
            Telling this story later that day caused much mirth in the Bakalian household, but generated no sympathy for my linguistic struggles. On another occasion a few years later, after Maria and I had dropped off our younger son Sevag at a summer camp, on our way back to Beirut we stopped at a bakery on the highway, and I went in to buy two bottles of water. Our older son Armen trailed behind me as I went up to the counter and asked for two bottles of water. Except that the two words I used were of two different languages: “tnayn tchoor”, one, the Arabic word for "two", and one, the Armenian word for "water". The employee looked at me puzzled as I repeated myself a bit more insistently. More puzzlement. Then he figured out what I wanted to say, and grabbed two cold bottles and set them on the counter. As I turned around, still oblivious to what I had said, I noticed my son walking away from me, back to the car where Maria was waiting, hand clasped over his mouth to prevent something from coming out. Once outside, he burst into hysterical laughter as he told his mother what I had just said. After I paid and joined them outside, I also found out. No sympathy whatsoever.
            Part of my current job description includes communications. I am supposed to facilitate connections between our church union and various groups near and far. Fortunately, this responsibility is based on my English proficiency. In English, and slightly less so in Armenian, I am usually able to say what I mean. So, I endeavor to help “decode” what others are saying, so that I understand their intent, even if the words don’t exactly match or make sense. Having been on the other side, and having had these and many other experiences of misstating what I had meant, helps me to be particularly sensitive to this. I am especially grateful that God is the One who by his Spirit “translates” our misstatements and even our frustration, exhaustion and pain into eloquent prayers. I believe that God calls us to do the same work of helping each other with our flawed attempts at communication, expressing the gentleness that is so often absent from the soulless “posts” and heartless declarations that comprise much of modern, instantaneous, worldwide “communication”.
LebCat6 (again) resting after an exhausting day on the
front-end loader. (15 Apr. 2017)
            Our summer in the city is hot and humid, and we try our best to seek out air-conditioned spaces as we do our part to serve, strengthen and encourage our friends here. We are working hard to prepare for the Christian Endeavor Youth Camp, where I am the main speaker, and the Children’s Camp, where Maria is the official “camp grandmom”. Additionally, we note that the refurbishing of our permanent living quarters has begun, and we expect that perhaps by summer’s end we will begin to make our move there. But more than all of this, we are excitedly awaiting our son Sevag’s arrival this week to spend 15 days with us here, and reconnect with the people and places that formed the world of much of his formative years.
            Finally, an encouraging event from a week ago. Following the annual general assembly of our church union, a small delegation traveled to Kessab, Syria, to rededicate the refurbished Armenian Evangelical Church in the town center. Kessab is the last remaining Armenian village from the myriad towns and cities inhabited wholly or in part by our ancestors prior to the 1915 Genocide. It is right inside the border with Turkey, and was overrun by militants entering from Turkey in March 2014, resulting in much destruction and widespread looting. Churches were especially targeted, so the reopening of this historic building was a day of celebration for all, Christian and Muslim alike, involving religious and governmental leaders. So we pray for the continued peace (or cessation of armed actions) that will promote the rebuilding of lives, homes and livelihoods across Syria and the region. [LNB]