Saturday, September 29, 2018

Raise Your Voice

18.Raise Your Voice (29 September 2018)
First day of school at the Armenian Evangelical College, one of
the network of schools in Syria and Lebanon run by the Union.
Haigazian’s Philibosian Student Center (formerly “Webb”
building) is in the left background. (25 Sept. 2018 – Kantari,
Beirut. Photo courtesy of Rev. Hrayr Cholakian)
            Adjusting to a new environment takes time, and events around you or within you force you to admit that you are not “there” yet. If you are really smart, you’ll accept the fact that you will never get “there”, no matter how you define “there”. And you’ll do so sooner rather than later.
            The better part of adjusting consists of knowing how to keep your mouth shut, and continuing to observe and learn. But there are always a few things that perhaps you shouldn’t adjust to, that may be worth opening your mouth about.
            As I was trying out a new eatery (nothing to get excited about, sorry) a couple of days ago, the cashier directed me to their air-conditioned “eating room” (a separate storefront from the “ordering room”). I stuck my head inside the eating room, sniffed once, and
decided to cast my lot with the hot sun at a sidewalk table. The cashier eventually brought out my food, and asked, “It’s hot out here. Don’t you want to eat inside?” I responded with “Ma3lesh” (It’s nothing), although I did want to raise my voice in complaint to her about the cigarette stench in the eating room. O, Arabic lessons, why have I forsaken you?
A beautiful, old building that was being refurbished last year
collapsed before they were able to support its structure…
revealing another beautiful, old building. You can see the
remnants of the balconies lying askew on the ground.
(11 Sept. 2018 – Gemmazeh, Beirut)
            So, as I was eating (and sweating) on a sunny Ashrafieh sidewalk, watching cars go by, I noticed an older man (i.e., my age) on a motorcycle pulled up next to a driver’s window of a car that had stopped in the middle of the street. But he wasn’t asking for directions. He was yelling at the driver for several traffic infractions, including driving the wrong way on a one-way street, and probably almost running over the motorcyclist (who was not a traffic cop). I can only hope that he takes care not to break the same laws when no one is looking.
            I was pleased to see him making a nuisance of himself in this way, because people so often just shrug their shoulders at much of what goes on here when they should be speaking up. “Haideh Lubnan.” I hear it all the time, from friends and strangers. “This is Lebanon.” But although speaking out will never result in instantaneous or lasting changes, though it won’t turn those accustomed to decades and decades of ineffectual government and self-centered living into conscientious, law-abiding citizens. He was lighting a candle and cursing the darkness.
This is how the Union headquarters looked before
improvements began. It’s behind the trees, in case you
missed it. (6 Sept. 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Oops. I forgot that I’m not supposed to say anything but compliments about the government, as well as all other governments, save for one in particular that happens to border Lebanon. That’s what I put my signature to each year, when renewing my residence permit. But even without signing such a form, we are all facing similar pressures to keep dissent to ourselves (or, alternatively, to be loud and arrogant about our dissent and close our ears to other dissenters). This does not just concern the country of my birth, the U.S.A., for the past 17-plus years. In Armenia, post “velvet revolution”, the message being broadcast, is one, simple, unchallenged refrain: “The bad has left, the good is here; come to Armenia. ” Few dare to raise a dissenting voice concerning the “new”, save in private, or else risk ostracism. Even though they, too, care for Armenia’s well-being. It seem that criticism, especially self-criticism, is rare in today’s world, no matter what the side.
The old fence coming down, and the new going up.
(11 Sept. 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Yet people do speak up, and not just to point out flaws that they see. Here are some ways I’ve observed people in Lebanon “raising their voices”:
1. Tending your “garden”. The headquarters where I work, the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East, formerly an Armenian-owned hospital (the “Christian Medical Center”), got a complete makeover, 30 years after its previous one. Rev. Paul Haidostian, president of Haigazian University, is overseeing another renovation project, that of the Webb (or Philibosian Student Center) building, the university’s original structure. Someone observing the work remarked, “Do you know how encouraging it is for your neighbors to see you making improvements because you want to improve, and not because you were forced to by someone else?”
2. Getting up and getting out. After a long summer indoors (with their air conditioners), lots of locals have donned shorts and sneakers. I see them running and jogging and panting along sidewalks and streets in the city, preparing for the Nov. 11th Beirut Marathon. I’m not sure whether they’re aiming for the 8 km fun-run, the half-marathon, or the full 42.195 km thrill. I’m limiting myself to the gym.
A panorama of the newly-refurbished exterior of the Armenian
Evangelical church headquarters, formerly the “Christian
Medical Center” (27 Sept. 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
3. Speaking up about health and pollution dangers. People continue to gather to publicly protest the government’s mismanagement of the country’s waste disposal, especially after the recent decision to create three incineration facilities along the coast, while cancer rates continue to spike. Meanwhile, cow carcasses, presumably diseased ones tossed from ships before entering the Port of Beirut, are gently floating along our Mediterranean coast. Swimmers and divers are exposing these shameful scenes through social media posts.
4. Speaking up about abuse. The prevalence of non-Arab faces in and around the city points to the widespread use of southern-hemisphere workers in construction, sanitation and domestic labor. There is a robust network of organizations decrying the near-slavery conditions many of them are enduring at the hands (literally – please understand) of their employers. At least one of them per month commits suicide. Rather than let this “modern slavery” continue, they protest, they write commentary, they hold memorial services, all in an effort to put an end to the unregulated flow of hundreds of impoverished, southern-hemisphere “tourists” through the airport.
Just write “extra” on it. It doesn’t have to mean anything.
(28 Aug. 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
5. Opening Armenian schools for the new school year. Despite the continuing downward economic spiral in Lebanon, and the departure of many families (not just youth) from the country, Armenian schools of every kind have pressed forward in continuing their educational mission, and have started another school year. It is a powerful declaration of their will to survive, and a message to Armenians everywhere that the Diaspora has a reason to exist.
6. Publishing Western Armenian books. In a couple of weeks Haigazian University will hold another “Armenian Book” evening, presenting all of the books published in the Western Armenian dialect (and a few in other languages) in Lebanon in 2017. Beirut continues to let the world know that it is a cultural center for Armenians throughout the world, despite the past and present efforts to obliterate our presence in this region. (However, these Armenian books continue to cry out for people to pick them up and read them…)
7. Calling everything by a superlative. No matter what the item, it’s always better if you add the word “extra” to it. Or sometimes just name it “Extra”. This week I saw a man carrying a 50 kg (110 lb.) sack of flour to the nearby “manaqish” bakery. What was the brand of flour? “Extra”. Why not?
LebCat 17: All of these toilets are mine. And the boxes, too.
(26 Aug. 2018 – Nor Amanos, Baouchrieh)
            Raising your voice, for a Christian, usually means you are offering heartfelt praise to God. But it’s important to have a complete view of “being heard”. Christians must also cry out for the oppressed who have no voice, or challenge the idol-worshiping that is so much part and parcel of economic systems here and everywhere, or lift their voices in prayers of intercession or repentance, or raise a call to turn back from the paths of death to the ways of God. There is a time to be silent, but also a time to speak (Eccl. 3.7).
            Especially as an Armenian, there are so many more things about which I want to cry out, as I adjust to life here. And maybe I will. But this much for this time. [LNB]

[Note: Last blog’s “LebCat 16 & friends” was photographed in 2018 (not 2017) as they were dragging Sevag into their thrall.]