Sunday, March 31, 2019

Decay and Growth


24.Decay and Growth (31 March 2019)
The huge, nearby Lebanese flag, struggling to unfurl while
soggy wet. Symbolic of the state of the state.
(31 Mar. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            “So, there’s this thing in the parking lot – I think it’s an ark. And a bunch of animals, lined up in pairs…”
            Well, not really, but March in Lebanon is living up to its Armenian nickname: “crazy March” (in Armenian, “khent Mard”). We were fairly sure that the cold and rainy days were over. We were down to the occasional overnight drizzle, with mostly sunny days and blue skies. Now it seems like we are living in a (concrete) rainforest this last day of March, with nonstop rain from the middle of the night throughout the entire day. It is so rainy that the huge Lebanese flag atop a nearby building is completely saturated (not easy for something made of nylon) and shiny under the floodlights illuminating it.
The “thing” in the parking lot is not an ark, but
a second, more powerful generator for the
building. Because uninterrupted electricity
is not in the near future...
(21 Mar. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            As with other rainy stretches, those who are impacted the most are those living in makeshift dwellings. Translation: that means refugees. It means about a fifth or more of the population of Lebanon. Yes, the Syrian war (or as some call it, “the war on Syria”) is still a “thing”. And Lebanon continues to struggle under the weight of these regional uncertainties. Fear and threats swirl in the wind. There are reports of some local relief workers warning refugees not to return home, for whatever reasons, or perhaps out of self-interest. And then there are the imperial fiats of far-away leaders. A Syrian comedian recently went on TV, seated behind a desk, signing a certificate. He held it up and declared that he was ceding California to Mexico. Then he added that his certificate has as much worth as the one announced this month concerning the Golan Heights. It appears that the storms here will continue here for some time.
            Spring does an amazing thing, though. It makes you believe that the corruption and decay all around us can, in fact, be transformed into growth. Decay is what helps all those ants and cockroaches stay alive, as they dispose of whatever is lying around, plant or animal. Hmmm, maybe I have that backwards; ants and roaches keep us from drowning in waste by eating garbage, which ends up helping to keep us alive. Now that’s a weird thought.
My nemesis: spring flowers. So pretty. Such
torture to my nose. Note the trash in
the background. (25 Mar. 2019 – Zahlé)
            So, trees and plants are budding. And I am fighting my nemesis – pollen – with the only weapons at my disposal: allergy pills and tissues. Green growth is returning everywhere, covering the trash thrown out of windows and dumped at night. But where is the healthy growth, or the ants and cockroaches, that will obliterate, or better yet, remove, the decayed leaders?
            Some cabinet ministers in the new government are trying to take actions to improve the quality of life here. One of the projects is to remove the concrete barriers that have proliferated all around the city since the year of assassinations in 2005. But everyone was so used to seeing concrete that they became disoriented. Even the police. A couple of weeks ago we were in a taxi on Hamra Street, and a police car pulled up to us and asked the driver if he knew where the Interior Ministry was. It was just around the block, but no longer behind barriers or with a security gate, and therefore unrecognizable. And remember, this is the police asking a taxi driver for directions…
A new greenhouse for food as well as education.
(25 Mar. 2019 – Ainjar)
            But there is so much more needing to be done, and the population is generally disgusted by the decades of unfulfilled promises by the same political dynasties that were killing each other during the civil war. There is an old fellow in our neighborhood who delivers the propane tanks for our stove (there is no such thing as a gas line or a gas utility here), and in between conversations I have with him about Bible passages, he mutters on about how officials are robbing people. One could dismiss it as the rants of a broken-down old man. Or one could compare what he says to the reality people face and come to a different conclusion…
Ecumenical prayer, followed by fellowship (and food).
(28 Mar. 2019 – Norashen – Bourj Hammoud)
LebCat 23: A regular customer at the nearby artisanal bakery.
But to sleep, not to eat. (19 Mar. 2019 – Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
            Yet we know we must inspire hope and commitment, and focus on mission and growth, or else we’re just wasting our time.  I truly admire the faithfulness of my church in serving the community through education, with a network of schools in the Middle East. Just to see how they do so much with dwindling financial support is a testimony to their wholehearted dedication. One of those schools, the Armenian Evangelical Boarding School in Ainjar (in the agricultural Bekaa area), has constructed a greenhouse in order to (1) grow its own produce for the children’s meals, (2) teach students about agricultural work, (3) inculcate a sense of caring for the natural environment, and (4) maybe even be able to sell some of what they grow.
            In yet another sign of spring growth, a few days ago twenty Armenian clergy – Apostolic, Catholic and Evangelical – held a prayer and fellowship gathering in the Ss. Vartanants church in Bourj Hammoud, under the leadership of the heads of those three denominations. Although this type of ecumenical event is just starting here, there has always been cooperation between the churches and clergy in the region to some degree. But it is wonderful to see a clergy gathering coming into shape, much as we have had for over a half-century in the Armenian churches of Philadelphia. Now, this is the kind of spring I like to see, sniffles or not!   [LNB]

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Are You from Paradise?


23.Are You from Paradise? (27 February 2019)
Looking deceptively like a paradise. (23 Jan. 2019 –
Ain Mreisse, Beirut)
            No one could accuse us of moving to “paradise” in coming to Lebanon. Just to give a brief whiff of what I mean, the Armenian papers recently published a statement from the nearby Bourj Hammoud municipality explaining (or insisting) that it was not responsible for the terrible garbage smell that has been filling the air in recent weeks. The smell is originating from one of many garbage dumps the government has created up and down the coast (also inland) over the years, where every sort of trash (including millions of plastic bottles as well as chemicals that should not be put in a seaside landfill) is piled high, then flattened out into the Mediterranean, trampling underfoot international treaties and responsible ecological stewardship. And the health of all, men and women, young and old, educated and illiterate, citizens and refugees, believers and agnostics alike.
Let’s say you want to walk on a Beirut sidewalk
instead of the street. Go ahead, give it a try.
(15 Feb. 2019 – Hamra, Beirut)
            Recently Maria and I entered a store to buy something, and the shop owner, detecting that my Armenian accent was unlike the local Armenian style spoken in Bourj Hammoud, asked me (in Armenian) with a bit of a sarcastic tone, “Are you from paradise?” I don’t think he was referring to my Pennsylvania roots (I’ll wait while you look up that place name). It struck us as a strange comment to make to a customer, and it took me a moment as I tried to figure what his intent was. Maybe he was looking for a pretext for charging full price (plus) for what I was buying? So, as lightheartedly as I could muster, I pointed upwards and said, “That paradise? I hope that’s where I’m headed!” He responded by saying, “It’s all the same, there or there, it’s all the same place.”
            OK, now I was confused. So I smiled and let him go on with his… was it a rant? a dissertation? I wasn’t sure of all the ramifications of his lecture to me. But I am sure that many, many people here consider the west – and my country in particular – “paradise”. When you are assaulted by the smells of rotting corruption, and you still don’t have regular water or electricity 30 years after the end of the Civil War, how can you fault people for feeling the way they do?
Maybe try this sidewalk? Careful not to trip over
the steps. (15 Feb. 2019 – Khalil Beddawi, Beirut)
            On the other hand, we’ve been idealizing the west for a long, long time. In the 19th century, when Armenians and others were traveling to Europe and the U.S. for their education, bringing back to their homeland in the Ottoman Empire the ideals and ideas of the west, it was inevitable that discontent would result, followed by flight from the homeland. Could they have seen the endpoint of their westward movement: a dissipation and dissolution of the people called “Armenians”, especially the western-Armenian variety? That discontent and abandonment also had another by-product; it brought about an infatuation with the west, which in today’s Middle East, combined with the disgusting aromas, the ever-increasing cost of basic goods and services, and the actions of an entrenched ruling class, and you have huge numbers of people, Christians and Muslims, looking to the west – to “paradise” – as their avenue of escape. A mentor of mine, commenting on the state of affairs here since the 1975-1990 Civil War, said, “They took a paradise of a country (Lebanon) and turned it into a garbage dump.”
Students at curtain call after their Vartanants program, along
with their stage director, Sister Nariné, who was transferred to
Beirut from Philadelphia… kind of like us! (25 Feb. 2019 –
Bourj Hammoud)
            Tomorrow is the celebration of “Vartanants”, commemorating a battle the Armenians waged in A.D. 451 to resist the Persian Empire’s efforts to convert them from Christianity back to Zoroastrianism. It is considered a decisive, defining moment in our history, when somehow the Armenian people found the courage to choose death with honor, rather than a life subservient to the dominant forces of the day. But where is that courage now? Occasionally it appears, but more often than not Armenians are driven by their fears, not by their ideals or principles.
            An elderly Armenian Catholic nun spoke of this at a Vartanants school program I attended a few days ago. She remarked how she had spent two weeks at an Armenian school in the Los Angeles area, and during recess time, not once did she hear one child speak to another in Armenian. And she challenged the Lebanese-Armenian parents in attendance not to give up in imparting Christian and Armenian values to their children, first at home, and then in Armenian schools. What is happening to us? What befell us to make us this way?
  Don’t give up just yet. Try this sidewalk.
(27 Feb. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            One thing that definitely shaped us into a fear-filled people was our centuries of existence as a repressed subject people in the Ottoman Empire. Armenians survived by keeping their eyes cast down to the ground, trying their best not to provoke the harshness of the surrounding tribes, who were the real authorities in their historic Armenian lands. Those tribes, still in existence today, and still active in the same ways, considered it their right and privilege to take advantage of the industry of Armenians in agriculture and the trades. A portion of what they stole always went to the government in Constantinople, ensuring that there would be no change in this status quo. Toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, when Armenians tried to organize to defend themselves and resist governmental and “irregular” terror, before and during the Genocide, they were frequently opposed by other Armenians who feared disturbing the status quo. This is how only a few Ottoman soldiers with guns were able to herd hundreds of Christians to their deaths in the Syrian desert.
            These fears are still alive and well inside of us, so that when a hint of trouble appears in this region, many of us (as well as other Christian groups) are among the first to pack up and leave. A sad contrast to our ancient Christian witness amid trials, as well as our capacity to endure as a distinctive culture group anywhere in the world, including Armenia. I wonder if Vartanants should be a day of national mourning for Armenians, in place of April 24 (i.e., Genocide Remembrance Day). Back then our forebears with their lifeblood took a stand “for Christ and for the homeland”, as the famous saying goes in Yeghishé’s “History of the Armenians”. Today? What remains of who we were?
LebCat 22: Nothing like a good morning stretch. Watch out for
what’s lurking behind the bench, though.
(18 Feb. 2019 – Qobaiyat, Beirut)
            What else, but the struggle, the urgency to continue the struggle, to seek God right where we are, and to not waste our energies seeking “paradise”. This is what every Armenian school is doing, at great cost, amid threatened funding cuts from organizations that should be increasing, not decreasing, their investment in these institutions. This is what every Armenian church is doing, though some would prefer to drop the ethnic orientation and just fit in with the local church scene. This is what every Armenian cultural activity is about, and what every Armenian choir is doing (like the Armiss choir!), what every individual does when opening up a Bible or a book in the Armenian language, or at least when reading about Armenians. “Struggle, struggle, unending struggle” is what a friend exhorted me to do when I wrote to him a few Vartanantses ago. It may not fit well in a world where people want to be entertained. But what sense is there in exchanging the weight of millennia of faith, history, culture and identity for something as ephemeral as whatever is “trending”?   [LNB]

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Drip Drip Drip


22.Drip, Drip, Drip (23 January 2019)
A brief respite from the rain, the city, the daily grind… at the
Pastors’ Retreat at KCHAG. (11 Jan. 2019 – Monteverde)
            For the past two weeks, for more days than not, all we had been hearing was the sound of rain. Morning and daytime and evening and morning. Sometimes we had breaks from the wet, but we accepted the steady “drip, drip, drip” as a necessary part of the winter season. Each dark and dismal morning I would get up and look out the window to see if it were really morning, and if it were raining… again. Once we had ascertained the day had started, and once the haze had cleared for a brief respite, we would look out the other window to see a brighter, whiter quilting over Mount Sannine. What we experienced as drip, drip, drip, they received silently, in the form of heavy snowfalls.


Norma paying a visit to our balcony/rooftop.
(23 Jan. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Our “early warning device” in our bathroom is the best indicator of the precipitation. When a single drop of rain falls, it pings on the “tarbouche” or “fez”, the cover on top of the vent pipe, giving us a more accurate weather picture than the TV or our phone apps. But it doesn’t show us the damage caused by the heavy rains, in a country whose infrastructure is not in optimal condition, and which won’t see improvement any time soon. All of this rain brought landslides to a number of areas, closing highways and causing traffic delays at every turn.
            Not only were the roads, drains and rivers unable to handle all of this, but the refugee camps, most of which are in the central portion of the country, were turned into swamp-like conditions. In some situations, the water flowing through them resembled whitewater rapids, which would not have been a problem for that farmland-turned-tent-city in “normal” days, but where in today’s world does “normal” exist?
            Schools, which closed for several days because of the storms, are now adding makeup “rain days” to the end of the school calendar. We in the city are awaiting the next deluge, and whose name will be heard over and over in the news. The big storm was “Norma”, followed by one with another Western name (which the Arab media changed to “Maryam”). Some are guessing that next, Norma’s husband, or boyfriend, or maybe even her “ex-” will show up…
The “tarbouche” on our roof. Actually looks more like a
Japanese-style wicker “kasa” hat. Which sounds pretty European
to me. But then the Japanese call Euro-style hats “boushi”.
Go figure. (10 Mar. 2018 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            Over last weekend, “drip, drip, drip” was replaced by “thump, thump, thump” – the familiar sounds of the Huey helicopters, audible from miles and miles away. Lebanon hosted an economic summit of Arab leaders earlier this month. Considering the ever-worsening economic state of Lebanon, this was probably a good thing to host, to give visibility to the problems the country and immediate region is facing. Most of those leaders said they were coming, but then after some locals tore down and burned one of the flags near the venue (and posted a video of themselves doing it, of course) to express a decades-old grievance, they canceled and sent lower-level ministers to represent them.
Graffiti that blesses and challenges passersby, long after the
artist’s death (Samuel Pashgian’s home,
22 Jan. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            But the summit went on, and again roads were closed (for security purposes), and people stayed home. So, instead of traffic jams on the ground, there was the incessant “thump, thump, thump” of the Hueys overhead. For soldiers in Vietnam in the 1960s, this meant that help was on the way. For us here in Lebanon, I’m not sure what it means.
            But the dripping sound is more analogous of things that we face, such as the steady closure of small businesses in favor of “outlet”-style stores in western-style shopping malls, and the emigration of their owners to Armenia. Like a slow leak under the kitchen sink, you don’t notice it until it’s already damaged the floor. This is just one of the indicators of how a sub-group of Lebanese society, such as the Armenian community, is being stressed. The society overall will be the worse if these small, industrious communities disintegrate.
A pointed message on an electrical post
(6 Jan. 2019 – Geitawi, Beirut)
            The slow attrition of church members, something seen around the world, can be seen here as well. People, for whatever reason, tend to leave very silently, such that only the very alert notice, and then have a window of opportunity to reach out to them. Fortunately, there is an active and committed group of church members, including many young people, who are taking note and trying to think of ways of keeping people connected and integrated to their churches and communities. They’re even thinking of ways to keep young people who find work in other regions of the Middle East to stay involved in the life of their local church, possibly making use of new technologies to bridge the physical distance. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to ideas that will emerge.
            I’ve resumed rehearsals for the Armiss choir, and we’re preparing to give a full concert in June. It will be hard work, especially to build their cohesion. Drop by drop (not drip by drip) we’re gathering singers, young and young-ish (my peers) to be a part of this, and hopefully for all four voices. Notice I did not liken the choir to a bucket. That was on purpose.
LebCat 21: A fat-cat, similar to the non-feline
variety so prevalent in the country, waiting for
a burger to fall to the ground.
(17 Jan. 2019 – Mar Mikhael, Beirut)
            There’s some very interesting graffiti around the city, and I don’t pretend to understand all of it. Some is ominous. Some is humorous. Some is objectionable. Some is a nuisance. And some is thought-provoking, like the wall in Hamra on which is scrawled “Free your mind – Kill your television”.
            It has been two years since we moved to Lebanon, and the excitement, the challenges and the rewards continue. It’s exciting that I am resuming my Arabic studies, after a 20-month “break”. It’s challenging to focus on just a few things, work- and personal-related, and to say “no” to a bunch of other things that legitimately need someone’s attention. (Something about praying to the Lord of the harvest…) Meanwhile, it’s rewarding to be part of a network of friends and colleagues who do their best to support each other. Early in the month I was part of our semi-annual Armenian Evangelical pastor’s retreat, in which colleagues from Syria and Lebanon came together for a 48-hour experience. It’s things like this that keep me grateful for God opening up the way for us to be here.   [LNB]