Thursday, February 28, 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]