Thursday, October 24, 2019

Devils and Details

29.Devils and Details (24 Oct 2019)
Smoke from tires burning on the Autostrade, filling the air.
(18 Oct. 2019 – Karantina - Beirut)
A week ago there was an announcement, replete with locally generated “great and unmatched wisdom”, in which the government here would begin taxing Internet-based (VoIP) communications (such as Whatsapp, Messenger, FaceTime). As many have already said, this was just the match that lit a blaze, the straw that rendered the camel a paraplegic, yet became an almost-inconsequential detail leading to the explosion of protests all across the country. The outcry and rage even targeted certain well-known leaders whom the populace heretofore has never dared to (publicly) criticize.
Shuttered businesses the entire length of the normally
busy Arax Street. (23 Oct. 2019 – Bourj Hammoud)
            So, the first couple of days we inhaled the acrid smell and particulates of burning tires, in addition to the ongoing stench of garbage dumps and polluted water. Those first few days also saw the emergence of a few disruptors who either were intent on destroying and looting private property, or reasserting the supremacy of their political party and its flags. Both types were quelled by Internal Security and Lebanese Armed Forces. Then emerged the chants of “Thawra! Thawra!” (“Revolution!” “Revolution!”). And the open-air party atmosphere. And the congenial “we’re all in this together” atmosphere.
            Later, other slogans emerged, as the
Push-back against multinational corporations… and an icon
of the protests, a woman kicking an armed guard where it
hurts. (22 Oct. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
demands intensified: “Kellon, ya3ni, kellon!” (“All of them, that is, all of them!”), so that no one group would think its leader exempt from the demands for a complete change in leadership – and a new political system, one not based on religious identity. If there are 3 million Lebanese in Lebanon, then thanks to television crews roaming in and among the various protests sites we are hearing what seems to be 3 million statements of discontent from young and old blocking streets and highways. Their words are crammed with emotion, seething with frustration at the struggle the average citizen has to endure for things like inadequate health care, expensive education, intermittent electricity and water, poor waste management, environmental degradation, unaffordable housing, corruption to the core, and so much more, including a sky-high national debt.
            But what has been absent is someone to take the helm of this movement and focus it into a clearly-defined direction. The prime minister gave a public address the day after the start of the protests, but it appeared to be directed to his political opponents. The president addressed the country today, a week after the start of these events. A decade and a half ago a handful of potential alternative leaders may have existed, except that they disappeared one by one in still-unsolved car bombings. Where are the new visionaries to keep Lebanese from turning against one another, expressions of which are beginning to emerge? There is only so long that an outburst can be sustained, and so what is sometimes (erroneously) compared to Armenia’s “Velvet Revolution” may take some unwanted turns in the days to come. Chanting for overall change is a start, but the devil is in the details.
The last day Lebanon was able to focus on something besides
its protests. (16 Oct. 2019 – Bourj Hammoud)
            And speaking of devils, only a few short weeks have passed since great (and locally great) powers have decided against the Kurds in northern Syria. It is such a familiar narrative; the roles now played by certain peoples and countries were played a century ago by many of the same minorities and world powers. And the story ends the same: strategic and oil interests superseding any humanitarian interest or pang of conscience. Who will be the losers in these military “games” being played out in the region? You can start with the great powers, who again squander their names as they easily abandon their local allies (We all should bring to mind how Armenian brigades and the population were betrayed by Europe). Yet a greater loss is being shouldered by the people of the land, not just Kurds, but Assyrians, Chaldeans, and, yes, Armenians. The Kurds may rebound due to sheer numbers. But what of the Christians, who are the ancient residents of that region? One of the winners no doubt will be the incipient “Islamic State Part 2”, thanks to the support of some and the negligence of others. So many devilish details, too many to keep track of, that invaders will just say “Oops” to you after the fact, as you disappear into the oblivion of genocide, deportation, migration and assimilation.
LebCat 28: A flat cardboard box is better than
no box at all. Hanging out with LebCat 13.
(3 November 2018 – Bourj Hammoud)
            But back to Lebanon. The protests continue, and roads are still blocked; sometimes by protestors, and sometimes by rainwater flooding the highways (like today) due to poor infrastructure… another burden borne by the population. But people need something beyond the protests – and they need a just resolution, without being co-opted by outside forces. They need to be able to work, to eat and send their children to school, but also to dream about the future and marry and care for and protect their homeland. Will this be a moment of historic change for Lebanon and its unity, or will it end in disarray and divisions? My hope and my prayer is that the people will continue to gather under the Lebanese flag, something all sincere religious leaders desire, and something the Bible commands us to do: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29.7).   [LNB]

Sunday, October 6, 2019

It's a Sign!

28.It’s a Sign! (6 Oct 2019)
Children in uniform, and parents carrying school bags. A sure
sign that fall is here. (1 Sept. 2019 – Shushi, Artsakh)
For years our family has had a running (inside) joke. When we see street signs or billboards, especially ones with the name of a city or country on it, we call out, “It’s a sign!” Perhaps not particularly funny… except that I’m a pastor, and one of the features / challenges of pastoral life is the ever-present possibility of relocation. And behind that possibility is the art of determining what constitutes a sign from God, particularly regarding a “call”, and the related relocation from ministry in one city (or country) to another. The joke is that if you are looking for a certain answer, sooner or later a “sign” will appear, confirming what you have already decided on your own. And then you can credit God for the sign. One of those Achilles’ Heels of believers everywhere.
An “old” sign, lying face down on the ground,
defeated by a new pole and by the company
that bagged a contract for replacing every. single.
pole. in the city. (18 Sept. 2019 – Khalil Badawi)
            In recent months in Beirut there has been a sprouting of metal posts and brand-new signs on sidewalks all around the city. Considering the narrowness and impassability of most sidewalks in Beirut, this has been an unwelcome intrusion to us walkers. And considering that the existing, if somewhat beaten-up, collection of traffic signs throughout the city was doing its job just fine, it makes one wonder whether there is something more behind this proliferation of poles than traffic concerns. In such an opaque and … not altogether “clean” … system as exists here, who knows? Rumors about this and a slew of other topics are pretty much all the general populace has to go on, as it tries to make sense of the rough road it has been on for decades.
Will they be able to break Mr. Sevag? An intense scavenger hunt at
the Children’s Conference. (7 Aug. 2019 – KCHAG, Monteverde)
Having the thrill of my life, leading a trained choir in concert, the
“Varanda” ensemble, while Zakar looks on. I wonder what he’s
thinking? (5 Sept. 2019 – Shushi, Artsakh)
            As a sign of how full the summer has been, two and a half months have passed since my last blog post. Why? Meetings and more meetings. Sevag’s month in Lebanon, including some vacation time with him, and a week in KCHAG, with Sevag in the children’s conference, and me in a bungalow, pretending to get studying done. Work in Armenia and time off in Artsakh. So much has come and gone. That trip to Artsakh (or Karabagh) was a memorable one, especially as Maria and I enjoyed the cultural and interpersonal riches of that region. I’ve reflected more about it in another place, but a highlight was definitely my being invited to conduct the “Varanda” childrens/youth choir in “Hayrenikis Hed” in concert.
Maria’s niece and family, recently relocated to
Armenia. And a penguin. (29 Aug. 2019 - Yerevan)
We were driven from Yerevan to Shushi by a young taxi driver who talked quite a bit about the hopefulness that is permeating Armenia since the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of last year. Yes, lots of things still need to be “fixed” in the country, but he insisted that the current government will get to it in due time. In contrast, a week later, on the taxi ride back to Armenia we had a different driver: an older, university educated man who worked in the Soviet system and the post-Soviet system, and is now witness to the current setup. His view of things was subtly skeptical, since there is movement going on, but not necessarily progress. He asked us a lot about Lebanon, and laughed, “So it seems that there are many, many similarities between the two countries!” He was referring to human potential, but moreso to the shared pitfalls.
Wait, is this town called "garlic"? The French side of the sign
reads like that Arabic word. Oops, my mistake. Good thing I’m
learning to read/understand Arabic! (10 Sept. 2019 – N. Lebanon)
            Armenia – and increasingly Armenians everywhere – speak enthusiastically about one Armenia for all. The Armenian Diaspora (the majority of Armenians in the world) is frequently relegated to a temporary and passing reality. Yet, once upon a time, in recent memory, the slogan was, “A strong Armenia with a strong Diaspora.” No more is this heard. Once upon a time Armenia had a Diaspora Ministry (usually aimed at connecting Diaspora finances to needs in the homeland). Though the channeling of resources, human and otherwise, continues, that Ministry is no more; it was closed up last year and its work subsumed into the Assistant Prime Minister’s portfolio. The Western Armenian language is a “threatened” cultural treasure, but the only serious attempts to strengthen it are coming from Diaspora organizations. (Armenia also closed its Ministry of Culture last year.) These signs betray a lack of depth of understanding of the importance of the Diaspora for Armenia as well as for Armenians everywhere. And a lack of depth in the thinking of the disorganized Diaspora as well as official Armenia.
LebCat 27: I’m looking fine… but don’t those two guys in the back
know how to pose for a selfie? (26 July 2019 – Beirut Cat Café,
Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Here in Lebanon, a sign that summer is over and the fall is here is the appearance of children all over the city in their school uniforms and toting their book-bags. We are all carrying another weight, though, as we closed of one of our schools this summer (shrinking income and galloping debt). It is a sign, not that Armenian Evangelical education is no longer needed, but that this vision is being challenged by other factors outside the church Union’s control. In fact, all Armenian schools outside of Armenia face this challenge. As historian Dr. Yervant Kassouny states in his recent book (Reflections on … Diasporan-Armenian Literature, 2019), “Closing an Armenian school in the Diaspora is equivalent to closing an Armenian army base in Armenia” (p. 11, translation mine). The Armenian school, along with the Armenian church and the Armenian family, is the place where this particular nation (in the cultural, not the political, sense) trains for the battle to survive and thrive in a world that works hard at homogenizing everything, not just milk.
            Keeping your eyes open, paying attention to the signs of these times, staying awake and prayerful – these are the means we employ when facing days like these. “A little sleep, a little rest, a little folding of the arms, and your poverty (including your spiritual and cultural poverty) will come upon you like an unexpected traveler, or an armed robber” (Prov. 24.33-34).   [LNB]