Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Canceled until Further Notice

30.Cancelled until Further Notice (11 Nov. 2019)
Last week all politicians’ faces adorning all buildings and
monuments (everywhere?) were removed and replaced
with the national flag. (11 Nov. 2019 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
This morning the taxi driver asked me, “What do you think will happen here?” It came as somewhat of a surprise; first of all, that someone would ask my opinion about Lebanon’s fate, and second, that a Lebanese person would think that I, as a foreigner, would have some sort of access to privileged information that would help to prepare for what is coming. At least that was the impression I got, though I realize that people sometimes have other reasons for asking such questions.
            The country is suffering from the aggregation of so many systemic problems: a deeply entrenched patronage system (thanks to the Ottomans, then to the French, and then to the Lebanese themselves); the acceptance of corruption as an inevitable way of life; the lack of a system of holding people accountable (hardly an institution in the country functions without some “irregularities” in operations or hiring); the dependence on stop-gap measures to keep things rolling along, as they have been for decades since the end of the civil war; the partnerships of local groups with outside powers, each with its own agenda. Of course it is the bit-players, the regular citizens, who are badly buffeted in this local/international drama being enacted before our eyes.
Optimism and camaraderie ruled the day of the human chain,
which included an attempt to pass a bagged manouche sandwich 174 km (108 mi.) from Tyre to Tripoli.
(27 Oct. 2019 – Nor Hadjin - Beirut)
            My taxi driver had been let go from his 10-year employment at a local firm just last Friday. A couple of months earlier he had decided to buy a taxi car and license, to better support his young family; now he is completely dependent on this work. Will he be able to pay his car loan to the bank? And does the bank care whether he can pay? Will it pressure people like him to come up with cash he doesn’t have? For a long time I have thought about how the government and economic setup here seems perfectly designed to frustrate and discourage especially the young people, who then leave the country. And this is a particular concern affecting the Armenian community, which is in such dire need of a new wave of honest, courageous and committed young people.
            Putting aside speculation as to who or what might be behind all of this, and who stands to gain the most from a destabilized Lebanon, the idealism and dreams of young and old were expressed symbolically two Sundays ago, when thousands of Lebanese (and others) stood hand-in-hand in a human chain along the Mediterranean coast, from Tyre in the south to Tripoli in the north. It was a festive time, and brought out not only hard-core protestors, but tourists, families, young and old, men and women, visibly illustrating the dream they have of a country they can remain in and contribute to. Perhaps the image of that day will serve as an inspiration to work together to alter the trajectory the country has been on for so long.
“This is our sea!” Citizens are trying to stand up to the illegal
appropriation of the Mediterranean shoreline, in a city with
almost nil public space. (11 Nov. 2019 –
Ain el Mreisseh - Beirut)
            Yesterday a particularly delicious bit of popular protest occurred right next to the All Saints’ Anglican Church, where I preached. The church is struggling to find a pastor who is willing to come and shepherd this flock in Lebanon – and willingly endure all that one must here as part of the package. Nearby, next to the renowned St. George Bay, is a privately-owned bit of seaside which protestors took over, bringing their picnic blankets and breakfast, their fishing rods and swimming trunks. They said, “This is our sea, and we are going to enjoy it.” It appeared that they were prepared to bring their soap and towels and bathe there as well. Meanwhile, the church bulletin carried this unintentional commentary announcing a planned lecture / workshop: “The Life You’ve Always Wanted – cancelled until further notice.”
            As I traveled back home this morning and passed by the seaside showrooms usually displaying the latest and most expensive Porsches, Land Rovers, Lamborghinis, Jaguars and the like, I noticed something had changed: their glass-fronted showrooms were barren of vehicles. It’s clear that they already took steps to protect their valuable assets – those half-a-million dollar vehicles that no mere mortal in Lebanon could even dream to own. But there are plenty of people who just love to exhibit what they are able to (or appear able to) possess. It gives me pause to think that the cost of just one of those hunks of metal and plastic could lift one or two of our Armenian Evangelical schools free and clear of debt.
Garbage bins bearing the scars of the ashes and flames of the
beginning of the uprising. (9 Nov. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Drawing near to our home on the usually busy highway (today was a national holiday for the Prophet’s Birthday; plus, many gas stations are closed for lack of gasoline stocks, so the roads were practically empty), the bus approached the Électricité du Liban building. Around the entire perimeter fence was black bunting covering it, obstructing the view in or out, giving the entire block a funereal look. And blocking the street alongside were protesters in tents, vowing to stay there until the company, which receives the lion’s share of the government’s budget, provides 24-hour a day electricity. This, thirty years after the end of the Lebanese civil war.
            This morning’s taxi driver had gone to his bank last week to withdraw a sizeable amount of money from his account. No matter what he told them, they refused to release more than a small amount. So he resorted to yelling and screaming; he didn’t care what others in the bank thought. The manager sat him and his brother down, brought them coffee, tried to change their minds, and finally agreed to release a larger amount, but over a few days. This “show” is playing in bank branches throughout the country, and so the bank employee syndicate has declared that they are all going on strike as of tomorrow, until the country settles down. Yet those who have the strings in their hands are not in to be found in local branches, as we note every time someone of influence comes on TV to hold a press conference.
Some apropos theological reflection on the meaning
of this struggle. (26 Oct. 2019 – Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            To take our minds off of the struggles of the Lebanese, we need only turn our heads a bit eastward, to see the sordid drama playing out there. Just one example is the news of the so-called “Islamic State” (The Reboot) today claiming its latest accomplishment, in the ambush and targeted murder of the (unarmed) Armenian Catholic Community Head of Qamishly, Fr. Hovsep Bedoyan and his father, as they were driving to visit the Armenian Catholic flock in Deirezzor. The IS also set off a bomb in front of his church in Qamishly at about the same time they gunned him down in his car. Before his arrest and murder Jesus quoted the prophet Zechariah, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Mt. 26.31). This is the intent of those committing these acts – them, their sponsors, and their enablers. But rather than answer in kind, we instead pray that wherever shepherds and leaders are struck down, or when people flee in fear or discouragement, that God will provide leadership, renewing and refreshing the witness of his faithful children.
            Complementing today’s events in Syria is this week’s Turkey/US Presidential Mutual Admiration Society meeting in Washington, D.C. Do we all remember what happened last time this pas de deux took place, two years ago? How the Turkish security detail brutalized American protestors on U.S. soil, and not only escaped the country through “diplomatic immunity”, but had the charges against them dropped? It reminds us that corruption is not just a Lebanese problem, and that Turkey’s ethnic cleansing career is alive and well, and not just a thing of the past.
LebCat 29: With all the AUB students away at
protests, work as a window cleaner gets off to a
leisurely start for this cat.
(11 November 2019 – Bliss St. - Beirut)
            Contrary to the impression I may have given up to now, not all is gloomy for us, though. Our mood has been shifted from the weeks of closed schools and banks by the presence (since September) of our new neighbors in the two vacant apartments on our floor. Two young pastoral candidates and their families are here from Armenia, to serve and learn in the Union and among our Armenian Evangelical churches. They are adjusting to the uncertainties of life here while also integrating with the Armenian community and bringing their insights, skills and devotion to God to all who interact with them (a lot of the time, that’s us). What a refreshing change, that utter silence is no longer the norm in our building in the afternoons and evenings!
            I hadn’t much to say in answer to the taxi driver’s question this morning. I have no secret knowledge, nor do I own a crystal ball that tells the future. But as we conversed, I told him, “Things may get worse, I don’t know. But I do know that all of us need to be careful what we say about each other, because in the end, everyone here has to be able to live together.”    [LNB]