Monday, February 17, 2020


32.Exhale (16 Feb. 2020)

A building collapse due to decades of neglect by its owner.
Strangely, the ground-floor bakery survived due to renovations
by its renter. (29 Jan. 2020 – Tabaris, Beirut)
For about four months the country has been holding its breath. Actually, long before that the country had been practicing holding its breath, as the economy and policies of government upon government sagged and sagged over the years, to the point of rupture. This past week the newly-formed cabinet, still the target of some protests, received approval from parliament to begin the work of saving the country from total collapse. Lebanon has always convinced itself that it is too important for the countries of the region and the West to let it fail. And therefore, corruption, theft and mismanagement of the public sector have ruled the day for as long as people can remember. Well, surprise!
            People write and ask us how we are managing with all that’s going on in the country. Aside from the psychic stress everyone endures, we face no particular hardship, due to the special nature of our employment. But how are actual citizens faring? While walking through an upscale neighborhood last week I noticed a grown man standing next to a dumpster carefully going through garbage and removing what was edible to put in his bag. Heretofore I would only see scavengers searching for scrap items to recycle or sell; only after passing him did I realize what I had just seen. He was wise to choose a dumpster in that neighborhood, where the likelihood of good quality and quantity food waste is greater. Yes, poverty is steadily advancing, and is moving more people squarely into nutritional insecurity. This is the picture in the city, anyway.
Upper row shows the early days of the uprising, with mere
barbed wire festooning the Grand Serail and Banks St.
Lower row shows the serious concreting of the centers of
government. (Jan. & Feb. 2020 – Riad el Solh - Beirut)
            Among the political elite – and there’s an overabundance of them (too bad Lebanon can’t export them to raise a little cash allay part of the national debt) – it is in fashion to say, “Oh, I’m also against corruption. We need to join together and find out where all these stolen funds are, and make new laws, blah, blah, blah.” Lebanese who hear these speeches are disgusted by them, because of the well-known secret that those who today rail against corruption and incompetence are guilty of the very things they decry. The relevance of the Bible appears once again in these circumstances, perfectly described by the Apostle Paul: “You who teach others… do you teach yourself?” (Read Romans 2.21-23 for an excellent assessment of today’s “speechifiers”.)
This is what protestors think of Lebanon’s banks,
and what they did to express that sentiment.
(15 Jan. 2020 – Hamra - Beirut)
            Another casualty of the times is health care. If you have a chronic condition that requires regular medication, you might have to go without it for a couple of weeks until a new supply can be imported. If you are experiencing chest discomfort, you might brush it off and not see a doctor, as the healthcare system does not cover diagnostic assessments. You will eventually see the doctor, but only after an ambulance has brought you to the emergency department. Or the other door across the way. In response to all of this, more than a few doctors and some hospitals have set up weekly low- or no-cost consultation hours to help those falling through the cracks, and a number of them are even waiving their surgical fees for the truly poor. But how much longer can private citizens and organizations bear this burden?
            For years Armenian agencies have been used to taking up the slack as best they can in the absence of proper governmental services. Social service agencies have networked themselves to serve the many low- and middle-class Armenians (plus in recent years quite a few Armenian and non-Armenian refugees from unrest next door and next door to next door). The income lifelines these agencies have relied on are becoming increasingly problematic, while those they are caring for continue their need for care, irrespective of whether its being paid for.
            Also, for decades the only reliable retirement plans for Lebanese have been to either receive remittances from their emigrated children or move overseas to live with them. A third possibility exists: to keep working until you “drop dead”. No wonder there is a lack of seasoned retirees in the churches, a demographic that is the backbone of any healthy ministry.
And this is what many people feel about living
in Lebanon. (15 Feb. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Two days ago was the fifteenth anniversary commemoration of the assassination of PM Rafiq Hariri. Sevag, Maria and I were here at the time of that explosion, and we each have our memories of that momentous day. Schools, government offices and businesses close annually in observance of the day (and not because of St. Valentine). This year’s event featured the recently-resigned PM and political heir of his assassinated father, working the crowd as if addressing a campaign rally. The event also featured a video review of what’s happened to the country and its economy for the past 30 years, with the main message of: “It wasn’t my fault”. Each new event that occurs just makes this tragi-comedy more… interesting (for those drama fans out there).
            Actually, political assassinations are a way of life here. If you look up “Assassinated Lebanese” you’ll find a whole page dedicated to this, listing at least 36 public figures eliminated here in the past 100 years. And this doesn’t include attempts that only maimed their targets. If the government declared a holiday for each assassination, my guess is that an entire extra month the country would be closed for business!
Offstage at the C.E. youth event, anxiously reviewing their
lines, right? (11 Jan. 2020 – Armenian Evangelical Church
of Ashrafieh, Geitawi - Beirut)
            Lest it appear all gloom-and-doom here, in the midst of all of this the Armenian community is managing to continue its spiritual, educational and cultural output. Recently the Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal announced an initiative to develop the teaching and use of Western Armenian in Lebanon, which, followed by Syria, are the only places in the world where Western Armenian is a viable, daily language of family, education, and commerce. It may seem strange to westerners, or to those steeped in western thinking, that one of the callings of the Armenian church in all its forms is to maintain a strong cultural sense as it goes about its spiritual mission. Although it is valid throughout the Diaspora, it is nearly impossible to see by those who embrace the majority culture. For them, it appears that the church should be on a purely spiritual mission, often not realizing how their own Christian outlook is so deeply grounded in the dominant culture surrounding them.
            In January Armenian Evangelical youth presented (in Armenian) a post-Christmas view of the main players in Jesus’ birth narratives, reflecting not only on what was to come for them, but also helping young people think about what is to come right here where they are, and what their attitude of faith should be. I was grateful to be involved in the planning, and was thrilled to see the church filled with over 150 youth that night.
LebCat 32: This is my laptop now, since you refuse to give me
lap space. (24 Jan. 2020 – the late Beirut Cat Café,
Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Two nights ago a newly-published booklet containing a dozen photos and lyrics of the great Gomidas (you can look him up under “Komitas”) had its public release. The main speaker, Shaghig Khudaverdian, a lecturer at Haigazian University, who stated that the essential task for any people wishing to survive is to speak their own language and sing their own songs, and thereby continue to breathe on this earth. And as if to demonstrate this, three different Armenian school choirs (including Armenian Evangelical) took turns on stage to sing selections from Gomidas’ pen. Afterward, I had the honor of joining Armenian Apostolic and Armenian Catholic representatives in congratulating the three choral conductors, and then dedicating the publication by pouring wine over it (in Armenian the word for this literally means “wine-dedication”).
            So, here’s a toast, which in many languages, including Armenian, goes: “To life!”   [LNB]

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