Wednesday, April 29, 2020


34.Privilege (29 Apr. 2020)
The neighborhood getting disinfected…  every now and then.
(28 Apr. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
I’m going to miss these crystal clear mountain vistas.
            Now that the country is pushing itself to get back to work, the stillness we (who can afford it) have enjoyed is starting to recede into the mist – or the smog – of resumed auto traffic and factory output. The occasional whiffs of rotting garbage will be overtaken by a continual stench of dumps and slaughterhouse aromas. The big fish that a few weeks ago were sighted swimming in the Beirut River will go far, far away, as that waterway resumes its obligatory burden of carrying away toxic and untreated waste into the Mediterranean Sea from small and large riverside operations. The nighttime quiet, interrupted by the occasional passing car or motorcyclist flouting the curfew, and the darkness undisturbed by the garish glare of electronic billboards, all thankfully switched off to minimize advertising expenditures, will likely end all too soon. I will miss hearing the variety of birdsong that heralded the sunrise and celebrated the sunset, creatures praising their Creator, without the din of steel-belted radials on asphalt. It has been a privilege to experience, even for a moment – a fantasy suggestive of how Lebanon once was, or might have been, and could be, only if…
A crisp view looking southeast toward the high-rise hotels in
Sin el Fil. You can actually see the contour of the hills.
(22 Mar. 2020 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
            But the bane of too many cars and too much construction, of appropriation of public land for personal use, of noise and air and sight pollution will make its all-too-soon return, of that we can be sure, as Lebanon struggles back to its feet. And as warmer weather continues its steady encroachment on the cool, pleasant spring air of Lebanon, the heaviness and seriousness of a nation in crisis will present itself once again to a country much worse off due to this compulsory quarantine. Now, we will get back to an awareness of the hunger and the despair and the crashing and burning economy, and the protests that never really went away. A “post-corona” world for this and other second- and third-tier nations across the globe will reveal itself as a yet-deeper and ongoing nightmare, a dark and fearful status quo. Yet for wealthy nations who are able to bounce back from the current economic crash of this year’s corona-life, it will eventually become just a fading memory from which they will want to “learn lessons”.
A “socially-distant” visit is nearly as enjoyable as a video
conference for people who need to hug when they see
each other. (25 Mar. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Lebanon has been showing up in some international news outlets recently. It has been highlighted as a country that has managed the pandemic quite well, despite being in a disastrous economic state. The Prime Minister recently noted that the effort expended to slow the pace of this virus has diverted the cabinet from dealing with the very real, immediate and long-term perils of the country. Nearly half of the population is currently facing hunger, over half is unemployed, education is in a shambles, and the anger of the people, simmering since the curfew was imposed, has boiled back up. Rock-throwing, burning banks, blocking roads – albeit with masks and gloves – has resumed. The pound is now worth about a third of its previous value, and with each new day its worth is even less. As an Armenian community we wonder what the fate of our schools and institutions will be, with no money to operate them, no ability to generate income, and no easy way to utilize monetary gifts from abroad. All of this concerns basic needs, not privileges: food, employment, education, health care, and cultural identity.
A candle of remembrance on our balcony, on the eve of
Armenian Martyrs’ Day. (23 Apr. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            The “Centennial+5” of the Armenian Genocide was commemorated amid the unusual restrictions of these days. All the massive gatherings that characterize April 24 the world over were transformed into an evocative silence. Absent were the massive crowds ascending the hill to the monument in Yerevan, Armenia, “Dzidzernagapert” (which translates to “Fortress of Swallows”), and it practically became once more the haunt of birds. The creativity of Armenia’s organizers came out, though, as a series of musicians and singers took to a stage on the walkway leading to the eternal flame and performed throughout the night – for eight hours – while people throughout the world watched from their homes. Here in Beirut, as in many Middle Eastern cities, the observance was markedly different than other years. In the windy night air we lit candles at our balconies and listened as church bells were rung for 10 minutes, honoring the lives lost and the lives rebuilt. Somehow, with all of these obstacles and circumstances, or perhaps because of them, this year’s Armenian Martyrs’ Day seemed to matter more. It was a privilege to stand outside in the cold and see flickering candles of other Armenians, children and grandchildren of survivors, on windowsills in Khalil Badawi and Nor Marash.
This mannequin will be safe from the virus.
(20 Apr. 2020 – Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
            “Privilege” is a fairly sensitive term these days, especially in a country like the U.S., which continues to struggle with the issue of racial and economic disparity, starkly visible to those on the lower edge and nearly invisible to others inhabiting higher levels. I’d rather not call it “white privilege”, but rather “inherited privilege”. And it makes me wonder if those in Turkey realize they are the beneficiaries of the Turkish form of “inherited privilege”. So much of what they enjoy is as a result of those who were branded enemies of the nation, expelled from their homes and towns, driven to their deaths, and their properties and goods appropriated by those eager to enjoy what they perceived as “Armenian privilege” (can you say, “Incirlik”?). The words of politicians ring so very hollow, when they attempt to commemorate the Whatever-you-want-to-call-it Day, merely in order to avoid having to hold the feet of the privileged to the fire, so as to avoid offending an erstwhile “ally” and lose their privileges. Such a strange effect this “privilege” thing has on people.
            Too much ruminating for one post, of course.
LebCat 34: This creature actually looks quite accustomed
to the whole social distancing thing. (8 Apr. 2020 –
Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            But something wonderful has emerged from being forced to minister to Armenian Evangelical Churches via the Internet – we came to the preparation of Sunday morning broadcasts, with songs, scriptures and sermons. This has happily drawn our churches, pastors and people together as a single audience, spanning seven Middle Eastern countries, plus Armenia, plus France, plus the U.S. and Canada, to enjoy the message of hope in their mother tongue, Armenian. I am grateful to God to be here in Beirut, playing a part in all of this, and to hear testimonies of people who have been (for a number of reasons) far from the worshiping community now being drawn into Christian fellowship. It’s almost as if God knew something like this was going to happen, no?   [LNB]

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Cue the Locusts

33.Cue the Locusts (31 Mar. 2020)
It’s spring, but nobody’s going anywhere these days.
(24 Feb. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
Here in Lebanon we look with amazement at a panicking world that, upon realizing that the novel coronavirus was not going to remain a “Chinese disease”, began by decrying the enforced confinement and “social distancing” intended to slow the advance of this nemesis, because of the perceived injuries to their liberties. The puzzlement here continued as the reality of this pandemic set in, and country after country realized that their economies were going into a deep pit because people were unable to work and therefore were cut off from the income they relied on. It may sound callous, but Lebanese, who have been in an economic downward spiral for the last several years, thanks to the greed and incompetence of their leaders, exploded with rage in October that they were not going to take it anymore. It shut down the country and the already abysmal economy, sending banks into panic over the danger to their usurious profits, whereupon they took it upon themselves to prohibit depositors from withdrawing more than a couple hundred dollars a month. The service industry, already limping along due to the lack of tourism, saw nearly a thousand restaurants close in Beirut alone, schools lost three weeks of instruction due to strikes and road closures, and specters of a return to civil war loomed in the shadows. The country was not on its knees, but rather prostrate on the ground when this virus became a local reality. How much farther down can you get?
The list of coming events at a nearby restaurant.
(23 Mar. 2020 – Qobaiyat - Beirut)
            I hope that no one would wish this situation on another, here or in any country. But it’s very tempting to say to the world, “So, how does it feel?” To face each day with fear, uncertain of what the future brings, wondering if death will snatch your friends, loved ones or even your own life? Yet there are so many people who face much greater trials than what most in the affluent world are struggling to comprehend. It is very easy to comprehend in lands under occupation, where walls are built to protect privileges. It is very easy to comprehend in places where refugees are used as political pawns. It is very easy to comprehend by those today continuing their jobs, with or without masks or gloves, who know that when the government says “lockdown” and “curfew”, it is effectively telling this subsistence-level stratum to starve to death. As many have commented, if rich people were to die from hunger, the world would find the will, the creativity and the resources to end that scourge. But those 9 million who die each year from hunger-related reasons remain out of the spotlight.
Not how a school playground is supposed to look in the
middle of the day. (24 Mar. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Oh, did I mention? We are under a nightly curfew. The government announced, and is enforcing, a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew throughout the country. This is in addition to closing all “non-essential” businesses, that is, anything that does not sell food or medicine. And if your water tank is leaking (every household has a water tank on the roof because of the sporadic delivery of water, 30 years after the Civil War ended… sporadic, like all the other utilities), well, you won’t be able to call someone to repair it. Anyway, he might not have the parts to do repairs because the banks have had a 5-month stranglehold on the capital that is needed to import goods.
How I spent my 16th birthday – telling “Dad
jokes” at a youth/veteran C.E. youth gathering.
(29 Feb. 2020 – Armenian Evangelical Church
of Ashrafieh, Geitawi - Beirut)
            The school year has taken a body blow in this crisis-upon-crisis mode we call “the new normal”. Administrators and teachers have hastily transitioned to “online learning”, a tenuous format that might enable learning to occur. When the October protests dragged on, schools were already beginning to implement some of these methods, and it increased as the months dragged on, the strikes continued and regularly turned into violent clashes between protestors and various security forces (there are so many here I can’t keep track). Yet students as well as adults are learning quite a bit from this current in-house confinement. In some cases children are in a healthier environment. No longer do they chant, “Revolution! Revolution!” (“Thawra! Thawra!”) when being let out for recess, as if it were a game. Others are at the mercy of their abusive or neglectful parents/guardians. Those who care for the latter, such as the Armenian Evangelical Boarding School in Ainjar, constantly carry that burden in prayers for God’s mercy.
            The last couple of “normal” things I did were to deliver a talk on Hrant Dink, the Armenian journalist and activist who was assassinated in broad daylight in front of his newspaper office in Istanbul, and to attend a a wonderful lecture on Gomidas (or Komitas). Ironically, among the 300 of us sitting in the hall where that lecture/concert took place on March 8 were religious and community leaders and even a cabinet member, only one day after the government told people to avoid all crowds.
A tall tree at a nearby park, uprooted by gale-force winds
on Mar. 12. (25 Mar. 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            Maria and I were already doing most of our work online since we arrived in Beirut. Except for the worship services we attend and where I assist. And except for the “Armiss” choir that I direct. And except for the committees in which we serve. Now, none of that is happening. In their place we have video conferences and work online from home. The choir rehearsals are suspended. And in place of Sunday worship services in various churches the UAECNE (our church Union) has begun broadcasting a single weekly pre-recorded program, which I am producing. (Look it up on YouTube under UAECNE.) Pastors are taking turns preaching the sermon, and I am including a variety of recorded hymns and anthems in Armenian. It is an interesting initiative that will likely continue in some form as an audiovisual ministry, and will find a home on the Union’s website (coming soon, I hope), connecting people not only across the region, but helping those who have emigrated elsewhere to maintain some connection with their roots.
LebCat 33: Look, I don’t care what the
government says about restaurants closing.
I know you’re in there. I can smell the
rotisserie chicken, OK? (13 Mar. 2020 –
Geitawi - Beirut)
            On March 12, as we were beginning our days/weeks/months of seclusion, Lebanon and the region experienced several hours of winds at speeds between 100 and 140 km/hr. The roaring sound woke us all up, as objects were being tossed from one rooftop to another. The huge flag flying on top of a nearby office building was torn from its mounts and ended up somewhere far away, perhaps in the Mediterranean? The following day everyone was out surveying the extensive damage throughout the country. Strangely, though our electricity was never interrupted – just our sleep.
            The news out of the northeast of Africa is not good. A devastating plague of locusts is destroying crops and threatening famine to countless people. Could that be next on the agenda for Lebanon? We watch… and pray.   [LNB]