Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Usual

36.The Usual (30 June 2020)
Uneven stones and a gutter in the middle of the road were
replaced by a sensible street surface, courtesy of some
international funding. (13 June 2020 – Nor Marash –
Bourj Hammoud)
Imagine you, and all the people like you, got used to centuries of living your life in fear. But now your circumstances have changed. You get a chance to live in freedom. Before, you had to speak like those around you spoke, and follow the rules of the majority, the rules of the land, and not show any sign of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Now you are in a place where you are able to speak freely, build homes and businesses without worrying if they will be burned down, or whether your lives and your children’s lives will be in danger. Yes, there are some like you in other lands who still live in those conditions, but there are many more who now enjoy the freedom to flourish and grow. There have been hardships and setbacks over the years, but things are moving forward, and you feel yourself a full-fledged citizen. Still, in order to function as a minority you have to act and talk like the majority, especially if you have an opportunity to move outside your enclave.
            But recently the rhetoric in the land has changed. Some people are emboldened to speak out against you, to say that you are not full-fledged citizens, that you should limit yourself to your traditional neighborhoods. They add that those who oppressed you in the past had a right to do so, and that perhaps oppression and even attacks should be reinstituted, in order to “purify” the land, to make it more suitable for the majority. Mass gatherings are being held, and the flag of your oppressor is boldly waved as people shout praises to the names of the past, names that should only be associated with ethnic cleansing and second-class citizenship for anyone outside the ruling majority.
The revolution is on hold? Maybe, but the window washers
are not. (17 Jun 2020 – Beirut)
            Your own community cautiously raises its voice against this hate speech, and some of the majority join you in solidarity. But the winds have already fanned the flames of hate and oppression to the point of igniting open conflict, intended to draw you in to a losing scenario. Will cooler heads prevail? Or will the frustration of this “second-class” community erupt into violence?
            This is not an imaginary scenario. It is not an historical flashback to 1930s Germany, or 1950s (or perhaps present-day) America. It is not merely a sketch of the Ottoman/Turkish Empire from the late 19th century until now; it is a description of what is happening today in Lebanon. Yet it is the same ones behind the inflammatory events, hate-filled rhetoric and Turkish flag-waving; and it is the same Western powers continuing to cast indifferent gazes, or even give an occasional wink in abdication of the defense of human rights for the pursuit of strategic interests. Additionally, it makes me wonder whether that rig being built offshore, which strangely never seems to make the local news, has anything to do with all of this.
How silly of me to forget to leave my gun at home! Thanks
for the reminder. (17 June 2020 – American University
Hospital- Beirut)
            Following recent reports, locally as well as abroad from places like the U.S., has made me realize the necessity of understanding and confronting one’s own history. It is sobering to see so many people in conflict with each other, unable to read together, as equal citizens, the sad and forgotten and pain-filled pages of their own past, and then eventually reconcile to it and to one another. Meanwhile, iconoclasm proceeds apace, and not only are the statues of those deemed offensive toppled, but nearly any statue within view. It appears that in some quarters the just struggle for equal rights is being overtaken by the struggle for self-righteousness. When an offense is uncovered (and who among the human race – save for one – does not have a “past” to repent of?), the person ceases being a human and turns into a target. Soon there will be no one left to topple. Soon I fear that “history” will cease to exist or evolve as a product of dialogue, and will be relegated to “your history” and “my history”, much as we now end discussions with reference to “your truth” and “my truth” and other similar ways we avoid reflection, self-examination and growth.
Spring came and went, and we almot missed the
flowering trees! (26 June 2020 – Hamra - Beirut)
            We’re getting out and about a lot more than before. I visited what used to be called “West Beirut” for the first time in months last week, and noticed so many businesses dusty and shuttered. Strangely (or not), the curfews and what-not have not gotten in the way of construction (and destruction of heritage sites). A cursory glance around tells you that we’ve moved away from “lockdown mode” towards to the usual. I don’t say “the normal”, because so much in Lebanon needs improvement in order to qualify as “normal”. The other day as I was crossing the bridge from Beirut to Bourj Hammoud, I looked down at the Beirut River and instead of the clear stream I had been enjoying for several months, I saw once again the previously ubiquitous floating debris and waste headed to the Mediterranean. Like the rivers, roadways were also smooth-sailing these past months, but now they are back to being the usual – overcrowded – roadways. Such conflicting thoughts swirl around my mind – glad that workplaces (the surviving ones, anyway) are reopened; sad that people are back to “the usual” – polluting the natural environment.
            Despite it all, once the airport reopens (planned for tomorrow – we think) there will be an anticipated small or great crush of people wanting to come back to Lebanon for a visit. We’re all waiting to see whether the summer will bring a slight economic uptick, or will merely crown the country with a viral uptick. Meanwhile, round and round the local currency goes, where it stops (and who keeps spinning it), nobody knows. More than a few shopkeepers prefer to keep their stores shuttered rather than have to buy or sell in currency worth 1/3 of its previous value. Or was that 1/8 of its former value?
            Another thing that we anticipate when the airport is open for business again will be the departure of many Lebanese. When browsing a bookshelf full of old books being given away for free at a local Armenian bookstore, the clerk told me that more and more people are donating their libraries for giveaways. Others can now enjoy so many valuable books without charge. Sounds altruistic in this terrible economy, right? Until you ask the question, “Why?”
LebCat 36: Feline secret of social distancing: sit where
no one can sit near you. (15 Feb. 2019 – Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            The other day I read an insightful article about the importance of the Armenian Church’s See of Cilicia in the whole dynamic of the Armenian diaspora. The author called this patriarchal center, relocated here to Lebanon after the Genocide, a resource and an anchor, something to be strategically valued by all Armenians no matter their “affiliations”. Yet one of the reactions to the article seemed to write off the Armenian community in the Middle East as if it were a “business loss”. The commenter talked about “conserving resources”, since nobody’s grandchildren would be speaking Armenian anyway. This type of thinking (sometimes overtly expressed) arises from a lack of vision, and demonstrates capitulation to the pressures of living as a minority, gasping for air because of the dominant culture’s witting or unwitting pressure on your breathing. Our desire to survive and thrive must be based on a vision of a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29.11), trusting in the One who can raise the dead.
            Tomorrow is the 174th anniversary of the Armenian Evangelical Church’s founding, and I’m once again preparing a YouTube broadcast for the church Union here. Hope and a future is what we strive for as Maria and I continue helping our church play an important part in the vitality of one small people group called Armenians. Though only a few realize the importance of even the smallest creature in nature's ecosystem, it does not diminish that creature’s need to continue for the sake of all. Just so our small nation, and our small church within that nation, and this world.   [LNB]

Monday, June 1, 2020

Sa Koronyan

35.“Sa Koronyan” (31 May 2020)

A March windstorm toppled the cross from the
red cupola of the Armenian Evangelical Church.
(31 May 2020 – Nor Marash - Bourj Hammoud)
Over and over again, we are hearing from medical and epidemiological experts telling us, to the best of their knowledge and experience, that we are going to be living with, not defeating the Coronavirus. It will be just one more thing that we have to take into account in our daily routine. What that means in terms of our lifestyles, our long-range plans, the economies and habits of families and countries, is still to be determined. How it will decimate minority communities, is also to be determined, although we are already getting a taste of what is to come. The Armenian community here in the Middle East, such a crucial guarantor of the continued existence of the Armenian people the world over, is facing daily traumas as it fights for its existence. In the past few days we lost yet another Armenian school, the St. Agnes Armenian Catholic School in Bourj Hammoud, while two weeks ago the last Armenian School in Jordan closed its doors. Yesterday I read that one of the two local Armenian FM radio stations was forced to go off-air and continue (hopefully) as an Internet-only station. In at least as critical a situation as we face today, Middle East Armenian families a hundred years ago went without many things, including shoes and new clothing, in order to maintain their schools and culture, and they produced vibrant and tough generations. But today people’s values and priorities are… not the same.
Experts report that a majority of mini-pizzas are displeased with
the direction of the economy. (9 May 2020 – Watwat - Beirut)
            We were scheduled for a few months of home assignment (or “furlough” in missionary parlance) in the U.S. later this year, beginning in late summer, in order to travel and inform interested church groups about the work of our partner organizations (the church union and the university). Now, all of that has come under question, and our sending body is studying the situation, examining what governments and the air travel industry will do to recover from their current state of disarray. Making any sort of prediction about travel, or saying anything else about what life will look like “A.C.” is a fool’s errand. (“B.C.” = “Before Corona/ Covid-19”; yet although it is inaccurate, I use “A.C.” = “After Corona”; it’s a better abbreviation than “W.C.” = “With Corona”, no?)
Reaching out to those in need now takes the form of leaving
clothing and shoes where they can be taken without
drawing attention to oneself. (25 May 2020 –
Khalil Badawi - Beirut)
            Tomorrow Maria will be venturing outside our home for the first time in 2 months, for a health checkup and a stop at Haigazian University. It will be interesting to hear her observations on this “release from captivity” when she returns. I know that I often dread venturing outside our home, particularly with all the protective items I am forced to wear. The Lebanese government now mandates wearing a mask when going outside, and is stressing the need to keep infection numbers low because of the lack of hospital capacity for those needing respiratory care for the virus.
            Nevertheless, my excursions outside the house have been more frequent, and not always negative. Three weeks ago a friend was driving me to do some grocery shopping, and I asked him to run by our old neighborhood, where we lived 20 years ago. What a refreshing visit, seeing old friends – the baker and the greengrocer – who asked about Maria and the boys by name, and were truly happy for this quick visit (and exhibited boundless patience with my stumbling Arabic). When we see how much we matter to people like this, who seek nothing of us but friendship, that’s when we feel truly alive, truly connected to this place.
Coronahair and coronahaircut. Apparently the barber
was quite satisfied with the job he did.
(29 May 2020 – Geitawi - Beirut)
            If it is permissible to say, I intensely dislike this plethora of online meetings and digital gatherings that are sometimes touted as the “new normal”. I doubt that it’s a generational thing, because I know of young people who say the same thing, and like me do not reject the technology, but do not also consider it universally applicable. The majority of communication that is done nonverbally is virtually (pun intended) eliminated from these electronic methods, rendering human interaction shallower, and distances farther. It’s not a small world after all. My sister as well as my son, both school teachers yet of different generations, realize how little real teaching and learning happens in this “virtual classroom space”. They know very well how struggling students need the physical presence of an instructor who can “read” their body language and step in with the necessary support, encouragement and creativity to help them move forward. This also is the case with online worship experiences, something in which I have been heavily involved in the past 2-1/2 months. We are enduring the pain of human separation, a pain that will remain for the foreseeable future, as long as “social distancing” is required.
LebCats 35: Lebanon’s success in stemming the
spread of the virus is due to high levels of
cooperation – even among cats – with social
distancing principles. (31 May 2020 –
Geitawi- Beirut)
            A fun project that came about because of a need for musical content in our worship broadcasts was a “virtual choir”. For the nine participants it was our first foray into this type of production, where the musicians, each in a different part of the world, collaborated in recording a song. Listening to the piano track we sang our parts into our computers or phones – some of us singing more than one part. Then the files went back to Washington state from Oregon, greater LA, Philadelphia and Beirut to the producer/ accompanist, who turned them all into one wonderful online vocal ensemble. Way to go Shahan, Arek, Sako, Palig, Sevag, Garin, Talar and of course Maria and me! Not a bad way to deal with this “A.C.” world!
            As I was walking around Bourj Hammoud recently, searching in vain for an open money-exchange house so that I could obtain local currency and buy some groceries, something struck my ear as one Armenian woman was commiserating with another over the current social and economic situation. She said (in Armenian), “Sa Koronyan yete asang sharounagvi…” (If this Koronya continues like this…). I was past them a few steps before I realized she was not referring to a perfume, but had Armenianized the word “corona”. Maybe the Armenian community will be able to adjust and even thrive in this “A.C.” world after all.   [LNB]