Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Fifth World

37.The Fifth World (15 August 2020)
Ruined windows and doors from the Armenian Evang. Central
High School (8 Aug. 2020 - Geitawi - Beirut)

When I was an unseasoned theological student many moons ago, Maria and I came to Lebanon on a fellowship program for study in a “Third World Country”. That term is now considered uncouth, and is usually replaced by the term “developing country”, referring to those countries lacking the economic, health and educational status of those at the top of the list. Back then I was surprised that Lebanon was even on that list, because I knew it as a prosperous, if war-torn, country. But I was eager to go there (here), to learn the Armenian language and grow in my understanding of being an Armenian and experiencing Armenian Evangelical heritage firsthand. What better place than Beirut, even if it was in the midst of a civil war?

Karma isn't supposed to miss its target, except when it does
(14 Aug. 2020 - Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            Back in the days of the Cold War people spoke about countries belonging to the First World (west of the Iron Curtain), the Second World (the Curtain’s “other” side) and the Third World (no curtain). Decades later, someone came up with the idea of the “Fourth World” to describe stateless people. Yet today, almost four decades later, Lebanon has been violently thrown backwards beyond even the Fourth World to a new category I am creating on the occasion of explosion that devastated probably one third of the capital and environs. Since August 4, here in Beirut we are now living in the Fifth World.

The restaurant's name is "This is how the world
is" (14 Aug. 2020 - Mar Mikhael - Beirut)
            We spent the entire month of July sweating through sleepless nights because the government was unable to purchase untainted fuel for their diesel-powered generating stations, or unable to offload the fuel to the power plants, or was busy suing the Algerian company that sent the bad fuel, or couldn’t broker a deal with the Central Bank to release money for paying for new shipments, or any of a dozen other reasons. The country was receiving 2 to 4 hours a day of electricity, and the rest of the time the plethora of private generators in Lebanon, including the one here at the Union headquarters where we live, were filling in the gap. And also dumping tons of particulates into the air. When 11 p.m. rolled around most generators took a break for the night, leaving us and many others to pretend to sleep while a film of sweat emerged on us like a second skin. That “treatment” lasted over 30 days, and preceded the explosion at the Beirut Port on the evening of August 4th. Strangely, since that fateful date the electric company has been providing full nighttime electricity, with some spotty coverage during the daytime. What, did somebody buy us a miracle? Is this in order to pour cold water on the protests?

Beirut's grain silos, built 1968-1970, which
shielded part of the city from the blast, but leaving
the country with a one-month supply of wheat 
(30 July & 14 Aug 2020)
            Why talk about any of this? Because it is emblematic of the woes the Fifth World imposes on its subjects. At least five decades of massive corruption and ineptitude is now shamefully on display for the world to see. And to take advantage of. Local groups are either decrying or supporting the current government or political system, depending on which power they are pandering to. In this unbelievably bad combination of circumstances (it seems that’s the most logical explanation at this point), and with the arrival of an unending chain of visiting diplomats and their entourages, the local political scene continues to polarize as each group has its turn groveling, and the length of Armenia Street/Mar Mikhael has turned into one huge NGO bazaar. It’s a day of great sorrow and humiliation for Lebanon on many, many levels.

            The deepest sorrow is reserved for the regular, non-ruling-class Lebanese people, who for decades have struggled to cope in this abnormal and exceptionally corrupt environment, and now have the dubious privilege of shedding the greatest amount of blood, sweat and tears as they witness their carefully managed homes, schools, businesses and futures explode then crumble, bit by bit, community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, family by family. Alongside the sorrow for all of this loss there is an outpouring of rage. Some of it is opportunistic rage, but there is also the honest rage against successive iterations of “leaders” and their “handlers”. Lacking an awareness of the common good, their aim continues to be the pursuit of large amounts of wealth by wringing the country dry – or beyond dry. The pool of talented, dedicated young people, including Armenian young people, is evaporating. The country’s lifeblood is draining, leaving a drying swamp.


Part of the traditional character of the
Gemmayzeh area, now in ruins
(14 Aug. 2020 - Beirut)
           But opportunism is still at play, even in the midst of this tragedy. The classic heritage homes in Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, some turned into rubble, others still standing but sorely damaged, are now the target of vultures: the “agents” (called “simsar” in Arabic) who are offering despairing homeowners a little “fresh money” in exchange for these properties. Just as was conspicuously done in post-war Beirut, turning a bustling city center into a wasteland consisting of a couple of giant structures and acres of empty parking lots, today also there is a nascent movement to do the same in these heritage neighborhoods, likely to eventually to fill them with tall, empty buildings. I have to wonder, where does all this construction money come from? Considering today’s moribund Lebanese banking system, they are likely not locally funded.

            Despite our church and youth activities being suspended, and our “gatherings” limited to the ether of the Internet, our son Sevag made his annual trip to be with us. He got PCR-ed before leaving the U.S. and PCR-ed again at the airport upon arrival, but took it all in stride. For him – and

Lego time with Sevag! (19 Jul.  2020 - Geitawi-Beirut)
for us – the important thing was to be together. We did a little touring, most significantly to the Roman ruins at Baalbek, but also spent time at home listening to LPs, reading stories to each other, looking at old pictures, playing the “Pandemic” board game (some dark humor never killed anybody, right?), going to bed at 11 p.m. when the generator got switched off, and enjoying our “extended family” from Armenia here on the top floor of our building. Their little ones took to him quite rapidly for the most part, and “Lego with Sevag” became a highly sought-after activity in our living room. It was our mini Children’s Conference – with one leader and three children!

Glass, glass and more glass; day 1 of cleaning
the apartment (5 Aug. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)
            As if the oddness of this visit were not enough, one evening when we went for a socially-distant visit with the Haidostian family in Haigazian University’s Mugar colonnade, what we at first thought to be an earthquake made the ground shift like a carpet being shaken out, and then a huge boom, and instantly smoke and flying glass filled the air. It was August 4, and we had been spared the terror of being at home, which is a bit over one kilometer from ground zero. By comparison, Haigazian is twice that distance, 2.4 km, from the port explosion site. Whomever we spoke with said the same things: “I thought it was an earthquake.” “I thought a bomb had gone off in the next street.” “I thought an aerial attack had started.” And so for his last two days Sevag joined us in the task of sweeping up shattered glass and assessing the damage. Just as he had shared the 2006 war on Lebanon while visiting us, now also he shared this catastrophe, making this yet another unforgettable trip as he witnessed firsthand Lebanon popping way back into the Fifth World. That’s quite a collection of unforgettables he has.

LebCat 37, poised to enjoy a crunchy morsel
(27 July 2020 - Baalbek)
Early in his visit Sevag was trying to solve a puzzling change in our neighborhood and environs: an absence of cats. I hadn’t noticed it until he pointed it out, and realized that my walks around the area in recent weeks had, in fact, been devoid of felines scurrying away as I passed. This made him wonder, could the rapid increase of poverty and unemployment and the growth of food insecurity in Lebanon have anything to do with these missing cats? Hmmm, makes me wonder, too.   [LNB]