Sunday, November 29, 2020

Know Thyself

40.Know Thyself (29 November 2020)

No Independence Day celebrations on Nov. 22,
but a large, hand-painted flag was hung over
the damaged buildings in central Beirut
(24 Nov. 2020 - Beirut)
Sunday morning in Beirut… the last day of a two-week lockdown, with hints of more to come

after the New Year’s holiday, since the COVID-positive test percentages are not decreasing. A sunny day, and all is still, as driving is forbidden on Sundays. No sounds but the loudspeakers broadcasting church services, mostly the Armenian Apostolic liturgy from churches in Nor Hadjin, Khalil Badawi, even across the Beirut River from Bourj Hammoud. Church bells and chants… and the sound of Israeli drones. They’re up there practically every day; yet on quiet days like today their sound can even be heard inside, behind closed doors and windows.

            My mind drifts from our balcony in Beirut to those Armenian soldiers in Artsakh (the correct historical name; but if you are a big fan of Soviet nomenclature, you can go ahead and call it “Nagorno-Karabakh”), soldiers in their trenches and posts, some of whom we have a close personal connection to, trying to fight a conventional war against drones similar to what we hear all the time. Bought from the same country, not coincidentally, as well as from another nemesis of Armenians, Turkey. The Turkish ones are made from components imported from all over the world, Europe, Canada, U.S., and others. All sold to countries that hold their hand over their heart and swear that the technology will never, ever, ever be used against unarmed civilians.

Businesses, large and small, closing
permanently. So, why bother replacing
window glass? (31 Oct. 2020-Accaoui, Beirut)

Oh, it was a bloody war, and many civilized and uncivilized countries had a part in it and bear responsibility, if they do any self-examination: those who indignantly protested against it (but did little else), and those who said, “Hey, Armenians, don’t take it personally – it’s just business”; that sponsor and importer of Islamist militias and Turkic settlers into the Caucasus; those who promoted the anti-Armenian propaganda and lies emanating from Azerbaijan and Turkey; and not to forget those who had other “strategic” interests to pursue and couldn’t really be bothered by the dismemberment of an ancient people from their soil. It was just another news story in a media and online environment that has many interesting wars and disasters and flashpoints to flit to and from. Everyone in the news-ish industry was able to leave it behind after the infamous Armenian-Azeri-Russian cease-fire document of November 10.

All 970 of my office books, back in our moving
boxes from 2017, waiting for the refurbishing
to finish (2020-11-20 - Geitawi, Beirut)

But Armenians haven’t moved on. They can’t. The sorrow, shame, disgust, self-loathing, recriminations, protests, calls for resignation, fund-raising, speech-making, mourning, desperation, search for abducted soldiers and citizens, belated attempts to have countries recognize the Republic of Artsakh, appeals to human rights groups, appeals to cultural preservation organizations, more sorrow, more shame, and on and on… have swallowed up Armenians’ souls worldwide. I have felt that we Armenians are now living inside a horror movie whose plot continues to unfold, with no ending and no credits. Like many others, I am wishing to awake from this nightmare and find that it was not, in fact, a re-creation of the human devastation of the 1915-1923 Genocide and the subsequent decades of cultural genocide. It’s quite strange, when you think about it—complaining about being in a nightmare while unable to sleep properly.

Maria showing the neighbor girls how to knit,
while one of the moms awaits some news
from Artsakh (15 Nov. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

In the context of this national disaster I am forced to come to terms with the ancient saying, “Know thyself”. Before knowing your friend or your enemy, it is necessary to know yourself deeply – what drives you, what confounds you, what blinds you. Knowing one’s friend or even one’s enemy can provide an important window into this crucial self-knowledge. And since Armenians apparently have more of the latter than the former, it would follow that knowing ourselves should be a fairly direct matter, one to which we can readily apply ourselves. However, this 44-day war clearly showed how little we know our friends (such as they are), or our enemies (who were more than we realized), or even ourselves (who think that songs and poetry can win wars). Our flawed understanding of how to live in this sin-filled world expressed itself grotesquely in the self-confident misinformation shared with Armenians the world over each evening by the army’s press spokesman. He invariably ended with the words: “Don’t worry – we are winning.” It also appeared very clearly in the self-justifying speeches of Armenian leaders after the cease-fire treaty was signed. It was more subtly expressed in the three decades of public theft and unaccountability since Armenia’s “independence”, and in their lack of preparation for this inevitable attack by Azerbaijan and Turkey. It was seen in the century-and-a-half old, romantic, self-deluded attitude of certainty that the West will come to the rescue of Armenians “because of our dark eyes”. It is seen now in the rapid implementation of road construction, cultural destruction and appropriation, and ongoing propaganda disinformation spread by Azerbaijan. It is visible in the dazed finger-pointing and calls of “traitor” by one Armenian to another. We have not known ourselves or our weaknesses; we only see our accomplishments. And we have blinded ourselves with the pride that we are somehow valuable to this world’s powers that be.

Christmas trees on each balcony, but no glass
(24 Nov. 2020 - Beirut)

Not only this, but our theology has reflected that same misunderstanding. We have a long list of why we think God will play favorites and give us advantages that he won’t afford other nations. This is not to say that we do not have a unique, valuable, irreplaceable cultural and religious heritage, a history that predates the “winners” of this war, and a multiplicity of things of which we can rightly be proud. But that cannot be the basis of a hope-filled, faith-filled, self-giving Christian nation. As well, none of those treasures or that history can form the basis of an intelligent, balanced, and farsighted strategy of nation-building. Will we know ourselves more fully as a result of this catastrophe? Even if it only be “as through a mirror, dimly”, we have no choice but to make the effort.

The bird never stood a chance.
(26 Nov. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

Watching the American election from overseas was akin to watching a fan’s amateurish remake of “Survivor”. Days upon days, weeks upon weeks of bewildering events and announcements before and following Election Day provided an unwelcome diversion from the depressing news that was crushing us – and only us, it seems – each day. Whatever transpires in Washington these next several weeks will do little to improve the lot of the millions around the world, struggling just to stay alive, including Lebanon and Armenia. Meanwhile, will America come to know itself, and see who and what it is clearly from within; and also learn something from those on the outside, from those upon whom it makes not just an impression, but an indelible imprint for good or ill?

            Here in Lebanon the same ancient question applies: do we know ourselves? Do we understand what drives us to see some things and ignore other things, both good and bad? Do we note that we are being made to play by “rules” that have been at work since the end of the Civil War, rules that keep communities divided and competing with each other for privileges? A few days ago the caretaker Interior Minister said, “95% of Lebanon’s judiciary is corrupt”, to which, tragi-comically the judiciary responded, announcing that it was going to prosecute him for making such a statement. As Armenians say, “If I say ‘leb’, you should understand ‘leblebou’ (chick peas).” It was his polite way of saying that the system is rotten to the core. Will anything be done to remedy this? Can anything actually be done? To which I say, “Who runs Sicily these days?”

LebCat 40 - "Don't make me get up, I just found a
nice, warm spot." (19 Nov. 2020 - Geitawi, Beirut)

Following the disaster here in Lebanon the cabinet had enough integrity to resign. They knew that they no longer had credibility with its citizens, and could not in good conscience stay in their positions. The theater that subsequently is (still) playing out here in the capital is another story, a story in which “everyone, that means everyone (kullon, ya3ni kullon)” is back on stage. Compare and contrast this with what happened following the strategic disaster in Armenia… What more can I say?

            Somehow it seems appropriate that in this maelstrom we were able to gather with our neighbors (including our three families in our building – a sort of permanent “quarantine”) for a Thanksgiving meal, complete with a turkey imported from the U.S. Tensions and uncertainties were temporarily suspended, even though we all felt the sorrow over the death of our neighbor’s brother during military service in Shushi. We enjoyed the blessings God has granted us and knew this about ourselves: during this season of isolation we have not been abandoned by God or by one another.   [LNB]