Friday, December 31, 2021

Motion Sickness

Motion Sickness

46.Motion Sickness (31 December 2021)

Awaiting one of our flights out of Philadelphia
(15 Oct. 2021 - Phila. Intl. Airport)

One of the constants of air travel, as well as ground travel, is the ubiquitous plastic-lined bag for the use of those experiencing stomach discomfort while being jostled back and forth, up and down, and side to side in the plane, boat, train, bus or car they are in. It also helps those around them to be able to stay clean and somewhat spared from the odor, though the poor sufferer continues to suffer what is gently referred to as “motion sickness”.

            We have been experiencing a type of “motion sickness” in recent times as we completed our required home assignment and made our way back to Lebanon last week. It was an uneventful flight, except that the airplanes were crowded cheek-to-jowl with travelers, some with masks, including those going to Lebanon. Maria and I lived through five months in the U.S. and Canada of constant travel, constant packing and unpacking, constant calculations of whether the weather would be warm or cold, along with constantly arranging flight and hotel bookings, constantly working on what kind of presentation fits a particular audience, constantly trying to wrap up paperwork and follow up on unfinished tasks in the concluding weeks when we were supposed to be “resting”. Getting back home to Beirut and its daily stresses and misery afforded us a bit of respite from the previous period!

Many ordinary people want to learn, pray and
help Lebanon. (31 Oct. 2021 - Pottstown, Pa.)

            Yet it wasn’t all misery, because we got to meet wonderful, caring people, Armenian and non-Armenian, many of whom were aware of the trials being endured by the Lebanese and the Lebanese-Armenian community. Hearing their questions, seeing their concern and willingness to do something, hearing their words of blessing and being with them in God’s presence was a gift we gratefully received. Yet it was balanced by the exhaustion of upwards of 14,000 mi / 22,000 km of traveling (aside from the 16,000 mi / 25,000 km to actually get to the US and back)! Enviable? Perhaps. I suppose it depends on who is doing the envying.

Getting the word out about Lebanon
(6 Nov 2021 - Belmont, Mass.)

            There is a TV ad that has appeared recently on Lebanese television depicting two young Lebanese boys talking about their dreams, which include going to school. It concludes with a voice-over stating, “Rights should not be just dreams.” Yet the dreams of a preponderance of people around us is not to have Lebanon become a livable country, but to leave Lebanon for a livable country. This “exit strategy” is based on yet a different kind of motion sickness: that of being made sick by a society that never experiences stability, that is continually in motion due to the profit-seeking, power struggles or whims of those in authority, whether locally, regionally or worldwide.

            On Beirut’s streets over the years, in my limited Arabic, I would often hear passersby including numbers in their conversations, assumedly regarding the price of this or that. How I wished that the conversations would revolve around ideas, or culture, or wonder at God’s creation! Today virtually all of the street conversations, and possibly also the private ones, are about the exchange rate, the cost of cheese and medicine, and the impossibility of carrying on in these conditions. One man at the exchange house said, “We’re living in an insane asylum!” I wish that my Arabic had not improved to the point where I could understand this much.

Exciting times on Home Assignment
(6 Dec. 2021 - Broomall, Pa.)

            Economic freefall produces one kind of motion sickness. Seeing dear friends and family members continually zoom away from you (and I’m not referring to screen time) can produce a similar spiritual nausea. When a family, or a community such as the Armenians, conclude that social disintegration is the best route to take, that their children must leave the country, then there is not much that can be said about the hopes for that family’s (or that people’s) future. Even if you are driven by the patriotic emotions that so often cloud Armenians’ judgment about their viability as a people, the consequences of cultural and societal disintegration cannot be dismissed. Many a person will insist on the necessity of laying hold, without delay, of the “promise of a better (economic, educational, health and secure) future elsewhere” – something that is only a promise, not a guarantee. It will apply to some lucky individuals, but what will become of collective identity? What will become of community? What will bring health and strength to the family, that place where individual and collective identity is formed and nurtured? We are in a rush toward “every man for himself”; and the shards of what was a collective hope, a concerted effort to come together to endure hardships and grow in character (such as was seen in the post-Genocide era), will become merely the subject of books and articles that very few read or care to reflect upon. Only a collective awakening to our spiritual and cultural resources can offer us a more hopeful outcome.
It's Christmastime in the city...
(30 Dec. 2021 - Geitawi–Beirut)

            I realize that I enjoy privileges and resources that few around me have. Yet I also have a perspective that many around me lack: that of having experienced the long-term consequences of living in a diaspora situation, in societies that are quite capable of swallowing up and homogenizing the qualities and distinctives that define a people group, including their language, creativity, spirituality, world view, and desire to survive and thrive as a unique entity. The motion sickness that we are all enduring will make it difficult, but all the more crucial, that we together take the long-term into account as well as the short- and medium-term… and listen well to each other.

LebCat 46: You look smashing in red... I mean
on red. (28 Dec. 2021 - Mar Mikhael–Beirut)

            One of the pleasures I enjoyed during “home assignment” was getting back to exercising (which is important, considering how much I enjoyed the pleasures of overeating and gaining weight during that same period). It was a long time since I was able to go to the gym at 6:30 a.m. and get a bit of sweat going. I also got back on the mat at the aikido dojo, but quickly remembered that aspect of warmups that I dread: forward and backward rolls. I dread them because of the dizziness they cause me. But I have learned that the way to work through this sensation is, first of all, to properly position my body to roll; second, to do the rolls more frequently; and third to fix my eye and my mind on a distant, stable point. That long-distance view enables me to be steady when the world seems to be slanted this way or that.

            My prayer for Lebanon, and in particular for the Armenian people, is that we fix our eye on that unchanging Point who does not change (James 1.17), who brings calmness, steadfastness and faith in Christ in the midst of the storm, and who blesses his people in the most difficult of circumstances with the enduring riches of wisdom, truth and love.   [LNB]

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

45.Another World (31 August 2021)

Children's Conference restarted with two one-
day events (KCHAG, Monteverde - 24 July 2021)
It has been two-and-a-half weeks since we left Lebanon for our 5-month “Home Assignment”. The question that dogged us when we told people in Lebanon of our trip (“Are you going to come back?”) is still dogging us here in the U.S., but inverted: “Are you going to go back?” Because things are terrible in Lebanon, and even worse than they were when we flew out, people assume that our (unwise in their estimation) answer must be based only on conditions on the ground. We tell them, “Yes, Lord willing, that is our plan,” since our move there four years ago was also based on the Lord’s guidance above all else. But to those living in this world, we must be unaware of what the situation is on the ground – or in the news.

Enjoying a scavenger hunt at the conference
(KCHAG, Monteverde - 20 July 2021)
            When we think of Lebanon, we do not first of all think of the rampant corruption, the hoarding of resources, those seeking a profit from peoples’ misfortune, the long hours without electricity, the lack of sleep in the hot summer nights, the anxiety over finding food and medicine, the terrible banking system, the destruction of last year’s explosion and much, much more… We think of the people, the friends and loved ones we have, the children and young people, our colleagues, the small businesses we frequent, the churches, schools and institutions where we serve, the Armenian community we are a part of, and so much more. We also look to the coming years, to “what’s next”, the challenges ahead, the opportunity to add our strength and experience to the efforts of others, working with God to sustain life in a place and among a people whose muffled cry is: “We want to live!” The misery that their leaders are spawning all over the land must not determine our steps, but rather the One who placed this on our hearts. It won’t convince everyone questioning our planned return, but that’s the way it is.

A prickly-pear (cactus) seller finds a whole
row of customers, waiting to fill their gas
(25 July 2021 - Beirut)
            As the memory fades of the hardships we faced each day and each moment in Lebanon, it seems like we are currently living in another world. We remember that people continue to suffer even more humiliation there, but it has started to disappear from our consciousness, as we experience the luxuries of life in the U.S. Luxuries such as 24-hour electricity, uninterrupted water supply, filling a tank of gas without waiting in a long line, stable prices and currency, banks that allow you full access to your savings, fully-stocked pharmacies, the ability to plan a work day or a vacation day, heating and cooling of homes and businesses as needed, schools and universities happily planning to receive children and youth for the new school year, continuous internet at fast speeds, and on and on. We are inhabiting a parallel world from the one we left; a world where, strangely enough, things function as they were intended. Much like the world of privilege Lebanon’s leaders inhabit while they perpetuate a world of misery and humiliation for their people.

Socially-relevant graffiti, quoting
prophecy from Isaiah 6
(30 July 2021 - Beirut)
            Although it may seem so to anyone who has to endure daily deprivations, everything is not perfect in this parallel world we inhabit today. As time passes the dark side of life in the U.S. gradually reveals itself to us more starkly. One thing that has begun to creep into my consciousness is the “irrelevance” of being Armenian in this “far” Diaspora (far from the lands we were dispossessed of). With so much to do, buy, see, download, play, watch, consume, fix, replace, who has time to think about existential issues? Questions that keep some of us awake through the night are so irrelevant; questions such as, “Who am I? To whom do I belong? Do we Armenians have a collective future? What are the internal and external threats facing us? Are we our worst enemies, or are the criminal regimes surrounding Armenia? Can we work toward a coordinated Diaspora that neither ignores its own needs nor discounts those of Armenia?” One by one these concerns fade from view as I get wrapped up in the busy-ness of each day, and the many things that insist I pay attention.

            I also consider how “irrelevant” these questions now seem to many enduring great deprivations in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the “near” Diaspora, where the very visceral struggle just to subsist overtakes any considerations of national identity, of strategic planning for the future, of battling “red” or “white” genocides, of challenging globalization’s threats to us and other small nations… Each of these parallel worlds, one shiny and bright, the other dark and dreary, imposes itself on me, and on us, and makes us push aside any considerations of what truly matters, what keeps us human, what gives us meaning and identity, what can help us endure and flourish as a nation.

From every walk of life, walking to the city
center to remember those lost on August 4,
2020, and demand accountability
(4 Aug 2021 - Geitawi, Beirut)
           Even issues of faith are affected by the powers at play in these worlds. When you have every thing (emphasis on “thing”) available to you, God can become just another add-on to your life, and faith can be a pleasant – and optional – diversion. One that you meld and adjust to fit the values and standards of society. On the other hand, when you have nothing, faith can turn into a mere lifeline that you use to survive each day. Lifting your head up from the misery of each day in order to seek and do God’s will where you are right now can appear as an impossible luxury. How easily the immediate and urgent can supplant the important and foundational, and how often the temporal overwhelms the eternal. How hard it is to live in God’s world no matter what “real world” you occupy.

Portraits of the fallen in the 2020 port blast
(6 Aug 2021 - Saifi, Beirut)
            We had a full summer before we left Lebanon, including an extended stay (again) by our son Sevag, and preparation for our absence. Despite the steady decline in living conditions, we enjoyed being at home together. He had time to serve, time with friends, and time to eat bouza arabi (natural Arabic ice cream, home-made with goat’s milk). When people in his “usual” world ask him, “How was it in Lebanon? Wasn’t it dangerous? Wasn’t it difficult for you?” he simply answers them, “It was very good to be with my parents.” He, too, realizes that it is difficult for people in one world to grasp the reality of another world.

LebCat 45: Dreaming of donuts and other
easy handouts from the AUB crowd
(28 July 2021 - Bliss St., Beirut)
            Having experienced the Port Explosion of 2020 together with Sevag, we also experienced its first anniversary together. Sevag participated in a service of remembrance and prayer at Ashrafieh’s Armenian Evangelical Church, whose church and school buildings were hard hit by the blast. It was also a day for us to express our gratitude to God that we emerged safely from that maelstrom. A Christian artist from the U.S. honored the over-200 dead from the blast by preparing their portraits and pasting them around the perimeter of one of the big, empty buildings being built in downtown Beirut, a few steps away from the Martyrs’ Statue. As we walked past those portraits, gazing into their eyes brought home the pain and the reality of the loss – to their families, their communities, and their country. It’s a temporary exhibit, as those panels will be removed once the construction is completed. Hopefully their memory will not be temporary, and a new generation of those who love the truth will emerge and prevail, to pursue what is right, true and merciful in the world God so loves.    [LNB]

Monday, June 21, 2021

Two Hours Is Plenty

44.Two Hours Is Plenty (21 June 2021)

Street art around AUB
(Bliss St., Beirut - 27 May 2021)
When the foxes who have ruled the henhouse for the past three decades claim that they are going to improve henhouse conditions, like install air conditioning, or clean up the mess on the floor, it should take less than three decades to realize that this will never happen. Case in point: the endless promises up until last year that Lebanon’s decaying power grid and lengthy power cuts were going to be “fixed” – “very soon” – have passed their expiry date and are smelling rancid. Two hours a day of electricity is plenty, right? No massive popular movement emerges against these foxes – or perhaps they are wolves? “So let’s cut it down to 1-1/2 hours per day.” And on and on it goes.

And more than a few people eat at these sorts
of "food outlets" (Mar Mikhael -
Beirut - 4 June 2021)
            How bad is the electricity in Lebanon? Wait… I’ve heard this joke before. It’s so bad that their offices got blown to smithereens in the port blast last year and nobody noticed the difference. It’s so bad that even the private generator owners are complaining that their machines are working too much.

            The primary occupation of Lebanese in these times is watching, in real-time, a country rich in natural resources, human capital (especially its youth), healthy growth possibilities, history, heritage, and service industries, fall apart, bit-by-bit. It’s not a pre-occupation, because that would imply you have a job. The economy has (up to now) contracted to the point where it will take a decade or two to recover, so says the World Bank. Therefore, until and if recovery starts, “wait and watch” will be the primary work engaging Lebanese of all stripes. Possibly also the pre-occupation of the regional and international players fielding their teams in “Stadium Lebanon”.

Wounded voices from the blast zone
(Mar Mikhael - Beirut - 7 June 2021)
            Meanwhile, foreign and expatriate Lebanese partygoers looking for a bargain are flowing into the country, keeping the eating and drinking sector in business. Like vultures on carrion, nightly they noisily fill the “bar-way” – Armenia Street / rue Nahr / Mar Mikhael – near us until the wee hours of the morning. One could say, “At least they are putting  ‘fresh money’ into the economy.” But that money comes at the price of humiliation and dependency. Yesterday’s militia leaders (i.e., today’s political leaders) have treated the Lebanese this way for three or more decades, as they reinforce their place in Lebanon’s confessional-based system, offering their followers jobs, “monetary incentives”, or even COVID-19 vaccines, in exchange for unquestioning party loyalty. A similar effect can be had by narcotics.

Lines, lines everywhere
(Beirut - 14-16 June 2021)
            That currency devaluation continues by the day, and the banking system, against which the uprising began late in 2019 (before it derailed), continues to devise new ways to keep depositors’ money in their hands. This is in open defiance of international efforts to salvage Lebanon’s shipwrecked economy. Similarly, the supply of medicines, including medicines for chronic conditions, is being controlled and rationed, though it seems that there is no shortage in depots. Hospitals, deeply affected by this situation, will soon inform their chemo and dialysis patients not to come in for treatment, due to lack of supplies. Kleptomania is an addiction, and as any drug abuser can relate, you could sell anything or anyone if it got you what you crave. For Reformed theology fans, the term “total depravity” has here been replaced with utter depravity.

            Why has there been no public uprising against the perpetrators of this heartless and endless misery purposely inflicted upon the Lebanese? I refer you to “The Frog and the Kettle” analogy, which best explains the slow adjustment of the population to the deadly atmosphere around them. In previous years, as power cuts occurred, the government would announce they’re “trying to fix” the electricity (or trash, or any other) problem. Now, they don’t even bother saying anything to the public. There is no spirit or will left (so far) to hold anyone accountable. And as we all know, uprisings where mafias rule result in bloodshed.

You know your neighbors love you when they
leave onions and garlic in your mail slot!
(17 June 2021 - Geitawi - Beirut)
            One of the bright spots in this morass is one of the only governmental agencies that is working for, and not against, the people: the Health Ministry. It has an active cabinet minister who actually has the proper qualifications for the job. He makes sure the press is present during his surprise visits to hospitals, clinics, vaccination centers and medicine depots, and maintains updates on the Ministry’s website and social media, so as to increase public awareness and accountability. His recommendations for governmental policy are based on scientific and public health concerns, and not on the dictates of any religious community head. As a result, Lebanon has been able to see a vast reduction in COVID-19 cases, including a reduction in deaths from the disease. How we wish he could step out of his caretaker role and be part of the yet-to-be-formed-if-ever cabinet.

A newly-formed Armenian family exchanging
vows before a newly rebuilt stained glass
cross! (19 June 2021 - Beirut)
            Another bright spot – or rather a whole lot of bright spots – are those citizens who demonstrate humanity toward their fellow citizens, despite their own suffering. Some help to push cars that are out of gas in the waiting lines at gas stations (which dispense a few litres of fuel to a single customer as slowly as possible). Some pay a little extra at the food market so that someone else who is short of cash can buy food. Others write alerts via social media where young parents can find baby formula or diapers. In one of those online encounters the donor of some much-needed medicine refused any payment – only asking the recipient to “pray for her”. Despite the misery (and I’ve highlighted only a fraction of the spheres of corruption in which the country is drowning), the ordinary humanity of the authentic Lebanese still shines, albeit dimly.

Praying for God's blessing on the Armenian
Evangelical Central HS graduating
class (Geitawi - Beirut - 13 June 2021)

            The Armenian community here is faring as well as everyone else: not better, not worse. But in pursuing its daily life and continuing its existence, it is engaging in civil disobedience, defying the rampant corruption in which it is compelled to exist. Merely the act of rebuilding structures damaged in the port explosion (a disaster resulting from years of corruption and negligence on a staggering scale) shows that defiance. The installation of a re-imagined version of the stained glass cross in the First Armenian Evangelical Church, rededicated yesterday, is another example. Armenian schools (and Haigazian University) holding their year-end programs these weeks and prayerfully graduating their students to the next level of their education shows that same determination. Or a young Armenian couple taking their marriage vows and pledging to stand by one another no matter what the circumstances is another act of civil disobedience against the wolves running the henhouse. And for what is yet to come, faith in God’s grace will be the only way to endure.

LebCat44: What, are you going to start
charging me for chilling under this car?
(Geitawi - Beirut - 13 June 2021)
            So we are back to spending summer nights without electricity, pretending to sleep, and then dragging ourselves through the daytime, pretending we are awake. Until last week we had our neighbors with whom to commiserate, but they returned to Armenia for the summer… and have their own set of challenges to face, as Armenia decides its future leaders, and continues to be the object of interest to neighboring Canis lupus appetites, and the object of continued Western humanitarian disinterest.

            Since there is only One who holds the future, we put our trust in him alone these days. Probably not a bad idea for everyone, everywhere, to do the same, no matter the level of comfort you (currently) experience.    [LNB]

Monday, April 12, 2021

A Soapless Shave

43.A Soapless Shave (12 April 2021)

One more crumbling building in the
port area, swathed in scaffolding,
awaiting rescue.
(7 Apr. 2021 - Karantina-Beirut)
Last month, while the country was still in the throes of a total lockdown in order to stem the spread of the coronavirus, I made a sneak visit to the barber. As if conducting an illicit transaction, I walked towards his shop and happened to see him (or rather, he saw me) in his parked car. He rolled down his window. “Kiifak! I have to run an errand. I’ll meet you there in 10 minutes.” Since I know that “10 minutes” is not to be taken literally in Lebanon, I showed up in 20 minutes. Looking this way and that, he lifted the rolling shutters (the “daraba”) of his tiny shop, just high enough for us to fold ourselves in half and scurry in, then pulled it down behind us. He did his standard men’s haircut (the only one in his repertoire), and finished with a scissors-trim of my beard, and a scraping off of the unwanted hairs outside the “beard zone”. And did so with a straight razor, of course. With water.

            But anyone who has handled a razor knows that one must also use a thing called “soap”. But not this day. Could it have had something to do with the lockdown? I’m not sure. Perhaps if a policeman had come along, banging on the daraba, demanding to know if barbering was happening inside, the barber could have legitimately said, “No, I am not barbering,” since one does not shave without soap, right? Because if you are shaving someone without soap, your intent is to inflict as much pain as possible on the hapless person draped with a sheet and confined to your barber chair (i.e., me), and not to produce a smiling, satisfied customer.

The frustration, disillusionment and hope
expressed in graffiti on the barrier wall
at the port. (7 Apr. 2021 - Beirut)
            I was, in fact, experiencing on my own skin the oft-used proverb spoken by Western Armenians (and in Turkish, of course): saboun-souz terash (սապուն-սուզ թրաշ), meaning “a soapless shave”. Its meaning is not self-evident, whether in Turkish or in translation. It is not a reference to the pain such a shave induces, but rather to one who does not use all that is required for a task. It conveys a range of meanings that include “insincerity”, “hypocrisy”, “deceptiveness” and, ironically, “buttering up someone”. Hey, I would have even settled for butter to compensate for the missing soap!

            Shaving without soap is something existing all around us, especially when the subject is politics. The claims of Lebanese politicians, each the servant of some wealthy, unseen master locally, or in the region, or in powerful states, fits this phrase. One of them insists that he is honest and concerned for the suffering of the Lebanese people, while another says that no, he, not the other, is the one who truly has the people at heart, and on it goes. (And if you don’t like my use of the generic singular pronoun, I encourage you take a closer look at Lebanese politics.) Their concern for the poor is touching, except that none of them know the pain of those families who are reducing their daily meals to two a day, and then to one. None of them (no, not one) know the misery of those who sell their household possessions, piece by piece, in order to pay school or university tuition. Or the shame of having to receive handout after handout from NGOs, while the heads of the banking association and the Central Bank governor, in their grotesque charade, waste day after precious day pointing fingers at one another while the Lebanese Pound continues its downward spiral, and hyperinflation its upward spiral. A shave of the head as well as the beard, without any soap.

A traditional ibriq made of recycled
glass recovered from the Aug. 4 blast.
(27 Feb. 2021 - Geitawi-Beirut)
            The phrase is also clear in the pronouncements of the leaders of the countries that organized and conducted the latest episode of their genocidal program to eliminate Armenia and Armenians from existence. (This is not hyperbole, nor “Armenian hysteria”, but an old, cold-blooded agenda.) Turkey’s president recently spoke in support of the Armenian Prime Minister when cries for the latter’s resignation swelled in the past few months. It was indeed surreal: a neo-sultan who claims to be the keeper of peace and stability in the region, who also guaranteed Azerbaijan’s dominance in last fall’s war on Artsakh, also claims to wish to have “normal” relations with Armenia. Meanwhile, it pursues territorial advances in the Caucasus and encourages its “little brother” there to desecrate and destroy Armenian culture, just as it did in historic Armenian lands in the century since the Armenian Genocide. A shave that produces bloody wounds, over which world powers express sympathy, but are unwilling to stop.

A biblically-appropriate house built upon the
rock, with a beautiful view of Lebanon's
true beauty. (8 Apr. 2021 - Hammana)
            Not only all this, but the saying is further evident in the endless venting of rhetoric of various Armenian leaders, in and outside Armenia, in order to justify themselves and rally their supporters. No evidence of depth or far-sightedness shows, no plan or vision for mature state-building emerges; all one sees is the appearance of love of country, without substance. This posturing is a daily feature in the country and the Diaspora, while emigration continues unabated. Little did we know three decades ago that today the Armenian people would be so far from having a strong homeland; farther in many ways than their condition during the Soviet era. A barber who has forgotten that one needs soap in order to give a shave without injury.

A few of the hundreds of olive trees newly
planted on the Armenian Evangelical Church
campus, next to the Christian Endeavor Hall.
(2 Apr. 2021 - Ainjar)
            Maria and I had forgotten what the world looked like outside of our concrete home in our concrete neighborhood of our concrete city. The opportunity came thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine, for which we traveled 40 km (25 mi) to Azounieh last week. Trees! Wildflowers! Mountains! Snow! Villages! Fresh air! Orchards! Goats! Narrow, old streets! Speed bumps! It was almost too much to take in at one time. But we took it in, and enjoyed every moment, despite the presence of a pair of contrails far above our heads, evidence of daily airspace violations over Lebanon in order to raid Syria. Both Maria and I received our first shot, and since then already got notification for the follow-up shot in a few weeks. We'll take that, hoping for as few side-effects as we experienced this time, and enjoy a welcome reprise of our “natural” Lebanon tour.

A traditional and oft-seen do-it-yourself
parade through our neighborhood. Literally,
a Good Friday Caravan (get it?).
(2 Apr. 2021 - Geitawi, Beirut)
            Actually, for me it was the second time in one week that I was able to escape the city, having traveled to Ainjar to lead the Armenian Evangelical Church’s Maundy Thursday communion service. Something about springtime buds appearing on fruit trees fills you with wonder and even hope. And seeing so many boarding school youth in attendance, along with walking around to note new developments on the church & school campus (and being with the pastor and his family) impacted me positively as well. On the trip back to Beirut on Good Friday I even saw snow falling, for the first time in four years! Turns out it’s the same as I remember it.

            A few days ago I took a walk back to the site of the port explosion. Seeing the quantity of repair and restoration yet to be done is staggering. And the Lebanese are feeling it all the more as lengthy, daily power cuts pile on top of the crashing economy, the political intransigence, the pandemic, and the social despair. It has been difficult for me to think during the past few months, difficult to know how to express myself, as evidenced by my lack of writing.

LebCat 43: It's spring, and kittens are in bloom.
Mom and her three future LebCats.
(6 Apr. 2021 - Qobaiyat, Beirut)
            But we celebrated Easter! Yes, it was an online service for us (we’re being very cautious), though many others went in-person, ostensibly with official permission. Remembering Christ’s victory over the enemies of sin and death is a great encouragement in places and times such as this. A few of our church youth succinctly captured the “upward call” we have towards the Lord Jesus in a short video they created in place of the traditional Easter sunrise service at KCHAG conference center. Our hearts continue to long for the day when we can come together to proclaim the resurrection; but even that inward longing within us can shine a light outward, and bring healing in the dark and pain-filled places of this world.   [LNB]

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Give Up Your Trash

42.Give Up Your Trash (31 January 2021)

Part of the nearly invisible "army" of children
subsisting on what they can scavenge from
Beirut's trash. (23 Dec. 2020 - Geitawi - Beirut)
There are large receptacles throughout the city streets of Beirut, where people take out their trash, and trucks come several times each day to empty them. It’s not an ideal system, but it is superior to the way things were done into the post-war period of the 90s, when any street corner was fair game for piling up household waste. Those whose windows faced these trash heaps, in order to combat the unappetizing smells and sights, resorted to constructing small shrines of saints, complete with statues, candles and greenery; for reasons of piety people would refrain from dumping trash in front of a shrine, and so would seek out other corners to pile up their refuse. The proliferation of makeshift shrines throughout the city is a testimony to those days.

Slowly but surely people got used to the “dumpsters” placed curbside every few blocks or so, even though it took some time for them to place their trash inside them, and not on the ground beside them. It also took some time for people to wait until after 5 pm to take out their garbage, so it would not rot and exude a stench under the hot Mediterranean sun. Over the three decades since the end of the war these lessons in urban coexistence have experienced deterioration whenever a crisis has overtaken Lebanon, especially in the interim between the ending of landfill contracts and the beginning of new landfill contracts.

A hopeful sign that winter snows will help avert
summer drought. (23 Jan. 2021 - Mt. Sannine)
            In the aftermath of the Beirut Port explosion in August, with one-fourth of the city turned into ruins and then into a construction zone, piles of discarded rubble accumulated once more, as they did in the early 1990s, when the downtown area was sacrificed on the altar of the newly-elected Prime Minister’s construction company. But this time the rubble, twisted metal and broken glass piled up both in as well as around the trash receptacles. In fact, so much refuse accumulated that the sanitation company was unable to keep up with the collection, and only until a month ago has the situation returned to “normal”. Yet to accept the current state of waste management as “normal”, one must quash any musings on where all this refuse is dumped after leaving your neighborhood.

            Recently I was taking our household trash to the receptacles a few steps outside the front door of our building, expecting to toss it into the bin, perhaps see a few cats jump out in fright at the airborne garbage bag, and then with a satisfied smile on my face for a job well done, turn on my heels and head back inside. Instead I came face-to-face with a young Syrian boy in grimy clothes, who extended his hand to take the trash bag from me so that he could rip it open and inspect it for saleable items. Obediently, I handed over the bag, turned and left uneasily. I wondered if I had better Arabic language skills, would I have engaged him in a conversation, no matter how brief? What could I have said to this refugee child, part of an army of unmasked children who scour the city’s trash bins, alone or in groups, to find recyclable or saleable objects and make a living?

Dusty roads can be swept, but what
about the children who live their
lives there? (26 Dec. 2020 - Bourj
Hammoud - Photo: Paul Haidostian)

These are not the only non-Lebanese children who have taken up permanent residence here. Some have become fixtures for us, begging at certain intersections – young mothers sitting on the sidewalk, holding infants or sending toddlers up to passersby to beg for money; young boys weaving in and out of traffic to sell a package of paper tissues; or other young girls, tapping on car windows, girls whose noticeable maturing will make them likely targets for a different kind of selling… and then young motherhood.

            In the midst of an economic meltdown, Lebanon has had one of the strictest lockdown programs in the world, possibly because it has few other ways of holding the coronavirus at bay. Its hospitals – minus about five that were ruined in the port blast – are almost at full capacity, mostly with coronavirus patients. Social services for the general public are notoriously few and far between. Financial assistance to needy families is non-existent, and agencies, such as the ones our church Union administers, do their best to reach those they know about. Donor organizations, such as the World Bank, have begun assistance programs to the poor, but they themselves will be handling the distributions of funds, not trusting governmental institutions to do the job properly. Public trust, essential for any society to avoid implosion (such as events witnessed in the American capital earlier this month), is on the wane wherever one turns.

Idle cranes at the port, in a country whose
lifeblood is imports. (21 Jan. 2021 -
Karantina - Beirut)

These stresses on society have erupted into frequent clashes with the state security services, most notably seen currently in the northern city of Tripoli. Tripoli is home to great numbers of poor as well as the hometown of some of the very wealthiest in the country. One can question the motives of some of the protestors in attacking state institutions, but they should not be the only ones to be questioned. There are the regional masters, who each have their following, both within the political structures as well as among many on the street. But it cannot be denied that the poverty quietly overtaking Lebanon is due to the questionable motives and actions of those in seats of power, both inside and outside “officialdom”. Any possible alleviation of the virus due to a vaccination program might bring and end to the lockdown and free those dependent on daily work to again find their daily bread for their families, but it will also bring the unaddressed social-economic-political crises back to the fore.

The new definition of "roadside café". Or
perhaps a return to the old. (13 Jan. 2021 -
Qobaiyat - Beirut)

Being in a 24-hour-a-day lockdown may sound like paradise to an introverted person like me, 
but there are limits to its appeal. Whereas previously I was able to have long, solitary walks to do errands, now I am required to apply for approval for any excursion (usually granted within minutes for things such as doctor’s appointments, trips to the pharmacy or bakery, etc.), and only within the immediate neighborhood. For things such as produce or grocery shopping we have to place orders by phone and have the seller deliver the items to our door. Language differences make this state of affairs all the more interesting. I send a voice memo to the grocer: “I’d like 1 kilo of apples.” “Red or yellow?” comes the voice message back. “Just yellow, please.” And when the delivery boy unloads his scooter and I lug the produce up to our apartment, and as Maria and I start unpacking them, of course the apples are red. Mind you, the conversation was in English, not Arabic.

            Ordering from the big-name supermarkets is another adventure. We get SMSs saying “Next day delivery!”, and that encourages us to give it a try. Seated at the computer, we go through page after page of items in no particular order. Sorting them yields less-than-satisfactory results, because we are not seeing things that we know the store stocks. As we scroll down the items start showing buttons such as “out of stock”. This is one of two labels visible on the pages, the other being “Made in Lebanon”. That’s fine, we are more than happy to “buy local” when possible.

LebCat 42: Junior, watch carefully how a pro
does it. (26 Jan. 2021 - Geitawi - Beirut)

But when we come to the “checkout” page, and enter our name, address and location pin, we are shown the available delivery times and days. Ten days from now? Really? Calling the help line is of little help, because it is apparent that live persons are not the ones in control. But we bite the bullet and go ahead with the order. But the next page doesn’t open. And there is no indication of what might be the problem. Back to the help line (an email chat, which may be answered right away, or if it’s evening, the next day). We are told to do the very same thing we just did. Meanwhile, the delivery slot gets delayed by a day. Are you using such-and-such browser? No, there is nothing that shows what browser we are required to use. These sorts of adventures continue, and we decide to remove whatever items we need quickly and only order things we can do without for ten days. Or is that now two weeks? Oh well. So we call our nearby mini-market, and get the staple items we need brought to our front steps… an hour after we call.

            These days are teaching us to center on the things – and the people – that truly matter. The situation is compelling us to give up quite a few things that we became accustomed to, some good and some not. But we haven’t given up everything. On Christmas Eve (Jan. 5) we were overjoyed when two church youth groups (3 persons each, but, arriving at almost the same time, became one 6-person group) stopped by our building for a moment of caroling, reminding us of the hope we have regardless of the circumstances in which we find ourselves this day, or this year.    [LNB]