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]

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