Wednesday, May 31, 2023


59. Messiness (31 May 2023)

Even the utility poles are puzzled.
(9 May 2023 - Geitawi, Beirut)

It’s not unusual to hear someone comment that “life is messy”. Relationships are messy. Theory applied to real life is messy. Faith in action is messy. International relations are messy. So much messiness. So frustrating.

            Local messiness – that is, life in your own neighborhood – aside from potentially being frustrating and somewhat infuriating, can also be intriguing, and even sometimes beguiling. The month of May being the “Marian” month, we often heard recorded Maronite chants loudly filling the neighborhood, both from stationary (the small church behind our building) sound systems as well as mobile ones (huge speakers sitting on a car roof, as it led a mini motorcade snaking around all of the area’s streets). Although I have all but discontinued listening to recorded music, these melodies fascinate me, even when they are Arabic words set to familiar Western hymn or orchestral tunes.

A beauty of a building in beastly
condition (16 May 2023 -
Ashrafieh, Beirut)

            The street in front of our building is the main artery connecting our neighborhood, with its two major hospitals, to the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael, the dollarized drinker’s Shangri-la. Which means in addition to the late night, loud conversations as people walk between their apartments and the bars, we also get ambulance traffic, complete with sirens. And so, yesterday the ecclesiastical chants boomed from speakers behind us while sirens wailed from the street in front of us. It was a strange effect, the messy “music” of our neighborhood, both off-putting as well as fascinating, both alarming and strangely comfortable. A moment of eternity and human fragility. In an audible way it epitomized our neighborhood as well as our lives.

            Maria occasionally says, “Everybody around here knows you, don’t they?” We, too, have become part of the backdrop of this neighborhood, sought out by producers for their movies and soap operas. When I pass through these streets seated in the back of a taxi, shopkeepers will occasionally wave to me as I go by, just proving my wife’s point. I find that being part of the local messiness allows me to wave a greeting to shopkeepers and continue on my way without feeling obligated to submit to their entreaties. No offense intended, nor taken.

When walls talk...
(23 May 2023 - Khalil Badawi)

            A nearby bakery is run by a fellow who was formerly chef at a fancy restaurant, along with his wife and son. The menu at any local bakery throughout Beirut is very predictable: small pizza-sized manouché, with either zaatar (thyme) or cheese on top. Plus lahmbajiin (lahmajun for us Armenians), mini pizzas (with the inescapable canned corn topping) and spinach pies. Occasional variants are out there, but this is mostly it – the typical Lebanese breakfast food. This baker, however, features his wife’s home-cooked dinner entrees for lunch. Each morning I receive a photo of the whiteboard on the easel out front with the plat du jour written on it.

            One day recently I went to get two portions of this “slow food served in a hurry” – something made with flat beans, a few cubes of beef, swimming in lots of its juices. You have to understand, whenever I stop there to get the plat du jour, or even just to inquire about it, Tony (name not changed to expose the guilty) nonetheless insists on feeding me a soup spoon full of whatever the main course is. Although I’m going to be eating that exact dish in a few minutes, I am required to sample it right then and there in his shop! Well, that’s where my American logic kicks in – not pure logic, but suburban American logic, which considers this kind of behavior as unnecessary, unhygienic and imposing. You know – the logic that prohibits all the things that help people feel they are part of a community. Until now I was able to emerge from these force-feedings unscathed. But last week the plat du jour did me in. Tony placed almost the entire spoonful into my mouth, but a bit of the juice ended up running down my shirt. Not a problem, he handed me a tissue to wipe it off… So, the rest of the day I wore that badge of honor on my shirt, a tribute to our messy/friendly/business relationship. Each time he feeds me a spoonful of the plat du jour (even if I don’t buy it that day) is followed by “Good, no?” in his borderline English. To I invariably answer in my borderline Arabic: “Akeed!” (“Of course!”) or “Tayyib!” (“Tasty!). And it is! Messy and tasty!

How many languages do you need to get the
message? (30 May 2023 - Bourj Hammoud)

            I’ve experienced similar encounters all around the neighborhood, each one deepening the connection. At the falafel place up the street I am called “Abouna” (“Father”) by the owner, who also invariably hands me a piece of falafel to munch on while he makes the falafel sandwiches. A bonus! At another bakery the baker knows my usual order and rather than me ordering my usual “cocktail” (round flat bread, thin and a bit crispy, with half zaatar and half cheese), when I enter he says, “Cocktail?” and all I need to do is smile and nod. At the mini-markets around here I am also a known quantity, but I enjoy seeing the puzzled look on the shopkeepers’ faces when I show up in clergy garb, knowing I have messed up the category I have been inhabiting. The next time I enter the store they are clearly unsure about how to address me…

A mini-marathon to celebrate 80 years of
Armenian Evangelical Education!
(20 May 2023 - Ainjar)

            None of this is an excuse for the mess that passes for a government here, or the absence of public utilities that brings ever more electric wires to the mess of wires overhead to make up for that absence, or the lack of desire to pursue the common good, only the advantage of your own group's “boss” (witness the recent elections in Turkey). And I haven’t even begun to speak of the state of Armenian communities, organizations and institutions the world over, including Armenia, swimming in money and expertise (and, in the case of Armenia, tourists), but lacking the clarity that comes from a well-studied and broadly accepted national direction.

            We Armenians caught a brief glimpse of unity 105 years ago when, despite the shortcomings of officialdom, Armenian leaders organized troops and volunteers to put a stop to the genocidal enemy’s plan to overrun and annihilate Eastern Armenia along with its Western Armenian refugees. The battles in May 1918 at Bash-Abaran, Kara-Kilise and Sardarabad are a paradigm of wise strategy and unity in the midst of disarray and discouragement in the wake of the “ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey. Today, as the same enemy continues the same genocidal efforts from Artsakh to Armenia, we are amazed at the country’s indifference towards these existential threats, and its inability to find, foster, or choose leadership with these qualities and this far-sightedness. What a mess our people are in!

LebCat 59: "This is Tony's bakery, right?
He uses cheese, right?"
(19 May 2023 - Mar Mikhael, Beirut)

            Messiness is how life is. But being a mess is simply irresponsible.

            As we do our daily adjusting to the messiness of existence and all the predictable unpredictability of life in Lebanon, we of course keep in mind the training we dutifully took as part of our appointment here, which instructed us to avoid having the same daily routine, to change our commuting routes each day, to have contingency plans at the ready, to be on the lookout for threats, and so forth. And we scratch our heads. And we trust God.   [LNB]