Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Oh Wow Fives

60. Oh Wow, Fives! (23 August 2023)

Faces of loved ones sacrificed in the 2020
Port explosion – a pain and an injustice
continually ignored by authorities.
(4 Aug. 2023 - Beirut Port)

I went into a store here in Beirut to buy something, and as I prepared to pay in Lebanon’s official currency – the U.S. dollar – the cashier saw I had taken out $5 bills and exclaimed  (in English), “Oh wow, fives!” Her delight was due to the fact that as businesses, great and small, abandon the use of the Lebanese Pound, they are always in need of small denominations of U.S. currency to return change to their customers. I provided a much-needed resource to a small business, as people struggle to make their way through daily life unassisted by any authorities, swimming in that morass of disinterest and disconnection that is the country’s ruling elite. Courtesy of our son Sevag’s annual visit to us here in Lebanon, we enjoy the privilege of having small denominations of U.S. currency. Here I was, the hero of the moment, with my crumpled and discolored images of Abraham Lincoln, bringing a moment of joy in the middle of the hot, muggy summer.

But seriously, can't you tell that the
infrastructure has improved?
(11 June 2023 - Bourj Hammoud)

            One of the most distasteful aspects of my life today in Lebanon (though by no means the only one) is the necessity to focus or fixate on monetary issues. Lebanese, especially Beirutis, have always made currency exchange rates, values of precious metals, gasoline prices and more their daily small talk. Though there is so much more to life, though much greater depth is possible in conversation, but this is what one hears from each passerby, from men gathered at curbsides, from women catching their breath over a cup of coffee: the never-ending stream of analysis and “expertise” that has supplanted hopes, dreams and ideals – the very things that young and old should be actively investing in their country in order to push it toward a brighter future. Instead, materialism, reinforced by circumstances created by those in power and their cooperative external powers, is pushing the brightness out of the country just to dissolve in diasporas around the world.

Watermelon? Strawberry gelatin? Sevag and
I puzzled over this one at the Mineral
Museum. (1 Aug. 2023 - Mathaf, Beirut)

            The impact of all of this upon the Armenian community in Syria and Lebanon is what troubles me the most. As the Dons of this kleptocracy look for new ways to fill their stomachs – most recently by a farcical “helicopter tour” of the new oil-drilling rig off the Lebanese coast –small and “unimportant” groups such as the Armenian community are left to fend for themselves. It is interesting to see how a country can continue to appear as a functioning entity while running on “autopilot”. A bit of electricity here, some trash collection there, fixing a water main when it breaks, leaving NGOs to install street lighting and traffic lights, and repair the worst potholes as highways steadily deteriorate, while many, many employees in the public sector come to work but once every one or two weeks, as their monthly salaries hardly cover the cost of transportation – this is today’s Lebanon.

When gas prices rise too high, there are
still great ways to make use of your auto!
(3 June 2023 - Ainjar)

            We’ve been noticing one of the semi-comical expressions of that while driving around various parts of the country with Sevag. It’s the “LPO mode” that auto owners have entered: “License Plate Optional”. Earlier this year I began to notice an absence of license plates of some cars on the road. Now it is probably up to 5 to 10 percent of cars. The office that processes car registrations is clearly not functioning. But in classic Lebanese manner the population is facing the situation with humor. It’s considered a badge of honor to drive an LPO car, even to the point, some say, that people will remove their license plates just to be seen as part of the LPO club!

            This summer I walked into a store in Ainjar, the mostly-Armenian village in the Bekaa valley. Whenever we’re going to be there for a few days I’ll stop in to pick a thing or two, and often times, since this is Ainjar, and since, due to my position, I can’t remain anonymous, I’ll run into people I know including people who know me since the 1990s, or the 2000s, or current times. The lady behind the counter, who does not belong to one of the aforementioned groups, asked me, in Armenian of course, “Are you Ainjartsi (her intent: “originally from Ainjar, but visiting from overseas”)? My interest piqued, I said, “No, I’m not. Why do you ask?” With no hint of malice or sarcasm, just puzzlement, she said, “Well, lots of people are very happy when they see you.”

Providing an unintentional glimpse into
the dysfunction of the country.
(4 Aug. 2023 - Tabaris, Beirut)

            Amid such a negative environment I’m glad we can have positive encounters with those we meet, and grateful that our casual interactions can be uplifting. Certainly, this is not something we can automatically produce: without God’s encouragement in our times of frustration and discouragement we would have little to share with others. As well, without organizations backing us up it would be a challenge to remain positive in the enforced misery people are subjected to each day. So, I don’t mind being mistaken for an “Ainjartsi”, and I don’t mind that (most) people are happy to see me!

            During the summer a small group of young Lebanese-Armenians in their twenties, on their own initiative, approached Haigazian University in order to present a film series, seven items in all, ranging the gamut from practically “home-made” to professionally produced. Their emphasis was on increasing the public’s knowledge of Western Armenia and elevating the use of the Western Armenian language. They delivered their introductions each evening in flawless Western Armenian as well as English, and it was clear that they cared deeply about the entire project, and plan to expand their efforts to develop other materials that would interest young Armenians in their heritage, using modern pedagogical methods in a technologically accessible way. The name with which they christened their platform is “Hnarti” /Հնարդի, combining the Armenian words for “old” and “contemporary”. Despite the hemorrhaging of young blood from the Middle East, vision and vitality can still emerge from this community.

LebCat 60: Every pharmacy should have a
watchcat at the door.
(14 Aug. 2023 - Hamra, Beirut)

            In eight weeks I’m hoping to bring the Armiss Choir back on stage to sing one or two numbers. Hopefully a couple other Lebanese choral groups will also perform. A colleague and dear friend has just published a book on a century of Lebanese-Armenian choirs (1920-2020). The dedication of the new book will happen in October, and part of the dedication program will be vocal selections. From real choirs singing in harmony. Live – which is how music is best done. So, it’s time to get things organized and underway, and to invest a bit more in the health of the country and in a couple of its modest but essential components, that is, the arts, the Lebanese-Armenian community and the Armenian Evangelical Church.

            Finally, something to talk about besides currency rates!   [LNB]

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