Foreword: This post is a culmination of the last days of our trip to Lebanon as on January 15, 2019 my sabbatical concluded. My next task is to organize the over 7000 photos we have and post them for your enjoyment.
Sunday, October 7, 2018, we arrived at my sister’s place after 7:30 p.m. exhausted from the horrendous traffic that took us over three-and-a-half-hours to get home instead of an hour and fifteen minutes; but we were exhilarated by the beautiful day spent with family, friends, with overflowing conversations, and nevertheless witnessing another beautiful sunset while descending from the mountains of Lebanon.
My sister, nephew, Gary and I sat down to decide how we are going to spend the next two full and final days for this trip with them in Bourj Hammoud, the place of childhood. One of the realities of life is that when something is coming to an end, you always want to get everything accomplished before you run out of time. Think about how bucket lists are important when we get older or if someone has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. So, tonight, we decided to make a list of things to do and places to see, as the next 48 hours in Lebanon marks the end of this epic trip.
Monday morning, October 8, Gary stayed in bed, but my nephew and I hit the streets of Bourj Hammoud invigorated – like people on a mission! We decided to walk everywhere, as driving and parking are not the best way to travel in this crowded city. I wore my clerical shirt, not just because we were visiting a few “official” places, but because a part of me wanted to indirectly educate the people on the streets – seeing ordained women is a rare vision on these streets.
Before we got to the CAHL (Center for the Armenian Handicapped in Lebanon), which serves the community as a retirement/nursing home for the elderly, we stopped at a store that sells chickens – live chickens. Clients choose chickens, the butcher slaughters and prepares the chosen chicken to take home,for cooking and eating. We wanted to purchase a couple of chickens to take with us to CAHL, in memory of our beloved parents, and grandparents, for the center to feed the elderly. Yes, donations do not just come in financial form in Lebanon, they also come in these manners. I remember many times that I have accompanied my mother, when I was a young girl, taking such offerings to this same center. This is something that is done regularly, not just at CAHL but also at the orphanages and schools. Unfortunately, there were no more chickens left, the store was empty on this Monday morning, and the man expressed some uncertainty if he would have any chickens that day or even the next. So, we left that store and continued on to go meet with the director of the CAHL, the Rev. Sebouh Terzian who introduced me to the daily operation’s director, who right away told me that she knows my sister Choughik (Morning Dew) from Montreal, as she lived in Montreal for a while and knew my sister from the Armenian Brotherhood Bible Church. What a small world! After having coffee and some delicious Armenian cookies, we were given a tour and we visited a few of the elderly residents. I will never forget the one lady who was sitting in the great room and listening to classical music. We were told that this lovely woman used to be a ballet dancer. I can hardly imagine what she was thinking as she was listening to the classical music. We were not able to visit every single area of the center, however the director of the Center, Rev. Sebouh, expressed how an accessible bus would be so convenient to take the elderly to outings regularly, as accessibility is a huge issue in Lebanon, to the point that a bus with such abilities would have to come from Europe – Accessibility is a non-existing conversation here. We thanked everyone that we met for their time and my nephew assured them that he will be bringing a couple of chickens soon to feed the clientele of the center. Following this visit, we went a block away to the Christian Social Center, where a childhood classmate of mine is the director. This building used to be an Evangelical School, however with the drop in finances and students, the building has become a Christian Social Center who looks after the marginalized in the community.
It was wonderful to catch up with my childhood friend and see what important work is going on in Beirut. The work that these centers, schools, and non profit associations are doing truly remind me of the late Henri Nouwen’s book, “The Wounded Healer”. Lebanon is a wounded country, even though the Lebanese government does not offer much help to the displaced refugees from Syria, but there is something about the few groups of people who are offering Hope and New Life to the marginalized, as they are able. The stories are endless about how this center is working with the disregarded.
We continued our “on-foot-day-trip” on memory lane and went and knocked on the door of the apartment I grew up in. Before doing that, I asked the woman who has had a small kiosk right at the corner of our apartment building, since my childhood, who sells lipstick, pantyhose, gum, hats, scarves, etc. and is still there. When she saw me approaching, she was delighted once again, as I had dropped by to see her last week. So, I asked if she thought there was anyone at the apartment I grew up in, as I really wanted to go in and take a few pictures but did not want to go upstairs if there was no one at home. She assured me that the matriarch of the family was at work, but the father and the son were for sure at home, as she has not seen them leave the building yet. She said, they are musicians and I am certain they are still sleeping. My first instinct was not to bother them, but another part of me was so eager to get pictures of the place I called home for the first fifteen years of my life. Now, thirty-five years later, an opportunity arose that no politically correctness should interfere with. My nephew, who looks like my bodyguard, and the sales lady, assured me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and we must knock on the door without any fear – “You are leaving in less than 48 hours – You must do it!” were their words.
Courage took over me and my nephew and I climbed to the first floor of the two-storey building. As we knocked at the apartment door, my mind was inundated by childhood memories. You see, my late father was the photographer of the school I attended (you can read about this in my previous blog of October 2-5, 2018), he was also a photographer at a restaurant (see my blog of September 15-16, 2018). I remembered how early in the morning, when my dad barely had any time to sleep, there would be women knocking at our apartment door to either meet with my mother for prayer, or a Word of Hope, or even to find refuge from getting killed by their husband – my mother has stood in between a knife and a woman to save her life – many, many times. So, my dad would be angry and swear at these women. I do not blame the man, as he only would have had couple of hours of sleep. Here I was, repeating history in a reverse sort of way. I felt bad to knock on the door, but after three knocks, a man of short stature opened the door. He only spoke Lebanese (Arabic), so thank God that my nephew was with me. The man was kind even when we can tell he needed more sleep. He let us in, his son was still asleep, we walked around the apartment quietly and I snapped as many pictures as possible.
The apartment was changed, yet, it was still the same. If we had more time to linger around the apartment, I am certain so many memories would have gushed to my mind, however not lingering more than 5-10 minutes was a blessing of sort, even if a part of me wanted to stay there for a longer time.
After the apartment adventure, we continued our day walking to different stores, to bid goodbye to those whom I had re-discovered from my childhood, as tomorrow was planned to be a day of packing and resting before we leave Lebanon towards Canada with a five-day stop over in Switzerland. The emotions were running high as I bid goodbye to many – and everyone kept repeating, “Do not wait another thirty-five years to come back and see us”.
As we were walking on the narrow streets of Bourj Hammoud, I was sharing with my nephew how my mother, his grandmother, walked these streets in darkness through the rubble to find bread for her hungry family and others. However, she did not just bring bread for the hungry, she also brought the wounded with her to our one-bedroom apartment, where already over 12-15 people were hiding. She took care of wounded and helped them to survive and heal. So, my nephew stopped me and said, “Aunty, I need to take a picture of you, as you are walking on these streets, in honour of grandma.” And that is when it came to me once again, in the footsteps of my mother, father, ancestors, Grace has made my roots of faith journey with Hope thus far.
We did our part for this day and got back to my sister’s fifth floor apartment, after walking over fifteen thousand steps, just to rest for a few minutes and go meet friends at Badguer (Photograph) Restaurant for our last supper of this Lebanon trip. Not many were able to show up, and that is understandable, having a dinner gathering on a Monday evening is tough. Therefore, my best friend, her daughter, son, my nephew, Gary and I enjoyed a nice private dinner. The local artist, Hovhannes (John) played his guitar and sang to us and we joined our voices with his many a times. After dinner, Gary went back home with my nephew, but my best friend, her son and I went to see a newly released movie, “CAPERNAUM”, directed by Nadine Labaki, “Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (2018). CAPERNAUM (“Chaos”) tells the story of Zain (Zain al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy who sues his parents for the “crime” of giving him life. CAPERNAUM follows Zain, a gutsy streetwise child as he flees his negligent parents, survives through his wits on the streets, takes care of Ethiopian refugee Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), being jailed for a crime, and finally, seeks justice in a courtroom. CAPERNAUM was made with a cast of non-professionals playing characters whose lives closely parallel” (www.rottentomatoes.com – March 26, 2019)
This movie was truly the necessary, epic conclusion to my visit to Lebanon. To some degree it is the culmination of what I saw in person. Finding Hope, Life and Survival in the midst of chaos, in the midst of hardships, in the midst of death. I am very grateful to my friend’s son for coming up with this idea. The movie is heavy visually and linguistically, but it truly brought my visit to Lebanon into full disclosure. I would recommend everyone to find the DVD of this movie and see it. Because when you see it, you will have a glimpse of how life in Lebanon is for most of the marginalized people – these hardships can easily be found anywhere in the world – Not Just Lebanon.
Tuesday, October 9, Gary and I woke up a little late, as I only got home after 1:00 a.m. that morning. My nephew was already up and he prepared my coffee and announced that the breakfast was ready; moreover, he had gone to the chicken store and had taken two large chickens to CAHL, to feed the elderly. He also had some of the chicken blood brought back home, so we made the sign of the cross at the entrance door of their apartment. A symbol of God’s protection always present.
After breakfast we started arranging suitcases, what comes with us, what stays behind. The humidex of 40 degrees Celsius continued all through the day. I have never experienced such heat in Lebanon, during the month of October. After work, my best friend came to bid me goodbye, but she said, “Just like thirty-five years ago, I did not say goodbye, but see you. Today, I say the same, but I add, do not wait thirty-five years to come back”. After her departure, the principal of the Armenian Evangelical School, Shamlian Tatigian came to bid goodbye. She shared with me, that a year ago (October 2017), she was depleted of hope and did not know how the school will continue to help those who are unable to pay full tuition, and a year later, God covered a big gap, through the Elgin-Portland Pastoral Charge and the greater community. I, in turn shared with her that the vision of Peace through Education Lebanon came to me around the same time in 2017, when she was praying to God hopelessly. This is how the Spirit works…
Tuesday late night, we attempted to go to sleep, but at the corner of the street garbage and tires were being burnt and the smell, the smoke and the smoulder was rising to the fifth floor and irritating our throats and eyes and we could barely sleep. So, at 3:15 a.m. on Wednesday, October 10, we made our way to the airport, this time with two less luggage but our hearts full of the Love and Hope that we experienced with these amazing men, women and children – Created in God’s own Image.
Onward to Canada with a stopover in Switzerland requires a balancing act that requires Hope and Patience for the world to be a better place, by Grace, Mercy and our actions of Justice and not just charity.
Signing off… Wednesday, October 10, 2018, 10:45 p.m.