27 June 2007

1775) 'Elvan, Ethiopia’s special gift to Turkey ' Ethiopian ambassador to Turkey, Malatu Teshome

 This content mirrored from TurkishArmenians  Site © Click For Larger Image Africa is not well-known amongst Turks; for example there are those who believe that all Africans can speak Arabic, perhaps related to the word “Arap” (meaning Arab) being used by some to describe anyone of color. . .

I mention this to the Ethiopian ambassador to Turkey, Malatu Teshome. “No, we are not Arab,” he says, looking very puzzled -- as indeed he might, coming from a country that although richly diverse, is also predominantly Christian. During our almost one-hour chat it is the only moment he loses his extremely serious “true statesman” attitude -- he listens very carefully, answers very soberly and smiles with sincerity throughout our chat. He pauses for thought for a second, “Maybe because of the western Africans?” he asks. Most Turks know very little about Africa, and I have to admit that neither do I… “No, I don’t think so,” I reply. “Actually, I don’t know.”

Of course, it is not just Turks that make incorrect assumptions about Africa in general, and Ethiopia in particular; famine, heat, deserts -- all of these may spring to mind, regardless of the current reality. As Ambassador Teshome explains, these assertions are not correct and his country is doing as much as possible to ensure its accurate portrayal around the world. He also mentions the most famous Ethiopian in Turkey, athlete Elvan Abeylegesse, who has become a Turkish citizen. The ambassador thinks of her as a gift from his country to Turkey.

Turkish relations with Africa, especially with Ethiopia, are very old, as Mr. Ambassador explains: “Ethiopians and Turks have known each other since the 16th century. And as far as modern diplomacy is concerned, we had our diplomatic relationship right after World War I,” he says. Then it is his turn to surprise, “But the Turkish Embassy in our country has been open since 1925.” He continues: “After the mid-’70s, there was a military dictatorship in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was then either in the camp of socialism or communism and relations really completely disappeared. The diplomatic relationship was totally cut off, blacked out. Then there was no chance for the Turkish and Ethiopian peoples to come together and know each other. And Ethiopia closed this embassy in Ankara in 1975 -- we re-opened it last year, in 2006.”

Ambassador Teshome is the first Ethiopian ambassador in the re-opened embassy here. Before Turkey, he served in Japan and China. He worked for different ministries and he was the speaker of the upper house, as he says, the equivalent of the Senate. “So, even though my career is in diplomacy, somehow I am borrowed from the different government institutions,” he says. He, along with his wife Maza and their 10-year-old son, who is attending the British Embassy Study Group (a school which follows the British curriculum), will complete his first year here this month.

The weather is cold on our tea chat day, and I mention as much to Mr. Ambassador. “We heard about the cold weather of Ankara,” Ambassador Teshome smiles, and gives me another surprise: “Although Ethiopia is tropical, because of the altitude we don’t have a hot summer. For example, we don’t need air-conditioning.”

When it comes to being in Turkey he talks about his own surprises: “Truly speaking, for me, Turkey was not a part of the world in which I had traveled a lot. I had never been to Turkey before my appointment. So the perceptions we had about Turkey were of a Muslim country, a country typical of Middle Eastern countries -- maybe sweets, kebabs and that sort of thing. But actually, after I arrived in Ankara -- especially in İstanbul, where we first landed in Turkey -- what we saw was very modern people. That was really surprising and it was amazing to discover my own ignorance about Turkey. Of course after we landed in Turkey we also started to learn how society is very different and it has its own peculiarities. And what surprises me most, actually, is the willingness of the Turkish people to put their guests in their best spirits; they are very good and hospitable people, very kind people and we are happy being here.”

Well, it seems that Turkey and Ethiopia have a lot to learn about each other. According to Ambassador Teshome, one of the best ways to improve relations lies along trade routes. “In the modern world if there is no economic interaction between two countries, then really people have no chance to know each other. Through economic interaction -- it can be trading, investment, tourism, cultural interaction, athletic or other sport activities -- people will come to know each other. I think we have started to fill the gap that Turkish and Ethiopian people had [between them] before. These intensify the economic interaction between two countries. Turkish investors have started to invest in Ethiopia. Even though the number is not very great, some Turkish people have also started to travel to Ethiopia, because it can offer historical and natural sites for tourist attractions.” Ambassador Teshome adds that Ethiopians sell agricultural products, sesame seed, vegetable oil seed and animal skins. There are lots of things from Turkey in Ethiopia; textile products, machinery and spare parts.

But there is someone from Ethiopia who is very well known in Turkey: Elvan Abeylegesse. She is an Ethiopian athlete who has gone on to become a Turkish citizen. Turks have great expectations from her: world records and athletic awards. She has not yet been able to deliver, but Turks have embraced her very warmly. How is she perceived by Ethiopians? Are they unhappy about losing one of their assets? The ambassador smiles when he hears the question. “As far as I am concerned, Elvan can simply be a symbol of friendship between Ethiopia and Turkey. She is a gift from Ethiopia to Turkey, I could say. She is a very good athlete. But at the same time, in Ethiopia, we have thousands of Elvans. Giving one among these thousands really does not hurt us, because she will give us friends in return.”

Another Ethiopian product well known in Turkey is coffee. Turkish coffee is unspiced, and by comparison, relatively mild. Drinking Turkish coffee can be a kind of ceremony, but as Ambassador Teshome says, Ethiopian coffee-serving itself is a ceremony, and it tastes different than Turkish coffee. “For Ethiopians [coffee] is not only a favorite beverage, but is also a social gathering. You call all your friends; you roast the coffee in front of them and also grind it in front of them. Then you boil the water and combine the coffee ingredients -- like chemistry. You and your friends enjoy the delicious aroma together. We serve coffee with lots of snacks, popcorn and hazelnuts.”

Ambassador Teshome says that in order to serve Ethiopian coffee they need some special equipment, especially for roasting. They don’t have them here in Turkey, he apologizes, but it seems someone in the household is a coffee expert: the Turkish coffee they serve is very well made.

Ethiopia has a special significance for Muslims. During the early days of Islam the Muslims were few in number and persecuted by the polytheists of Mecca. Some Muslims emigrated to Abyssinia as its Christian ruler, the Negus or Najash, was considered to be a fair king. The Muslims delegation was warmly received by the king, who did not give in to pressure from the Meccan polytheists to return them. So Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia, became a shelter for Muslims in their hardest times.

Ambassador Teshome says that although the majority of the country is Christian, as he is himself, there is a real freedom of religion in Ethiopia. “Any of our citizens has the right to choose their belief. Even in one family, under one roof, you can find different beliefs. That is, the husband can be Muslim and the wife Christian, or vice versa. About 52 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, about 10 percent of Protestant, 2 percent Catholic and 35 percent Muslim. In our country, as our Constitution puts very clearly, there is equality of belief. That means you may be a Christian or a Muslim; the whole nation is one, but only one, before the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. There is no discrimination at all.”

The ambassador adds that Ethiopia also has a small Jewish population (called Falashas), and that there are also some people with traditional pagan beliefs, although their numbers are not great. “Those people live in very remote areas and basically don’t intermingle with society. They believe in supernatural things. That supernatural thing can be the very great sky; it could be a very high mountain or something at the top of the mountain. It could be a very particular stone or river, which they define in their own way to be supernatural,” he explains.

Ethiopia is diverse not only in religion but also in languages. I mention something else that surprised me about the ambassador’s country; there are almost 80 languages, isn’t it difficult to communicate? Ambassador Teshome seems to be getting used to my astonishment. “Ethiopia is a multiethnic state with a great variety of languages -- of which there are 83, with 200 dialects. But our official language is Amharic and everybody knows that.”

When he is asked, Mr. Ambassador says that apart from Amharic, there are other newspapers in other languages. He adds that English is common, too.

Of course these languages are the results of the country’s many different ethnic backgrounds. When I ask if he and Mrs. Teshome speak the same language, the ambassador smiles once more: “I guess you are asking if we have the same ethnic background. No, we have different backgrounds. But we have taken Ethiopia as our common motherland, as all Ethiopians do. Different ethnic backgrounds and beliefs form a compound, and that is Ethiopian,” he says.

This diversity in languages, ethnicities and beliefs means that Ethiopian cuisine is very rich, too. “Our cuisine is based on meat and spices. There are some vegetable dishes, but they are not that popular. We consume chicken, goat meat and beef. But we eat fish only during the Christian time of fasting. Our national dish is called doro wat -- a spicy chicken stew that includes whole, hard-boiled eggs, ginger, cardamom and a special Ethiopian spice called berbere, a very hot one -- it takes three hours to cook,” he says. “What makes Ethiopian dishes very delicious are the different cultures in our country. They share the experience. One piece comes from that locality, one piece from the other. That is richness.”

This harmony that Ambassador Teshome mentions is also reflected in the Ethiopian flag, which has been a source of inspiration for other African nations, too. “Green, yellow and red are the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Green symbolizes prosperity; yellow symbolizes harmony between the different people of Ethiopia and is also the sign of liberty; and red symbolizes heroism in defending the motherland. Maybe that also describes the fact that Ethiopia was never colonized,” the ambassador says very proudly.

Green reflects prosperity, but Ethiopia is commonly associated with famine. Ambassador Teshome accepts this. According to him there are many reasons for not turning the country’s natural resources to wealth. “Mismanagement, disasters and artificial disasters like civil wars and wars, and uneasiness with neighbors. When there is a war you expend a lot of resources. Under these circumstances we forget to invest in education. If we do not invest in education we simply cannot claim that we are in the club of the modern world. I think we have already recognized our failures. Now we are trying to catch up with the time we lost. Catching up with lost time is not only about changing natural resources into wealth, but also skilled manpower. The biggest investment of the Ethiopian government is education. In just five years we are undertaking the construction of 13 universities. That requires a great amount of budgeting. The government is giving priority to this matter. We will have 25 universities in total, with 200,000 students,” he says.

According to Ambassador Teshome Ethiopia is struggling to better its representation in the world, but changing its image is difficult. I think about mentioning that in Turkey, when children do not eat their meals, we sometimes remind them of the starvation in Ethiopia. While I am mumbling, trying to find a more politically correct way of saying this, Ambassador Teshome understands what I am trying to say, with his statesman-like seriousness: “I don’t take it as an insult. Look, in our country, too, if we are able to feed our children and if they refuse to have their meal, we remind them of those kids who are not able to have that food. It happened in Ethiopia. It definitely will be a story we will tell; once upon a time we had difficulties.”



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