06 October 2007
I am old but I still have something to give
Venezuelan Ambassador to Turkey Kaldone Nweihed Salim is actually a university professor, intellectual and author of many books. His expertise lies in international maritime law.
He has participated in many seminars on this subject all over the world, but not in Turkey. As someone who spends most of his life focused on the sea, he likes all the seas of Turkey very much, the Black Sea in particular. He says it reminds him of his own country.
He admires the discipline and the responsibility of Turkish people, but as a friend he wishes that Turks were able to take it easy just a little bit. Mr. Ambassador thinks that his country is experiencing social change under the rule of President Hugo Chavez, but that the process is not one that will take place overnight.
Mr. Ambassador wants to understand the Ottoman Empire’s long rule and also the effects of the Turkish Republic on the region, and so is learning Turkish and plans to continue to learn to do so even after his return home. During our interview he uses many Turkish words, especially when he jokes about himself, when he uses the words emekli (retired) and yaşlı (old) frequently.
“I am yaşlı, but like Gloria Gaynor I still have something to give, so I became an ambassador,” Ambassador Nweihed Salim says, laughing.
Before being appointed to Turkey as an ambassador he was a university professor and president of Venezuela’s border commission. He says it was a difficult job and so he resigned. Then President Chavez asked him to be an ambassador. Turkey was one of the vacant posts at the time, but it was Mr. Ambassador’s own wish to come here and he is very happy about this choice.
Actually many of his fellow countrymen are happy too: The World Values Survey has consistently shown Venezuelans as the happiest people in the world, with 55 percent of those questioned describing themselves as “very happy.” Mr. Ambassador explains the reason for his own and the Venezuelans’ happiness:
“I am happy at the individual level and we are also happy as a people, thanks to our democratic country where we don’t establish differences among races, colors, religions and beliefs. Everybody is treated on the same footing. So -- not just theoretically -- we really do exercise social democracy. I think that was one of reasons that allowed my family and me -- my family were immigrants from the Middle East -- to become professionals. I had the chance to finish my studies at university and become a professor -- and become a retired professor. I owe that to Venezuela.”
When it comes to problems, Mr. Ambassador says, of course there are some, but Venezuelans still find ways to be happy: “Of course there are problems on a daily basis. We are not as disciplined as you are in Turkey. When it comes to parking a car it is worse. Mail delivery doesn’t work; even if the letters arrive we usually don’t answer them. Now we use e-mail. I got an e-mail from my daughter, who is in Venezuela. They went to another city from Caracas just for the birthday of a child of a couple who were my daughter’s classmates. There she found more than 15 of her classmates. They had come from all over the country just for that occasion. They were very happy to see each other -- they send pictures via the Internet and they spend money and time on that. This makes Venezuelans cheerful.”
Mr. Ambassador claims that because of the policies of the Chavez government, Venezuelans don’t need insurance policies because everybody is insured in someway. “Many people in Venezuela may be poor, but because of the ‘missions’ introduced by President Chavez’s government everybody feels that they are safe. Most people think that he’s doing the right thing for the lower and middle classes”
Mr. Ambassador says that Venezuelans take life as it comes, but they are really worried about climate change, which has brought lots of rain and floods to the country.
Many reasons to learn Turkish
Ambassador Nweihed Salim’s family comes from Lebanon and, like most immigrants from the Middle East to Venezuela, they arrived in their new country in the early 20th century.
“I went to Lebanon in 1950 for the first time to meet my uncle Jamil. At the airport when he received me, I thought that he was my father because they had the same face. In 1992 there was a symposium by UNESCO and I was entrusted to write a research on the origins of the immigration of the Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians to Venezuela and Colombia,” he says.
Mr. Ambassador knows English, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic, the latter was the language at home when he was growing up. He also knows about Arabic literature, but his two daughters do not because his wife is “100 percent Venezuelan.”
Mr. Ambassador knows Turkish, too, although he says that he hasn’t learned it completely, but he will, even when he goes back to Venezuela. He explains: “I have been trying to learn it. I should say that I am going to follow up my Turkish in Venezuela. I’m going to do exactly the contrary of what most of the ambassadors do. They don’t learn Turkish because they realize that they will stay only three or four years in the country and after that, what would they do with all that effort? Some of them know that it’s a great culture so they do and they gain from it. In my case I wanted to learn it. I started to do it because I am so attracted to Ottoman history. It is not just a compliment to Turkey.”
Since he is a professor, he speaks of the academic discussion of what “state,” “empire” and “universal empire” mean. He mentions that, according to some historians, Latin American countries were a part of an “ex-Spanish Empire,” while others claim they were “provinces within a universal empire that was Spanish.” But Mr. Ambassador says that there is no reason to enter into this polemic when it comes to the Ottoman Empire. “It was a unique case in history where you could bind up so many, 18 to 20, nationalities, religions. At least there was Pax Ottomana for 400 years in the Middle East. After they left the wars, conflicts did not cease. They even became worse. It is great to know how that works, even if you realize that there was a spirit of the time which tended to give support to such an empire. Now with the Internet and modernization you can reach people everywhere. Times have changed; no empire can last now, look at Russia. The Soviet Union fell partly because of the American bombardment of people. You reach them mentally, psychology.
“It’s a great case; to study how the Ottoman Empire bonded those people and how it worked. Also the consequences of modern Turkey and what modern Turkey is in its early years are very interesting, too. All these things are really keeping me busy ... That’s why I devoted myself to understanding it. When I return to Venezuela with my own discipline I will continue to develop my Turkish.”
When it comes to Venezuela’s petroleum, Mr. Ambassador mentions an article written by one of his friends, the piece was titled simply “Mr. P.” The writer clamed that when the world’s petroleum is exhausted there will be a grave for it and on the tombstone will be written: “Here lies Mr. Petroleum who did many good things and bad things. The good things he did badly and the bad things he did well.” Mentioning this article makes Mr. Ambassador laugh.
“This is the case for petroleum. It makes the country rich, but this richness is not always to be seen in a positive way. It is positive when it’s used for infrastructure,” he says. According to him President Chavez is doing this.
“I am not saying that President Chavez has got a magic a key to happiness. [But] he is practicing what he preaches. He is trying to pump oil money directly into projects, which we call missions. They are aiming to change the country completely, but from the basement to the top and not from the top down. These changes do not take place from one day to another. So far the results are not so impressive. But then again as a social scientist I can tell you that changes do not take place within one day. Just look at Turkey. Atatürk is one of the greatest leaders of the world. The seeds of modern Turkey come from Atatürk’s message, but it took time,” Mr. Ambassador underlines.
He also mentions how petroleum affects world politics. According to him the war in Iraq is directly related to petroleum, as are many conflicts we witness in the modern world. He thinks that maybe one day Turkey too will be an oil exporting country: “You never know. You have a small amount of it. Probably high Turkish policy ‘knows’ that you have some more resources. It is possible. This is a very wise policy,” he says.
Mr. Ambassador thinks that people must be humble, so he has some difficulty talking about himself. He says he used to lecture on diplomacy. He studied international law and pedagogy and is very happy to have had more than 8,000 students. Most are diplomats and some are now very close to President Chavez. Mr. Ambassador does not know the president personally, but President Chavez knows of his books, and took one -- “Simon Bolivar and the Third World” -- to UNESCO and presented it there himself.
Mr. Ambassador is very happy to see the Simon Bolivar Street in Ankara, too. He says that when he was presenting his credentials to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, Sezer told him that as the former president of the Constitutional Court he journeyed along Simon Bolivar Street every day, and this had prompted him to learn about Bolivar.
Maritime law expertise
“My expertise is in maritime law. I suppose I gave many years of my life to the sea. So this is why I’m so happy to go the seas of Turkey. Marmara, Akdeniz (Mediterranean), Karadeniz (Black Sea), Ege (Aegean)… I like the Karadeniz [region] the most. It looks like Venezuela. It’s all green,” Mr. Ambassador says, adding that in particular he likes to take a car from Zonguldak to Hopa.
When he is asked what he would suggest as a solution to the problems between Greece and Turkey regarding the Aegean, he laughs. “I am an ambassador, I cannot say anything. I was never actually, not officially, asked to give a lecture on this area in Turkey. Although I have taken part in seminars on these subjects in more than 20 countries,” he says.
Mr. Ambassador talks about the strengths of his country and of Turkey: “I would like to import to Venezuela, I mean to the people, the sense of discipline and responsibility that Turkish men and women commonly have. This is something I really admire. From my country, a sense of being less formal. I want to say this in a very friendly manner: Take it easy.”
Mr. Ambassador underlines that every day he spends here in Turkey has been very nice, except what he calls “tatlı tatil,” meaning sweet holiday. He has some difficulties coping with the long summer holiday in Turkey. But he adds: “When I am here, every day I dream about Caracas. When I go back, every day I will dream about Caracas. But you cannot live twice.”
AYŞE KARABAT ANKARA