2184) Interviews With Ambassadors Of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Palestine, Philippines

  • Ambassador Of Georgia: Challenges Have United Our Nation
  • Azerbaijani Ambassador: No Need For Borders Among Brothers
  • Mongolian Ambassador Panidjunai Khaliun: We Are The Descendants Of Genghis Khan
  • Palestinian Ambassador To Turkey, Nebil Maaruf: This Is Life...
  • The Philippines And Diplomacy In A Globalized World

Ambassador Of Georgia: Challenges Have United Our Nation
Ambassador of Georgia to Turkey Grigol Mgaloblishvili thinks that with the same old mentality of the Soviet bloc it would not be possible to run Georgia, so his country has chosen young people as its envoys.

Ambassador Mgaloblishvili says he may be one of the youngest ambassadors in Turkey, but in his country he is considered middle aged. Mr. Ambassador speaks Turkish very well. He studied Turkology but developed his Turkish by playing tavla in the Kapali Çarsi. He says he is a lucky man in tavla, but being a Georgian in Turkey also makes him feel lucky.

"It would be impossible to change the Soviet mentality by relying on old people, not because of age but rather because of their experiences," says Ambassador Mgaloblishvili. "You find the young ambassadors of Georgia in Berlin, Paris and Washington. I am considered the youngest in Ankara but back in my capital I am a middle-aged ambassador," he says.

Mr. Ambassador is not only one of the youngest but also one of the most humorous envoys. At the beginning of the interview he introduces one of his aides at the embassy. "If I say something stupid, he will correct me," he laughs. We asked if Ankara is his first post as an ambassador. "I was not born an ambassador," he says, laughing again.

Apart from being young and humorous, the ambassador is also known for his excellent command of the Turkish language. He jokes again, "I learned it in the Kapali Çarsi while playing tavla. My first degree was in Oriental studies; I then studied Turkology at Tbilisi University at the end of the '80s and beginning of the '90s. I studied at Istanbul University as a guest student in 1991-2. At the same time, I learned Turkish by playing tavla. I love the Kapali Çarsi. I studied grammar at the university but colloquial language in the Kapali Çarsi." Mr. Ambassador does not want to comment on whether he is a good tavla player, but he does say he is a lucky man.

Ambassador Mgaloblishvili worked as an interpreter in Ankara at the trade office. "The office at that time was not very successful, but in any case it helped me to brush up on my Turkish. So I stayed for only six months. Then I entered the Foreign Ministry, and I have been working there for 12 or 13 years," he says. He also worked in the department of Western European countries, which encompasses the Balkans and Greece as well. His focus was on European integration.

Ambassador Mgaloblishvili thinks that diplomacy is a part of life and that its principles are no different from those used to run any business. According to him diplomacy should have two principles, honesty and looking at things from another's perspective. "We have a saying in Tbilisi, 'Lies have short legs.' This means that if you are not honest, the reality will be obvious in a short period of time."

The ambassador considers himself lucky to be a Georgian in Turkey. "I came as a student, as an interpreter and also as a low ranking diplomat. I meet a lot of people. I travel a lot. I have been to places maybe even you have not gone. I chat with people; I drink tea with them. What always amazes me and makes me feel lucky to be here is that whenever I am asked where I am from and I say 'Georgia,' not just sympathy, but respect and love are shown to me, just because I'm from Georgia. The reason for this is not only the good relations between the states but also the good relations between the peoples," he says.

Mr. Ambassador thinks that Turks receive Georgians very warmly also because of the Turkish citizens of Georgian origin whose ancestors immigrated to Turkey in the 19th century after a war between the Ottoman and Russian empires. He says he does not know their numbers but that they as well as other Turks with Caucasian origins have contributed a great deal to relations. "I would like to say thanks to the Turkish citizens of Georgian origin. The most important thing in a relationship is trust, and trust has been built by them. They are trying to enrich our cultural relations; they are contributing a lot. Some of them hold important positions in Parliament, in government and in business," Ambassador Mgaloblishvili says.

During his experiences in Turkey at different periods of time with different titles it has been possible to see the huge changes through which Turkey has passed. "You don't have to be an expert to see the changes in Turkey. The role of Turkey has increased in the international arena. Just observing all the visits of world leaders shows that. In terms of economy, infrastructure and tourism, there have been tremendous changes. Most importantly Turkey has stabilized economically; this is important for ordinary people. There is no administration which has a magic wand and can transform the country into a kind of paradise," he says, adding that although there have been many changes, the Turkish people have not changed. "People don't change. They are the same people. Living standards are going up. You can feel it, you can see it, but inside they are the same. Whenever you go to an Anatolian village you realize that just because a man is getting more money or more business, he will not refrain from showing the same hospitality."

Although the ambassador has traveled extensively within Turkey, he does not want to name any one place as his favorite. According to him, Turkey is so diverse; everywhere has its own uniqueness, and this is why there are many places that he likes. But a village in Artvin, half belonging to Georgia and the other half to Turkey, is special for him. "Whenever you are there, you can see and feel history and witness how the people are communicating. The most interesting part is that not so long ago, one part of this tiny village was under the Soviet bloc within the Warsaw Pact, and the other side was under NATO. You have to go to this village to feel the reality of how history can affect ordinary people," he says.

Georgian dinner table

Maybe because of the close relations or maybe because of the Turkish citizens of Georgian origin, Turks have a tendency to think that Georgians are good at music and dancing. When Ambassador Mgaloblishvili is asked about which musical instrument he plays, he laughs, saying: "Any Georgian should be able prepare good meat, play an instrument and dance, and he should be a gifted person, shouldn't he? I used to play piano. This is a part of our education. This was part of the game. Since it was compulsory I learned to play piano, but I don't like when I am pushed into things. That is why I didn't continue; however, I regret it now. I am not a gifted person." When questioned about dancing, he asks, "Do you want to find out the areas in which I feel sort of disabled? he says, adding: "I cannot dance very well. I need to drink to get up the courage. After a couple glasses of Georgian wine, everybody can dance. There is no difference between those who can and can't dance. Some of them are elegant; some of them, like me, a little less elegant," he says, laughing.

Mr. Ambassador says that being a wine-producing country has certainly affected the culture of Georgia. "Wine-producing countries consume wine as well. We drink a lot; we love drinking wine. That is why all of our dinner tables adjust accordingly. It is a part of our lifestyle. My grandmother passed away in her late 80s, but she drank until her last moment at every dinner. I don't recall one single dinner she was not drinking wine. When she got older, she mixed it with water. We have rules for dinner. We have a master of the table or toast maker. He is the man who must entertain the people. He should be smart, well spoken and expressive. This is a Georgian table; it is not just for eating and drinking but also for communicating with each other. Georgians love to communicate. In our culture I'm sure a lot of serious things have been decided around the dinner table," he says.

The ambassador is very happy to be in Turkey but that he misses the grape harvests of Georgia. He says their whole way of life changes during the harvest. "It is kind of a period of fasting. I love to be there at the time of the harvest. I'm missing it this year," he says.

Ambassador Mgaloblishvili wishes the expertise of Turkey in the service sector was in Georgia. He says he envies it. He adds that Georgia has the potential for tourism and that the country is trying to develop it by investing in tourism infrastructure. "But I wish we had the same kind of service sector that you have now," he comments.

Turkey is the top trade partner of Georgia, followed by the Russian Federation because of oil and gas. "Next year will be the first time Georgia will not need to rely on Russian gas, and this is very important for us," he says. When we reminded him of the sudden electric and gas cuts due to explosions in the transmission lines in the middle of last winter, Ambassador Mgaloblishvili says the reason for the explosion is still a mystery. "It was a very cold winter. Can you imagine having all of your resources cut overnight? But we overcame it. When we overcome something, we become stronger. That kind of challenge unites our nation. You can always feel solidarity among the people. I did not see one single citizen complain when the electric transmission and gas pipeline exploded. They were united. They were saying that we are paying the price of our freedom. We will never be a part of this game; we will never be swayed by any kind of blackmailing or pressure," he stated.

When we inquire about a famous Georgian in history, Stalin, he says they suffered much during that period. "Even my grandmother's father was executed. My wife's grandparents suffered a lot, too. You cannot find a single Georgian family that did not suffer from this evil. Yes he was Georgian, but the only place you can find a tiny bit of positive sentiment toward him is the place where he was born. I can understand it. It is a nice small town. People have a monument to him. But most Georgians suffered considerably. He represents oppression. Stalin and his comrades took our independence in 1921. We remained under Soviet rule rather unwillingly for 70 years. I will never forget when things started to change. My grandmother would say: 'Be careful, don't say it so loudly. The walls have ears'," he recalls.

Azerbaijani Ambassador: No Need For Borders Among Brothers
Azerbaijani Ambassador to Turkey Zakir Hasimov thinks that since Turkey and Azerbaijan consider themselves to be two states of one nation, it is a great honor to be an ambassador here.

While this makes his job easier, at the same time it gives him more responsibility. The ambassador talks about the small differences that are fading between the two countries in language, culture and habits and says he hopes that one day all the Turkic states will be able to speak the same language. Pleased to see that Azeri businessmen are investing in Turkey, he mentions that his country is developing rapidly and that living conditions are becoming similar to those in Turkey. Hasimov has been to Turkey for work several times in the past and shares his observations. He is a very humorous person and demonstrates this throughout the conversation.

“It is a great honor, a beautiful experience, extremely easy and extremely difficult, too,” says Ambassador Hasimov when asked what it’s like to be an ambassador to Turkey.

“The honor and the beauty are understandable. But let me tell you about the easy and the difficult parts. When I first arrived here, everybody, all the officials and ministers, told me that ‘it will be easy for you because all the doors will be open for you all the time.’ That is true; it is always like that. But this places more responsibility on my shoulders. If they behave in such a generous manner toward me, I must respond by returning it in double. So this is why it is easy and difficult,” says the ambassador.

He recalls that the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, said the joy of Azerbaijan is the joy of Turkey and that the sadness of Azerbaijan is the sadness of Turkey. The ambassador says that the reverse is true for Azerbaijan. “The problems of Turkey are our problems, too” he says. According to Hasimov, this makes him a member of the family. When asked if being perceived as a member of the family makes things more difficult for him, he smiles. “Brothers don’t always see eye to eye, but there is always good will,” Ambassador Hasimov says.

Hasimov has been the Azerbaijani ambassador to Turkey since 2005, but this is not his first post in Turkey. He also worked here in 1986-1987 as a translator.

“When there was a big problem, they would send me to the Turkish authorities. I was telling them ‘but your position is higher than mine. You should solve the problem.’ But they insisted that I should go. Then the Turkish authorities would say to me, ‘Shrewd people. They knew that we can’t say no to you’.” Mr. Ambassador laughs when he tells this story.

Ambassador Hasimov worked in the Azerbaijani Embassy in Ankara in 1994-7 and the returned to Baku as the protocol chief of late President Haydar Aliyev. Then he was appointed to China as an ambassador in 2001. After spending four years there, he returned to Turkey as an ambassador.

When asked to compare Turkey during the different periods that he has had the chance to observe, he smiles. “In the 1980s there were rather different perceptions. For example, carrying foreign currency was a crime,” he recalls. “I really love to travel within Turkey and visit and meet with people. I even go to the villages. I will be very open with you; in the more remote villages there is still the richness of the old culture. We have the same in Azerbaijan; however, the people are slowly changing. But we should keep our traditions, our character and our Turkishness,” he says.

Mr. Ambassador expresses that he feels at home when he is in Turkey. When he first arrived here, the authorities offered him bodyguards. But his answer was “I don’t have bodyguards in Baku. Why should I have them here, in my home?”

The ambassador mentions that Ankara is good for working and living, Istanbul for traveling and having fun and Izmir for relaxing. “Sometimes the people from Istanbul are disappointed because of my attitude, but I like Ankara,” he says. His favorite place in Turkey is Izmir, which is the sister city of Baku. He mentions that his only child, a daughter, also likes Izmir. She is finishing high school this year and has learned Russian, English, Turkish and Chinese. “When I was in China, a couple of times I took her along as a translator. She is able to write and speak Chinese,” he says proudly, adding that she is planning to study international relations and wants to be a diplomat like her father.

Ambassador Hasimov has an important post not only for Turkish-Azeri relations but also for relations with 38 other countries which have embassies in Ankara with ambassadors accredited to Azerbaijan also. He says that as a principle they are trying to encourage all of those countries to establish embassies in Baku because it is would be best for relations to have them on site.

The ambassador underlines that there is a stereotype of dishonesty regarding diplomats. But he stresses that whether it is nice or not, he always tells the truth. “There is a proverb in Azerbaijan: Theft can be kept a secret for 40 days. To lie is the same. Besides, I am in a country in which I don’t have to lie,” he laughs.

Mr. Ambassador says that he enjoys humor. He often jokes when he is speaking. This attitude reflects in his chosen readings from Turkish literature. His favored writers from Turkey are Muzaffer Izgü and Aziz Nesin -- both of them are leading humorists of Turkey. Hasimov mentions that he first encountered Nesin when he was a student. At the time, he and his friends translated one of Nesin’s books into Azerbaijani Turkish.

When asked about why Azeris are known to read much more than Turks, he laughs, saying: “It is a habit for us because when we were under the Soviet regime, we had a scarcity of information. You never had the same situation. It helped us to develop a reading habit.”

Azeris are also seemingly more interested in art than Turks. When we tell him that in Turkey we have a belief that in every Azeri house there is a piano, the ambassador laughs again. “It is really true that in every Azeri home there is a piano. I personally had to deal with one for two years, but I was lazy when I was a child; I gave up. But there are many musicians in my family. Every Azeri engages in art; they write poems or sing. Sometimes I sing also,” he says, smiling. “During the Soviet time, as you know our economic situation was not good. But people liked to tell each other that they had a piano at home. So as a joke, if someone asked for the time, usually the answer would be, ‘I forget my watch on top of the piano’,” he says.

Mr. Ambassador mentions that there are many world-renowned Azeri musicians. He underlines that the new generation of musicians is also keeping the old traditions and songs alive. “The first opera in eastern countries was created in Azerbaijan. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first woman opera singer took the stage in our country, too,” he says.

Ambassador Hasimov mentions that he also likes Turkish music. When he was very young his father had brought Turkish LPs from Turkey. “We would exchange these Turkish LPs,” he says, adding: “There is not one single wedding, birthday party or celebration on a TV program without Turkish music. Sometimes I ask myself if I am watching Turkish TV or Azeri TV.”

When Turks watch Azeri TV stations, they have the idea that it looks like Turkey a couple of years ago. When the ambassador is asked if he has the same feeling or if he thinks that Azerbaijan will have the same conditions as Turkey in a few years, he says: “Let me tell you very openly. Azerbaijan is changing very fast. I go there frequently, and each time I find it different; the people, the cities, the TV programs. The people are gaining a better quality of life. As you know in the past they did not let us use our own resources. An economist has calculated that during the 60 years of the Soviet regime, if our petroleum had been sold at its value in the world market it would be possible to cover all of Azerbaijan with 8 millimeters of gold.”

“In the past when we would watch Turkish TV, we wanted to have the things we saw. But now we are also very advanced,” Mr. Ambassador says.

But for both cultures it is sometimes fun to watch each other’s TV stations because of the languages. Although it is the same language, there are some differences which can sometimes be amusing.

Hasimov speaks the Turkish of Turkey perfectly. “Our late leader Haydar Aliyev said that ‘we are one nation, two states.’ If you go to Erzurum, for example, you will understand the people there despite the fact that there are different dialects. It is true for Turkey’s Turkish and Azeri Turkish. But because of the increasing closeness to each other, the differences in the languages are disappearing, too,” he says.

He gives some interesting examples of the differences. For example the word meaning “to land and to get off” in Turkey is “inmek,” but in Azeri Turkish it is “düsmek.” Düsmek means to “fall down” in Turkey. Mr. Ambassador mentions that during the first flight he took between Turkey and Azerbaijan, when the plane was approaching the Baku airport, it was announced in Azeri Turkish that the plane would land very shortly, but because of the different meaning of the word, the Turks on the plane understood it as the plane would fall down very shortly.

The ambassador mentions that there are 2 million Azeris living in Turkey, including students, businessmen, artists and workers. He says he is very happy about this situation because he has always defended the idea that not only the Turks but also the Azeris have to invest in the other’s country.

He also notes that there are very big gas and oil pipeline projects between Turkey and Azerbaijan. “One day the gas and oil will run out. But our other big project, the railway, will remain. A person who takes the train from Istanbul will be able to get off in China,” he says.

But despite these very good political, economic and cultural relations, tourism relations are not at the desired level. He says that recently they have started to construct many holiday resorts and that their ministry of tourism is trying to promote them.

We remind him that there are still small differences such as when Turks greet each other they kiss on both cheeks but Azeris kiss only one cheek. When Mr. Ambassador hears that he starts to laugh again. “Not anymore; we have started to kiss on both cheeks, too. Day by day we are becoming more similar,” he says, adding, “One day there will be no borders between our two countries because among brothers there is no need for borders.”

Mongolian Ambassador Panidjunai Khaliun: We Are The Descendants Of Genghis Khan
Panidjunai Khaliun, Mongolia’s ambassador to Turkey, says that if any two nations in the world could be labeled as the descendents of Genghis Khan, it would be the Mongolians and the Turks.

He thinks that the two nations, who once lived in the same land, were separated by destiny but have now met again. Ambassador Khaliun’s family, who are preparing to return back to their country after five years abroad, have had many special moments in Turkey. For Mrs. Khaliun the fondest memory is of a visit to Konya, the home and burial place of Sufi saint Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. According to her, Mevlana’s “Seven Lessons” are very similar to Buddhist philosophy. The Khaliun family says that Central Anatolia reminds them their home country’s steppes. According to Mr. Ambassador the steppes of Mongolia free people of the anxieties of daily life.

“This cultural heritage belongs to your people before us. But it is a world heritage,” says Mr. Ambassador, referring to the famous Orkhon inscriptions. He explains that on what is today Mongolian soil, the Turkic people had two historical empires. One of them was the Göktürks. The Orkhon inscriptions date back to this empire.

These inscriptions contain the first historical mention of “the Turks.” They are near the Orkhon river in Mongolia. The Göktürks, who believed that God gave them the order of establishing a state, created the inscriptions. There are six sets of inscriptions written into stone. One of them tells the story of a Göktürk king, Bilge Khan (Wise Khan). The inscriptions were written with the first Turkic alphabet in the eighth century B.C. Mr. Ambassador mentions that the excavations in the area and scientific work on the inscriptions are still going on. “Recently they found the gold crown of Bilge Khan,” he says and adds, “You used to live there.”

At the Mongolian Embassy, almost every wall displays something recalling one of history’s most significant emperors, Genghis Khan, who established an empire stretching from China to Russia in the 13th century. Mr. Ambassador mentions that last year it was the 800th anniversary of Genghis Khan’s empire.

“In order to celebrate this event, we brought many historical objects to Istanbul’s Sabanci Museum under the sponsorship of Garanti Bank. We started in December. If you went there you would see your own history, not just Mongolia’s. Sometimes it is difficult to separate them from each other,” he says.

The exhibition Mr. Ambassador refers to included nearly 600 exhibits, illustrated the story of Genghis Khan’s empire with artworks from the most important museums in Mongolia as well as from famed collections in Eastern Asia and Europe. It featured the latest archaeological discoveries. The exhibit displayed treasures, magnificent weapons and armor, manuscripts, ancient maps, textiles, porcelains and rare sacral objects. It stayed in Istanbul for almost five months and was visited by many people.

Mr. Ambassador thinks that being the descendants of Genghis Khan is something to be very proud of but at the same time it is also a huge responsibility: “Firstly, to be the descendants of Genghis Khan gives you the feeling of being proud. Secondly, it gives you more responsibility; you should be at the same level as your ancestors. It also gives you encouragement; through your history and traditions you are encouraged to be more active in making your country prosperous and making people’s lives better,” he says.

When Mr. Ambassador is asked to surmise how close the Mongolians and Turks are in their ancestry, he laughs, “We are one family.” He continues: “We used to be one family. Later, you went to other places. In general we are brothers and sisters. We probably have the same things in our blood and flesh. We used to live in the same land.” Ambassador Khaliun gives an example: “While we are driving in the city we stop at the red light. But the moment it turns yellow, the person in the car behind you honks the horn. People are the same way in Turkey.”

According to Mr. Ambassador there are many commonalities between Turks and Mongolians, the only significant difference is religion: “We almost have the same characters. Our histories have much in common. We have the same origins and we used to live together. We have one difference, religion. Mongolia is Buddhist, your religion is Islam. Because of religion we have some differences. You have many good traditions because of your religion. As Mongolians, we have also our traditions and some of them come from religion. The interchange of cultural practices is good for us and it is useful for understanding each other.”

He adds that, while traveling in Turkey’s countryside, he observed the lifestyle of the people to be very similar to that of Mongolia. Sometimes, he says, there is no difference at all. “In Turkey, as in Mongolia, the family traditions are very strong. Small businesses are run by families, like in Turkey. People in the countryside in Mongolia are always trying to help each other, just like in Turkey,” Mr. Ambassador explains.

According to him the separation of Mongolians and Turks was their destiny, but so is their return to each other after the regime change in Mongolia: “We are geographically far away from each other. But our cultures and personalities are very close and we share similar feelings. Usually I like to say that we have connections and relations spanning many hundreds of years. But this is our destiny to have been separated for so long. ... soon, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the re-establishment of relations between our countries.”

He illustrates these different destinies through recent Turkish and Mongolian history: “When your great Atatürk was achieving all these revolutions and reforms for the good of his country, in Mongolia we had our so-called revolution. Then for almost 70 years we tried to build up a socialist system but we failed economically along with other socialist states. At the beginning of the ‘90s we shifted to a free market system with more democracy. These recent developments are pushing our two countries together. Our relations are developing. We have very good cooperation in every sense of this word although we need to make more effort to expand trade and economic relations. We have some difficulties; the main one is geographical distance. But within years that will be less important. We are looking for more investments from Turkey. The economy in Mongolia is doing well. Turkish businessmen are already coming to Mongolia to increase their investments. We have good prospects, especially in the mine industry. We have almost everything. This is another common thing between us; we have almost everything except petroleum.”

One of the fields of cooperation between the two countries is education. For Mongolian university students Turkey is the second destination for education after Japan. “I feel that the people of Mongolia are increasingly choosing to send their children here. It is probably because of the similarities between our people. The languages are similar, too. You have very good universities. You have a very good education system. The country is also very nice. Turkey is gaining recognition in Mongolia. Parents know that there are good conditions for their children in Turkey. There are also four Turkish secondary schools in Mongolia,” Mr. Ambassador says.

Ambassador Khaliun mentions that Turkish and Mongolian languages share the same origins, the Ural-Altaic language family. He says, “The construction and grammar are the same. There are more than 5,000 similar words, starting with ‘çicek’,” which means flower.

Mr. Ambassador says that he unfortunately did not have the time to learn Turkish in a classroom setting but that he has tried to learn Turkish by himself. He jokes, “If people are saying bad things I can understand. But I never use them.”

As grandparents of five children and parents of three, the Khaliun couple laughs when they are asked if they know how to ride a horse. According to Mrs. Ambassador, Mongolian children learn how to ride a horse at an early age. When Mongolians are 4 years old, they already know how to ride. “Nobody teaches them, it comes by nature,” Mr. Ambassador says.

Mrs. Khaliun adds that in their national festival, there are horse riding competitions, nearly 800 horses are just running in the steppe and the riders are usually children who are not even 6 years old.

When she is asked about the status of women in Mongolia, Mrs. Khaliun smiles: “Emancipated. Since ancient times they have been privileged. Now they are even too free. They have too many liberties and they are very rebellious.”

The Ambassador and his wife are about to leave Turkey. They have been here for almost five years. They are preparing to go back to their country. They say that it is difficult for them to leave behind so many memories in Turkey. Mrs. Khaliun says, “There are many important memories for me. I was a member of the Foreign Ministry’s women’s club. The club took us to Konya. The beautiful dancing of the dervishes is a special memory for me. The music was extremely beautiful, too.”

Mrs. Khaliun cherishes the “Seven Lessons” of Mevlana: “In generosity and helping others be like a river; in compassion and grace be like the sun; in concealing others’ faults be like the night; in anger and fury be like the dead; in modesty and humility be like the earth; in tolerance be like a sea; and either exist as you are or be as you seem.”

According to her, these lessons are very similar to Buddhist philosophy.

She adds that she also greatly enjoyed Trabzon and Giresun. But for her husband the most beautiful place that they visited in Turkey was Mount Nemrut. He found it “fantastic and quite impressive.”

The Khaliun family says that when they are in central Anatolia, especially around Konya, they feel just like they are at home. The plains of Konya give them this feeling. When Mr. Ambassador is asked what the almost endless plains of Mongolia mean for the Mongolians he replies: “To stand in front them makes you feel that there is a kind of connection between human beings and nature. You feel that you are a part of the universe when you are there. You feel that the problems this modern life brings to you and stresses you out with are actually not important. The Gobi desert and the steppe in some sense make a human being free; free of everything, including the hostile life of the city. You feel more natural and, of course, happier.”

Palestinian Ambassador To Turkey, Nebil Maaruf: This Is Life...
“This is life,” Palestinian Ambassador to Turkey Nebil Maaruf frequently says. He is also called Abu Rami, which means father of Rami, the name of the first-born son among his six children.

What makes him and his wife say “this is life” is the memory of their hard days in a Lebanese refugee camp; the birth of their children under sieges or during wars; their houses, which were bombarded; and the strange feeling that they had when they first visited their home country.

Ambassador and Mrs. Maaruf hosted Today’s Zaman for an iftar dinner, and they shared not only their traditional Palestinian food, as prepared by Mrs. Maaruf in an excellent manner, but also their feelings and memories. They talked about all the pain and struggle they have faced in life, and also mentioned the mistakes they have made.

“We got married in 1973, immediately after the war. I was in Beirut, she was in South Lebanon. When they went there to bring her to Beirut, I told them to bring her without a white dress,” says Ambassador Maaruf. Mrs. Maaruf continues:

“I was only 17 years old. My mother was upset.” she says. Ambassador Maaruf says smilingly, “I am ready to do it again, to marry again.” When Mrs. Maaruf hears these words, she furrows her eyebrows. Mr. Ambassador laughs and adds, “But with you.”

Mr. Ambassador was born in a village in Palestine, but fled with his family to take refuge in Lebanon when he was only one-and-a-half years old. He and his wife are actually related. “His father is my mother’s brother,” says Mrs. Maaruf.

After they got married, life was also not easy. The Lebanese civil war began, right in the refugee camp where they were living. Their four children were born during the war, the first one during a siege.

“Our house was destroyed twice, there was a bomb in the kitchen once,” Mrs. Maaruf says.

“It is not easy, not only because you are there, but also because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” underlines Mr. Ambassador and continues: “In general, this is the life of Palestinians. We suffered a lot -- in our camp, we saw something that you wouldn’t believe. They tied one of the legs of a man to a car, and the other to another car and the cars drove in opposite directions,” he says.

Mrs. Ambassador adds that once, they had a relative with a small child. “The child was crying. Phalangists took the baby, threw it against the wall. Then it died. You can’t forget it,” she says, evidently still shaken by the horror of the event.

Being a Palestinian: frequently changing passports

In those days Mr. Ambassador was one of the leaders of the camp and their life was not easy. After Israel invaded Lebanon, life became more difficult. They had to leave Lebanon; Abu Rami left his family and had to go to Cyprus.

“I stayed there seven days. Cypriot authorities gave me a travel document -- it was a paper only for one trip. In its nationality section, nothing was written. I still have this paper. From Cyprus I went to Tunis. I stayed there for one mouth and joined the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as an assistant secretary-general for Palestinian affairs. I worked there for 11 years.”

During this mission Mr. Ambassador met with President Abdullah Gül, who was working for the OIC’s Islamic Development Bank (IDB). Mr. Ambassador says that they worked in different buildings and were not close, but knew each other. Mr. Ambassador did, however, develop a close relationship with OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. Remembering those days makes Mr. Ambassador say once more, “This is life.”

Being Palestinian was not easy in Saudi Arabia, either. Mr. Ambassador bitterly smiles, saying, “I changed my passport three times. I had an Iraqi passport first. When the war broke out, I was in Saudi Arabia, so I had to get an Algerian one. When I left Saudi Arabia I got a Jordanian one. After Saudi Arabia I went to Tunis and lived there for a year. Then I became an ambassador to Spain. When I was in Tunis my family was in Lebanon and we met again in Spain. In Saudi Arabia we had a daughter and in Spain we had a son.”

The biggest mistake of my life

Mr. Ambassador says that during the 12 years when he was in Spain, he did not visit Andalusia even once, because he was working all the time, just as he does in Turkey. “I know Ankara and the forest near Or-an [Sitesi],” he says, smiling. He adds that this attitude has been the biggest mistake of his life.

His wife says to him, “This is your problem, not mine.” She turns to us and says, “He does not want to be happy.” Mr. Ambassador stops for a while and once more says, “This is life,” then continues: “This is my generation -- we suffered a lot, we are always poor. It is a big responsibility. Once on holiday my father saw me when I was playing in the street. He asked me, ‘Which is good for you: playing or studying?’ This is a harsh life. My generation is the nakba (disaster) generation. Our responsibility was different. However, for example, my eldest son, who is seriously interested in politics, has been dealing with it differently from the way that I do; he also knows how to live his own life.”

Mr. Ambassador did not travel in Spain but was eventually able to see Palestine. “Before my stay in Oslo as a Palestinian refugee, I was not allowed to go anywhere without a visa. I knew nothing about Palestine before 1995. Even in Lebanon, we had to get a special permission from the army to go to Southern Lebanon. After Oslo I got Palestinian citizenship and the right to reside there in 1995. I went there,” says the Ambassador.

However, even visiting home was difficult and a little scary, as Mr. Ambassador puts it: “It was in two stages. I don’t have any relatives in West Bank; all my roots from the north are in the diaspora. Our friends, when they got back to Palestine, had their relatives there to welcome them. I was allowed go back in 1994, but I postponed it to 1995 in order to have friends to welcome me there. I was afraid of feeling like a stranger in my own country. I have been fighting all my life to go back to my country, I did not want to see myself as an isolated stranger that nobody knows. I started making relations with Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, inviting them to Spain. When I went there, just to the border, I was afraid there would be this tension. However when I entered Jericho, Arafat was there; all my friends from Beirut were there. I did not feel strange.”

Still, when Mr. Ambassador visited Palestine for the first time, he did experience strange feelings. “All your life you have been fighting against the enemy of your country, and then you enter your country with their permission. You enter your country under the Israeli flag, your passport stamped by the Israeli side; you accept the Israeli intelligence before you go in and answer all these questions: ‘Who are you, what are doing?’ This is also a very strange feeling and it is not easy,” says the ambassador.

For Abu Rami, visiting the village where he was born was a bit disappointing and awkward: “I decided to visit my village. Israeli intelligence asked me, ‘You are an ambassador in Spain, why do you want to go there?’ I told them that I went there to do two things. First of all I want to do what my nationality requires and I want to feel that I am a Palestinian in Palestine. Secondly, I want to visit my village. They asked me the name of my village. They could not find it in the map so I showed them. I went to my village with their permission,” he says, and pauses for a while again.

“Somebody is in love with a girl -- he waits and waits to see her with all that eagerness. Finally when he meets the girl, he suddenly finds out that she is an ordinary girl. When I went to my village, I had no experience in my village, no details, nothing. I saw stones, I saw roads. I don’t know anything. Honestly, I did not feel comfortable; I had always tried to come to my village and when I came, I found nothing,” says Mr. Ambassador. Then, he adds that he overcame this feeling when he took his father to the village during his second trip there:

“I decided to bring my father here to watch him and his reaction. When we were in the village, he was fighting even with the stones. ‘This stone, I put it here; it belongs to the neighbors, but this one, I know,’ he said. He went to the other villages and visited his friends. Then I started to visit my village every time I was there. I cannot describe it, but it is an internal conflict and it is not easy.”

Ramadan in Turkey and Palestine

After his years in Spain, when the Palestinian administration decided to shuffle around ambassadors, Ambassador Maaruf chose an appointment to Turkey. He thinks that Turkey and Palestine should accelerate their relationship and that Palestine should push for more Turkish involvement. “If Turks support us, we are sure we will win. If you really mean to help us, we will win,” he says.

Mr. Ambassador says that Palestinian families do not spend their iftars alone, as in Turkey. There are always neighbors, relatives or friends at home. During Ramadan, even the families who normally have only one kind of food try to eat several kinds.

When Mr. Ambassador notes that in Turkey there are traditional entertainments after the Ramadan iftar dinner, we ask if it is the same in Palestine; but Mr. Ambassador smiles bitterly and replies: “With the circumstances in Palestine, you can still find some entertainment, but not that much. In Palestine families remember their martyrs, sons in prison or people who work abroad in Ramadan. Our family has eight members, but here we have only four of them. My brothers also live in different cities of the world. This is our decision, but there are many families who lost their freedom to be with their loved ones.”

He says that the Ramadan traditions of Palestinians also vary according to where people live. He gives examples from Lebanon, where he spent his childhood as a refugee. “Sometimes we organize meetings to talk about Palestine. Old people come and tell stories to the new generations. Palestinians have nothing to talk about except Palestine. Every day, everything reminds you of the fact that you are a refugee. You are Palestinian, you are a refugee and something is missing. It does not matter where you are; in a camp, in a city or in a village. This is the general picture. But practices vary according to where Palestinians live. In Jordan, it is different from Ramallah or Syria. When you hear their Arabic you can even say, ‘He is a Palestinians from Syria or he is a Palestinian from Jordan’.”

One day…

When he is asked about the future, Mr. Ambassador talks about his children: “I can tell you that this small guy, who is 11, was born in Spain. I watch what he is doing from afar. Everywhere, he draws the Palestinian flag; he follows what is going on in Palestine. Once he asked me to bring him a uniform of the Palestinian national soccer team. He did not like the design of it that much; so he redesigned it on the computer,” says Mr. Ambassador and smiles very warmly. Maybe this is because he has remembered his granddaughter.

He continues: “My third child, my daughter, is married to an Israeli citizen, a Palestinian from Jerusalem. Israelis refuse to allow her to live there, so she lives in London. She and her daughter have British citizenship, too. My granddaughter is very lovely, a very clever young lady. When I was giving my farewell reception, I also invited my Jewish friends. My granddaughter was there. I took the hand of the small lady; she was holding her Israeli passport in the other hand. I said to my guests, ‘I promise -- this little girl, when she is in her 20s, will be a member of Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.’”

The Philippines And Diplomacy In A Globalized World
Ambassador of the Philippines Bahranim Guinomla, who will serve in Turkey for a year, has said that in a globalized world diplomats should follow the principle of "Peace at home, peace in the world," coined by Atatürk.

He talks about the challenge of Philippines diplomacy to protect the rights of its nationals in their work overseas. According to him, the Philippine diaspora is becoming a political power.

On a personal note, he wishes that more tropical fruit were available in Turkey and that there was a golf course in Ankara. He mentions the developing trade relations between his country and Turkey. Mr. Ambassador also talks about the culture of his country.

"I wish we had minarets like you have here in Turkey," says Ambassador Guinomla. He notes that when traveling through both rural and urban locations in Turkey, both one can see the lovely silhouette of towering minarets. Mr. Ambassador is in Turkey only for a year, but so far he already been to Istanbul, Ankara, Mersin, Antalya and Izmir. He thinks Izmir is a very lovely city. He has also been to Kütahya, participating in a tour organized by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to promote Kütahya porcelain.

Since he has not been here very long, he is reluctant to tell us about his favorite memory in Turkey. "I have not left Turkey yet," he says, smiling. "Give me some time. I have met many nice people and visited some places. But I want to see more and meet more people." He is also reluctant to tell us what has surprised him most in Turkey; however, he does say that before he arrived in Turkey, some people told him that Turkey looks a lot like Middle Eastern countries. But as someone who has spent many of his years as a career diplomat in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Oman, he does not agree, especially when it comes to Istanbul. "It is a very open and modern city. Also I was told that the capital is polluted, but it is not. There are many nice parks in Ankara. It was a pleasant surprise," he says.

Mr. Ambassador says that despite the rapid growth of cities in Turkey, the transportation situation is satisfactory. When reminded of the traffic in Istanbul, he says, "One has to be patient." According to Mr. Ambassador, in the Philippines there is a campaign to make transportation more efficient in order to ensure the smooth movement of people and goods. He reminds us that his country is composed of thousands of islands and that this creates transportation difficulties. "We have 7,107 islands. I think this is a handicap. Some of the islands are in quite a desperate situation. We have two big islands, but the others are quite small. Turkey is one huge peninsula, and to travel through it is relatively easy. We rely on travel by sea and air. Ferries are of utmost importance," he states.

But to have so many islands also has some advantages. "We are number one in the world in regards to safety in the shipping industry. Our sailors are chosen to captain ships all over the world. We produce top-notch sailors," he says.

Ambassador Guinomla mentions that besides being made up of many islands, administration by foreigners in the Philippines for many years determined the culture of the country. "There is a joke; we don't know whether to look to the East or to the West. We inherited pieces of our culture from a lot of different civilizations in the past. Europeans came in the 16th century. Before they came to our shores, we already had Arabs and Chinese, for example; they came for trade. Arabs were mainly teachers and merchants. The Chinese were mostly businessmen. Spaniards came with the sword and the cross. The Philippines inherited Catholicism from the Spaniards. Americans came at the turn of the last century. We had the Spanish-American War. Because we were a Spanish colony, they ordered their admiral to take control of Manila. Of course over this period we had some Indians, Indonesians and other ethnic groups immigrating to the Philippines. We had a special trade situation between Acapulco, Mexico, and Manila, for example. This trade brought other groups, including Mexicans. These people brought with them their religions -- Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism, all of these. Culture is not static; it is dynamic. Our culture has had so many different influences. This has provided the uniqueness of the Filipino culture."

In the Philippines there are different ethnicities, languages and dialects, but it is difficult to understand these differences for someone who is not familiar with Filipino culture. "Since there are so many islands, one might expect that people on one island would only speak one dialect, but this is not the case. Even food and culture can vary on a single island. I think there are some 80 dialects or more. The national language, Tagalog, has the biggest group of speakers. There are many inter-marriages between ethnic groups," he says.

All the years under colonization have made Filipinos aspire to national unity. "We fought for our independence. Our national aspiration is to be one despite our many islands," Mr. Ambassador emphasized. The national hero of the Philippines during these years of struggle for independence was a doctor and writer named Jose Rizal. The ambassador tells his story. "Rizal was born in 1861. He was killed in 1895. He was so young when he was martyred. He was an excellent student; because of discrimination among the students he decided to leave for Europe to study. He chose to study medicine. In Europe he started a campaign for patriotism and reform. For example, he wanted [Philippine] representation in the Spanish Cortes [parliament] and equality in the law reforms of the government. He returned to the Philippines where they arrested him. He was tried and executed." Rizal was a novelist and a poet. He also dabbled in journalism like the ambassador when he was a student. "I used to be a journalist. I worked for a radio station and contributed to a local newspaper so I could earn some spending money when I was a student. Those jobs helped me in my studies," he says.

But Mr. Ambassador eventually decided to become a diplomat. His principles in diplomacy are to work very hard and ensure that his work is transparent. Filipino diplomacy has its own unique pillars. "There are more then 8 million Filipinos overseas. They are spread across more than 100 countries. Protecting their rights is a challenge. They are a very important sector of the country. They are also economically contributing a lot," he says. Mr. Ambassador says that just in the Middle East there are 1.5 million Filipinos.

"I went to a large mosque being constructed in Yemen. There were Filipinos inside working. I spoke to them. I was so happy and proud. They were contributing to that great building," he says.

Mr. Ambassador adds that many of his country's nationals are skilled and educated. They are also becoming a political force in the countries they have immigrated to. "They want to be represented in the US Congress," he says. But because of labor regulations that make it difficult to work legally as domestic helpers and in similar trades, there are only about 400 Filipinos in Turkey. Trade relations despite the geographical distance are developing. He reminds us that very soon Turkey and the Philippines will celebrate the 60th anniversary of their relations. He says that recently he read that during the Ottoman Empire, when the Philippines and America were at odds with one another, the Ottoman Empire tried to be mediators by sending emissaries.

But when it comes to the present, the ambassador says that he wishes there was more Filipino fruit and juices in the Turkish market. "You love your food. A Filipino restaurant in Istanbul or Ankara would not survive. We would like to see your market open up to our products more. We are going to participate in the food fair in Istanbul," he says.

Since he lived for many years in the Middle East, both he and his family adapted to the cuisine in this part of the world. "But my wife misses the fish of the Philippines. Our fish come from warm waters. We have many types of tropical fruit, too. The Philippine mango is the best. There are too many fibers in the others. Ours are smooth as silk. But unfortunately their shelf life is short. So this increases the cost of exportation. So we are exporting mango chips since they are longer lasting," he says.

The ambassador misses playing golf and wishes there was a course in Ankara. When he was asked if golf is a game preferred by diplomats, he smiles. "Asian diplomats like golf very much. Golf is my passion. But unfortunately in a beautiful capital like Ankara, it is not possible," he says, adding that he also used to play tennis. However, his country is very famous for its passion for basketball. "It was given to us by the Americans. They stayed for half a century. It is very popular because it is so easy; you can hang a hoop and play. Filipinos also esteem individual ability. Today, I think personally there is too much focus on basketball at the expense of other sports," he says.

The ambassador says that Filipinos are also fun loving. "Filipinos are a fun-loving people. They take a month's earnings and spend it in one day. They like fiestas. The villages in the Philippines have annual festivals; we celebrate life. Probably one out of every 10 can dance and sing. I, unfortunately, am one of the nine who can't," he laughs.

There are native sports in the Philippines, too, like arnis. "You do it with sticks. In some schools they do it for physical education. We also have something similar to eskrim but we called it as eskrima," the ambassador says. He mentions that there were some attempts to introduce these sports to the rest of the world. For instance, there were some action movies in which arnis was shown, but people only seemed to notice Bruce Lee.

We conclude with a discussion about globalization. Ambassador Guinomla thinks globalization is a function of modern technology. "Things are moving very fast; travel is fast. You can probably have dinner in Istanbul and lunch in Manila. The Filipinos working abroad can come home easily, can communicate with home easily. Before, world leaders could only convene after a lot of travel preparations. It is easier now. They can meet more quickly and thus more regularly. It is easy to have dialogue and partnership. In this world the duty of diplomats is to contribute to peace because our main principle must be as your founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, said, 'Peace at home, peace in the world'." 30.10.2007, AYSE KARABAT ANKARA


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