2228) Interview: Algerian & Danish Ambassadors To Turkey

Algerian Ambassador Ismail Allaoua: This Post Has Been A Dream Come True
Danish Ambassador Honeymooners Return To Turkey 21 Years Later . .

Algerian Ambassador Ismail Allaoua: This Post Has Been A Dream Come True
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Algerian Ambassador to Turkey Ismail Allaoua

While speaking on the common history of Algeria and Turkey, Algerian Ambassador to Turkey Ismail Allaoua not only mentions Ottoman admiral Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha and Ibn Khaldun, the founder of sociology, but also the Algerians who fought for Turkish independence against French occupation.

He thinks that despite shared values and history the two nations do not know each other well and that this means there are lots of things to be done. After visiting Turkey as a tourist Mr. Ambassador says he dreamed about being a diplomat here. He thinks that one of the principles in diplomacy is that ambassadors must not think they can form their country's foreign policy -- he says the duty of a diplomat is only to implement it.

"They came during the Turkish War of Independence and did not return to Algeria. They became Turkish citizens," says Ambassador Allaoua. His shining eyes and the smile on his face reveal his pride at the story of Turkish citizens of Algerian origin.

"When French forces occupied Turkey after World War I, they brought some Algerians here as soldiers to fight against the Turks. [The] Algerian soldiers at the beginning did not know what was going on. When they arrived they found themselves fighting against Turks, Muslims against their brothers. Many of these Algerians joined the Turkish forces and under the command of Atatürk started to fight against French occupation. After Turkish independence they did not return to Algeria; they were given land. Their descendants are living in Turkey as Turkish citizens. Another group of Algerians were influenced by the political fight and struggle of Atatürk. They shared many of his views, especially the rejection of foreign occupation, and they came to fight against occupiers."

Mr. Ambassador points out that not only the Algerians who participated in the Turkish Independence War but Algerian national movement leaders in general were also strongly inspired by Atatürk's ideas. "The Algerian national movement leaders shared many of his views when it came to the rejection of foreign powers," he says.

Algeria and Turkey share not only some political ideas and recent history, but their interaction and friendship dates back to even before 1492, as Ambassador Allaoua points out. Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha, an Ottoman naval admiral, was an important figure in these relations.

"In 1492 Muslims and Arabs left Andalusia. Spaniards and the Portuguese were trying to conquer and occupy Maghrib countries (northwest Africa). Because of its strategic position, they started wars against Algeria. The Maghrib was going through a difficult period, it was very weak. They fought against Spain and the Portuguese. Algerian princes and tribal chieftains heard of the reputation Barbarossa and his brothers had in fighting against Europe and they helped and protected Muslims and Jews who had to leave Andalusia after its conquest. So the Algerian princes, tribal chiefs and leaders asked Hayreddin to help -- and he did," says Mr. Ambassador.

Outside of Barbarossa and wars, famous founder of sociology Ibn Khaldun also means a lot to Algeria. Ibn Khaldun, although he was born in Tunisia, spent most of his time in Algeria and also in Egypt. "Ibn Khaldun was the first one to see a direct link between man and his political environment. He wrote his famous work "Prolegomenon," which is only a part of his works on universal history. What is amazing about Khaldun is that whenever he worked he was seen as a major figure of knowledge and yet he was so modest," says Mr. Ambassador and quotes Khaldun as saying of his work, "...I hope people who have the knowledge and competence will consider it with critical eyes and correct its mistakes."

There are some Algerian footprints in Turkey, too. For example Algerian Street, in Istanbul's Beyoglu district, which has recently become a tourist attraction. Interestingly it is known as "French Street" although its name is Algerian Street. When asked if he likes the street Mr. Ambassador gives a very diplomatic smile but does not go into details.

When Ambassador Allaoua was reminded of the fact that in Turkish the flower periwinkle is called an "Algerian violet," he gives a very enthusiastic smile. He says he asked around for the reason for this but that nobody has known.

People-to-people relations between Algeria and Turkey continue into today. According to Mr. Ambassador, last year almost 40,000 Algerians visited Turkey. "Half of them came here for pure tourism. The other half is a combination of tourism and shopping. We are learning a lot from the Turkish experience in developing tourism. I had the chance to come here in 1985. Turkey did not then have the reputation that does now as a tourist destination. We came in 1997 with my wife and spent one week in Istanbul and one week in Side, Antalya. From 1985 to 1997, I observed a big change; and 10 years later it is completely different. Turkey has made tremendous progress; there is a lot of exchange at the official level to learn from the Turkish experience, though we have not yet reached the stage where we can conduct common operations, as is done in some countries after spending one week. We are able to maintain this cooperation because our touristic products are not the same; we have the Sahara," Mr. Ambassador says.

He underlines a future cooperation but adds that despite the centuries of common history, the two countries do not know each other well and "there is a lot to be done." According to him, one of the fields in which there is a lot to be done is in the realm of economic cooperation: "The first Turkish company entered Algeria seven years ago. They are doing very well; Algeria is rather new to them. Turkish companies have $800 million in investment in Algeria. There is room, there is potential for reaching bigger figures. The reputation of Turkish companies will certainly help them to get more contracts, especially in the construction sector. We are aiming for $120 million by the year 2009," he says.

After visiting Turkey as a tourist, Ambassador Allaoua dreamed about being appointed here as an ambassador in October 2005. "A dream come true. I am in love with this country," he says. Turkey is his third post as an ambassador; he previously served in Nigeria and Tunisia. He says that due to his job, he has traveled over a big part of the world -- but has never seen as beautiful and fascinating a place as Cappadocia.

"Wallahi [By God]," he swears, "I have never seen such a magical place in the world. I should go there more often. We had been there as a family too; I am still under the magic and charm of the place," he says.

Mr. Ambassador has three daughters and he says he is one of the happiest fathers on Earth. "Linda is 19, studying medicine; Sera is 16 and the youngest one is 9 years old today," he says during the interview. He looks his watch and adds, "9 years and three hours, now."

When he is asked what his youngest is getting for her birthday, he is hesitant about telling: "It supposed to be a secret, but since the interview will be published later, I can tell you; a bicycle," he says happily. Congratulations!

The happy father says that he does not talk about himself, but nevertheless he answers the question of what his main diplomatic principles are: "The major principle is to never ever, ever to think that your interests are more important than your partner's interests. What is your priority must be your partner's priority. The second principle is learn, learn and learn again from everything, including your mistakes and others' mistakes. Third, diplomats in general and ambassadors should not think that one makes or defines the foreign policy of one's country. This is not the job of an ambassador. Their job is to help foreign partners to understand this policy and its objectives and to develop better relations. Some ambassadors sometimes question the options of their own government. It is not the job of any diplomat to define his country's policy," he says and adds that if he had to choose a motto for his understanding of diplomacy he would choose a Tibetan saying: "If you act with tact and intelligence you can make a friend out of an enemy, if you act without tact any best of friends can becomes your worse enemy," he laughs.

Ambassador Allaoua has Berber origins, as he says do all Algerians. "I belong to one of those families in which Berber is alive and spoken by the people. But because of the last 20 years of my career I have a lack of practice and so I am losing my command of the Berber language or dialect. Some say language, some say dialect of Arabic for Berber. In Algeria we have four to five major Berber dialects or languages," he says, adding that in Algeria they do not have the minorities approach. "All Algerians are of Berber origin, with different levels of Arabization," he says.

When it comes to languages of Algeria, Mr. Ambassador explains the topic with his personal history: "I was born exactly as the war of liberation started and I had a chance to go to school after independence. In those years Algeria was starting to return to its roots. Arabic under the French regime was considered a foreign language, legally speaking. It was not compulsory in school teaching and its use was under very strict regulation. After independence, Algeria started the process of Arabization. I have had the chance to be a member of a generation which has bilingual education. I am fluent in Arabic and French. French is still widely used in official circles but Arabic is spoken by all Algerians. Young people are more fluent in Arabic; they learn Arabic from the age of 6 through to university. They learn French as a foreign language. The majority of the older generation -- if they had to chance to go to school -- was educated in French. Fortunately, we have these associations of Muslim ulama [religious scholars] that opened schools where Arabic was taught and perfected. It was the only way to save Arabic from this process of derogation," he says.

This variety is also reflected in Algerian music. As Ambassador Allaoua points out, Algerian music is very diverse because of historical and geographical reasons: "Algerian music is a product of [our country's] interaction [with other countries].We took a lot Andalusia from Africa; [we took] from our relations with Europe, [from] being an Arab country and [from] Islamic culture; all of them make Algerian music richer. This is a combination of rich history and at the same time very peculiar geographical positioning; being at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Arab word."


Danish Ambassador Honeymooners Return To Turkey 21 Years Later
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Danish Ambassador to Turkey Jesper Vahr and his wife, Ane Tang Vahr, spent their honeymoon in Turkey many years ago.

Danish Ambassador to Turkey Jespe Vahr (R) -- who headed the security department of Denmark's Ministry of Foreign Affairs prior to his appointment to Turkey -- and his wife, Ane Tang Vahr.

Since then they had dreamed of returning. After spending time with NATO working on defense policies in Brussels and serving in Damascus, they have returned to Turkey, this time with their two sons. In their newly renovated residence just opposite Çankaya Palace, they are ready to share with Today's Zaman their experiences in Turkey, future plans and friendships.

Twenty-one years ago, a young Danish couple decided to spend their eight-week honeymoon in Turkey. They were both newly graduated students of English literature. Mrs. Vahr at that time frequently heard stories about Turkey from her Turkish greengrocer in Aarhus. He often told them about fruit and vegetables from Turkey. Mrs. Vahr says that one of the contributions of the Turkish community to Danish society has been making its cuisine richer and introducing different flavors.

Around the time he graduated, Ambassador Vahr had a few friends who had visited Turkey, which was becoming a new interest for Danes. Mr. and Mrs. Vahr thought that Turkey was different from other European cities and would be an interesting place to spend their honeymoon. Not only that, but they could afford an eight-week stay there, so they prepared their backpacks and hit the road.

When they returned with wonderful memories and photos from Turkey, Mrs. Vahr's grandmother feared that the newly married couple would move to Turkey. "She saw it coming," laughs Mr. Ambassador. "It has been our wish for such a long time to come back and now we are back," adds Mrs. Vahr.

She says for their honeymoon they traveled along the coast of Turkey, also visiting Istanbul and Ankara. They kept diaries from those days in which they recorded all the interesting and impressive things. "You will not get all the details. But it was about the things that fascinated us," laughs Mrs. Vahr. When they speak about the honeymoon, it is clear that they are reliving it in their minds. "We stayed with a family on the coast who had had a baby only three days before we came. They had invited us to the house. We were so impressed by this family, how poor they were but how they still welcomed us so warmly," says Mrs. Vahr. "When we were in Turkey, one of the bayrams came. We were invited to dine with a family. It was great. That made a very big impression on us," said Mr. Ambassador.

In order to get a better picture of Turkey, they also visited Ankara to see sights in the capital like Atatürk's mausoleum (Anitkabir) and the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. They say that they loved the museum but they were not overly impressed by the city as such. "A lot of things have changed since that time," says Mr. Ambassador, adding: "I went to Ankara again in 1989 as an intern. Certainly there had been major development, but in terms of people, their welcoming approach did not change. You would meet someone on the bus by coincidence, someone from business life, a politician or high civil servant, and they always had the same warm manner."

The Vahr family also visited Turkey couple of times while serving in Damascus. In this respect, as Mr. Ambassador puts it, they may be newcomers, but they are also old-timers. They have been busy getting to know their surroundings and learning Turkish. Mrs. Vahr, who knows several languages, seems like she does not have any pronunciation problems, though she claims "Türkçe çok zor" (Turkish is very difficult).

Their two sons, who join us for a short period, are also happy to be in Turkey. According to their mother, when they learned that they would be moving to Turkey they reacted quite enthusiastically, maybe because Turkey means "holiday" for most Danes.

"They have to adapt to life here. One of our nieces heard that we were moving to Turkey and said that there are 'blue beaches' here. That is true. But there is daily life for them (my sons) to deal with as well. School is a full-time job. It is a different way of life here," Mr. Ambassador says. Their mother adds that their children are missing the freedom they had in Denmark. "But Ankara is a very sweet place. You don't see this in other capitals -- young people hanging around on Tunali Hilmi Street. They also miss being able to ride their bikes to school." Mrs. Vahr is also missing her bicycle. She is missing her family as well. She describes it as a big family with many aunts and uncles, noisy and happy. For Mr. Ambassador, like most other Danes, it is difficult to be away from the sea. He says, "There is no location in Denmark farther than 40 miles from the sea."

Mrs. Vahr's family has many doctors and nurses. She once thought that she would "never ever" go into the same field. But after the honeymoon in Turkey, she changed her mind and decided to go to nursing school. "I love reading and literature, but I need to use my heart when I work. So I wanted to be a midwife; I went to nursing school and greatly enjoyed it," she says. She did volunteer work, teaching hygiene and first aid to local preschool teachers, when they were in Damascus from 1993-96.

"How to prevent accidents, how to react if there is an accident, how to give aid, how to deal with children's stress and depression -- I greatly enjoyed teaching these things," she says, adding that she wishes she could do something similar in Turkey, but language is an issue and so far she is just dealing with settling in and getting used to her surroundings. She notes that she recently had coffee with her neighbor who lives across the street, Mrs. Hayrünnisa Gül. "I received an invitation from her. But we didn't meet in the middle of the street for a coffee. That would be nice but there is too much traffic," Mrs. Vahr jokes. Her husband adds that sometimes they see some extra police cars in the neighborhood. He notes that Çankaya Palace is very green and its surroundings are great for jogging.

The Vahr's residence in Ankara has a large, lovely garden. According to Mr. Ambassador the building is a reflection of Danish art from the 1970s. Last year they renovated the residence, using the same company that built it. Most of the furniture in it was provided by the Foreign Ministry and are examples of Danish design.

When Mrs. Vahr returned to Copenhagen from Damascus she worked in Rigshospitalet as a clinical nurse supervisor in the hemodialysis unit. This hospital was the subject of a movie called "Riget" (Kingdom) by famous Danish director Lars Von Trier. The movie, although it contains dry humor, is a horror movie. Some Danish intellectuals (at least my Danish journalist husband) think that this movie is a reflection of Danish society. "The hospital is not really like that. It is a nice hospital. I love it," she says, totally opposing the idea that it is a reflection on Danish society.

The Vahr family also disagrees with the idea that Denmark is amongst the European societies that are intolerant toward foreigners. For example, the family says the law that foreigners in Denmark cannot marry before the age of 24 has nothing to do with intolerance. Mr. Ambassador reminds us that marrying very young often also receives a negative press in Turkey. He adds that there were some very unfortunate events among some foreigners in Denmark who were forced to marry at an early age. "The age of 24 law is important in order to assure that you don't have marriages among extremely young persons and that the couple is acting of their own free will. Danes can marry at the age of 18 in Denmark. But it reflects a part of the debate, there were unfortunate cases in which girls were pressured to marry, which goes against our basic value system. So I do not accept this idea of intolerance in regards to this law," he says. Mrs. Vahr adds that some young girls have requested help when they were being forced to marry at an early age. She says her son is married to a Turkish woman and cannot return to Denmark with his wife.

Mr. Ambassador adds that in the recent elections in Denmark, one issue was improving the conditions for asylum seekers. He says when Denmark was withdrawing its troops from Iraq, the troops assisted the interpreters who worked with them in gaining asylum. He doesn't know exactly how many, perhaps a couple of hundred, were either allowed to settle in Denmark, other European countries or elsewhere in Iraq.

Mr. Ambassador reminds us that Danish citizens of Turkish origin make up 1 percent of his country's population and won two seats in Danish parliament, both of them are women. "An important part of an ambassador's job is to contribute to rectifying some of the perceptions of a country that are not accurate. Contributing to an accurate image of Turkey in Denmark is one of my objectives," he says. Mr. Ambassador thinks that diplomacy works best with a high degree of frankness and sometimes disagreements need to be brought to the table just so they can be voiced. "Sometimes Danes are thought of by other nationalities as being too frank and forgetting how to maneuver subtlety, but I think sincerity always works in the long run," he says.

Mr. Ambassador says he employed a frank approach when he was working on NATO issues. For most of his career as a diplomat, Ambassador Vahr has focused on defense policies. He says with soldiers it is easier to get down to business, just the opposite of some international organizations in which getting to the point can take a long time. According to Ambassador Vahr, NATO is about building consensus. "You get to know the people; you learn of the concerns of the countries and how to reach a conclusion which works for everyone at the end of day while taking into account all these concerns," he says regarding NATO.

Before his appointment to Turkey as an ambassador in October, he was the head of the security department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His predecessor, Kim Jorgensen, left the post early. Ambassador Vahr says that every other ambassador to Turkey stays longer than his post, while the others stay for a shorter period. If this is true, Vahr's posting will be a long one. But unlike many Danes who come to Turkey, they are not planning to buy a second house here. Mrs. Vahr explains: "Because then we would not see the other places we want to see. There are too many things to see and do here."