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Interview of Ambassador of Syria Suleiman Abudiab to Ukraine
An interview with the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic Suleiman Abudiab to Ukraine. Dr Suleiman Abudiab was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO, senior editor of Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine.
Excellency, when did you come to Ukraine for the first time?
In the nineteen eighties I studied in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and I was very much interested in culture of the republics that made up the Soviet Union. And I visited Ukraine then. In 1993 my family and I came to Ukraine as tourists. From 1989 to 1994 I worked as a correspondent of the Syrian Information Agency SANA in Moscow. I found myself to be a very lucky journalist as I witnessed the dramatic events of the late nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties. The events that were taking place at that time in the former Soviet Union had a great impact on the whole world, and luckily there were only a few victims in the collapse of such a huge state as the Soviet Union. I reported those events to my information agency and watched closely the developments in the countries that once made up the Soviet Union.
Before I came to Ukraine as ambassador I had been in charge of news shows at a TV station and I was also a newscaster. I also wrote about Ukraine in the Syrian press… Unfortunately, because of the turbulent events taking place in my region of the world, I stopped writing about such most important things as beauty and human feelings…
How did this transition from journalist to diplomat come about?
I knew a lot about your country, and it was but natural to become the first Syrian diplomat in Ukraine. It was my first diplomatic mission, too.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria established diplomatic relations with Ukraine — Syria was well aware of Ukraine’s potential and significance. Unfortunately, for a number or reasons, the Syrian Embassy was opened in Kyiv only in March 2005, though it does not mean there had been no diplomatic and other exchanges before that time.
Did you think at the start of Ukraine’s independence that Ukraine would successfully develop its sovereign statehood?
I think yes. Ukraine is developing rather successfully. Ukraine is rich in many things and has a great potential. And I am not talking only about mineral resources. A lot of the soviet economic might was concentrated here, in Ukraine. Ukraine had well-developed sciences and excellent scientific and engineering cadre. Ukraine has about thirty fire percent of the world’s chernozem soils (chernozem — very black topsoil, rich in humus, typical of cool to temperate semi-arid regions, such as the grasslands of Ukraine — tr.).
I am sure that Ukraine will become one of the most influential countries of Europe one day. Ukraine’s cultural conditions and high standards of education may become a basis for an impetus for intensive development that will be “the Ukrainian breakthrough,” which Ukrainian politicians now are talking much about. I like this expression and I hope it will be achieved. I also hope that all the major political forces in Ukraine will come to an agreement based on the national and patriotic interests.
Ukraine is an ancient and at the same time young European country. Ukraine’s rates of development should be higher than the rates observed in the rest of “old” Europe. There are definite signs that Ukraine is on the way to prosperity. As a matter of fact, I find that in some areas this flourishing has already begun. I believe there will be a breakthrough in the Syrian-Ukrainian relations as well.
What are the priorities in these relations?
Syria is ahead of other Arab and African countries in the amount of trade with Ukraine. Syria imports metal, timber, raw materials for food production and other things from Ukraine. Syria would want to export to Ukraine Syrian textiles which are cheap and of good quality, fruit, and olive oil.
In the past, Ukrainian engineers and workers took part in building electric power stations and carried out other projects, and now what was built then is in need of renovation and repair. Ukrainian specialists as well as medical doctors and teachers would be very welcome in Syria.
Does any information about Ukraine feature in news shows of Syrian TV stations?
Unfortunately, it is the world’s big capital that controls television worldwide, Syria included. Television does not present the truth and often creates a negative image of a country which, in fact, deserves to be presented in quite a different, positive way.
Tourism is the best way of learning about foreign countries and helps come to mutual understanding. Syria has made tourism a national priority and wants the world to learn as much as possible about its culture through tourism.
Who do you think knows more — Syrians about Ukraine, or Ukrainians about Syria?
I can say with confidence that Syrians know more about Ukraine than Ukrainians know about Syria. To a great extent, Syrians who once studied in the Soviet Union and in Ukraine in particular, were instrumental in spreading knowledge about Ukraine. We have to work harder to make Syria and its culture better known in Ukraine. We, at the embassy, do our best in this respect. We organize tours of journalists to Syria; every year, we send twenty Ukrainian students, who study Arabic and Arab culture, to Syria for studies. I know they thoroughly enjoy their stay in Syria. This year, we held a Week of Syrian Culture in Ukraine. Within the framework of the Week, Days of Syrian Cinema were held as well as exhibitions and music concerts. Next spring, Syrian representatives will take part in the UITT tourist exhibition to be held in Kyiv, and we are planning to hold Days of Tourism in Syria at the same time.
But, of course, the best way is to visit a country rather than to read about it, or see movies about it. However, to get the most out of your visit to Syria, you should read about Syria first, about its history and culture. Once, the curator of the Louvre in Paris said that every cultured person had two homelands — their own and Syria.
I am not sure I quite understand what he meant by this.
He meant that the origins of modern civilization can be found in Syria! It is in Syria that the oldest known script was found, as well as the oldest known sheet music, grains of wheat grown earlier than anywhere else, earliest known artifacts made of iron. Recently, mosaics, which are several thousand years old, have been discovered by archeologists. Damascus has been known as a very ancient city of at least seven thousand years, but recent archeological excavations suggest that it is older by at least two thousand years.
Among ancient religions, it was in the Syrian capital that Islam got firmly established and began its triumphant propagation around the world. Early Christians founded their churches in Damascus. As a matter of fact, we consider Jesus to be our country fellow — he spoke Aramaic, the language of Syria and of a vast region in ancient times.
Does Syria have a well developed tourist infrastructure — hotels, roads, transportation, catering, reasonable prices? Will tourists feel safe in Syria?
A Ukrainian air company has regular flights from Kyiv to Damascus. A Syrian air company is planning to start regular flights from Damascus to Kyiv early next year. A joint Syrian-Ukrainian tourist company is planned to be set up.
As far as the tourist infrastructure is concerned, we lag behind such places as Sharm-al-Sheikh or Hurghada in Egypt, but we do have quite a few good hotels of various levels. A government-sponsored tourism-development program has been adopted.
Syrians are known for their hospitality and Ukrainian students who have studied in Syria can readily confirm that. It’s an unwritten law for every Syrian to help a foreign visitor, to give directions if they feel lost, or feed them.
Syria remains to be one of the cheapest countries to visit. As far as safety and security are concerned, I can provide this example — the proprietors and shop assistants of the gold-selling shops in the Gold Market in Damascus do not shut their shops when they go out for lunch. Low crime rates are the result not only of strict law enforcement but are a feature of the Syrian psychology, culture and traditions.
Is your embassy as hospitable? How difficult or easy is it to get visas at the Syrian Embassy?
No problems with visas for Ukrainians. If you buy a tour to Syria at a travel agency, you’ll get your visa free of charge. If you go on business or for other reasons, you’ll have to pay 220 hryvnyas (about 45 US dollars) for a Syrian visa. And you’ll get it in a couple of hours after you’ve applied for it!
Why then has the number of tourists to and from Syria decreased over the past year?
I think the main reason is the lack of necessary information. While Syrians know something about Ukraine, Ukrainians know very little about Syria. The Ukrainian border guards and customs are much too strict and severe. Yes, Ukraine, like any other country, has to protect itself from illegal immigration, but such protection should not harm tourism or business.
What attracts Syrian tourists to Ukraine most?
Rich Syrians would want to spend their vacations in Ukraine. They are attracted by Ukraine’s scenic nature which is so different from what we have in Syria. Sea and river cruises would be very popular. Health improvement, spas are excellent reasons to come to Ukraine too, as well as historic and architectural landmarks, countryside, culture, customs and traditions. All these things are so different from what we have in Syria that they are great exotic attractions for Syrians.
I wish Ukraine invited Syrian journalists to come over to Ukraine on fact-finding missions. They would tell the people back home about the marvels of Ukraine. I do believe that tourism from Syria to Ukraine has a very promising future.
What are your general impressions of Ukraine?
It’s a country in which you find the beauty of the people, of architecture and of nature. I like the change of seasons, I like winter and snow. Cold weather makes you feel vigorous and lets you dress up and show off [Chuckles].
I’ve traveled quite extensively round Ukraine, and soon I’ll go on a tour of those Ukrainian universities where Syrians are currently studying… I like Lviv for its European feel, Chernihiv — a center of ancient culture, Odesa for its special charm of a city by the sea, Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky, an amazing place of many museums.
Where do you live in Kyiv?
I live in Pechersk. It gives me a great opportunity to take long walks through the parks down to the Dnipro River and all the way back. I enjoy these walks immensely.
When delegations from Syria come to Kyiv, I always take them to one of the bridges across the Dnipro River — Paton Bridge from which opens a breathtaking panorama of Kyiv, of other bridges seen in the distance, of the hills overgrown with trees and of the golden church domes. On one of the hills a WWII museum is situated. One of the halls of the museum is particularly impressive. Every time I go there I am moved to tears.
Do you feel cultural or language barriers living in Kyiv?
None whatsoever. Incidentally, my wife is Russian. We have four children and two grandchildren. Isn’t it the best example of friendly relations between our two peoples? [Chuckles].
Incidentally, there are quite a few Syrians living in Ukraine. Mostly, they are those who studied here. Some of them are successful businessmen, others have achieved success in other spheres. One of them is Hares Youssef, advisor to President Yushchenko on Near East matters.
There are quite a few Syrians — as many as fifteen thousand — who studied at Ukraine’s universities and now live in Syria. Most of them are quite successful in their lines of business and work. Many of them are married to Ukrainian women. Their grown-up children are worthy citizens of Syria. All these people are a good foundation on which to build up friendly relations between our two countries. I do hope we shall be successful in developing them.