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Ambassador of Palestine Afif Safieh: Palestinians are the victims of the victims of the European history!

26.11.2008 16:04

Moscow, 18 of September 2008. With eleven other new Ambassadors accredited to the Russian Federation, Ambassador of Palestine Afif Safieh presented his Letter of credentials to President Dimitry Medvedev in a ceremony at the Kremlin. The same day (two hours later) our correspondent visited the Embassy of Palestine. H. E. Afif Safieh, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Palestine to Russia, answered questions about his career and opinions on interesting items.

IslamRF: Mister Safieh, could you tell us about your diplomatic experience before Moscow?

A.S.: I’ve had relatively long diplomatic experience and I am near my theoretical retirement. I was posted in Geneva in the late seventies as “number two” in our delegation to the United Nations. Then I had a privilege of working with President Yaseer Arafat during the Beirut days for three years. Then I was posted as a head of our delegation in Holland. Then came London, the Vatican and Washington.

Moscow for me is a fascinating assignment. I have always been extremely attracted to Russian culture, Russian civilization, Russian music, Russian literature. And I feel that today I am accredited not only to the Kremlin, but also to the Bolshoy Theatre, to Tchaikovsky, Rahmaninov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin and the others. My wife and I we both are coming with the great intellectual curiosity, and we are proud of the network of friends that we have started to establish.

For us the relations between Russia and Palestine go back very deep in history. Russia is made of two major components: there is Christian Russia and there is Muslim Russia. And for both of these components this issue of Palestine will not escape the attention of observers. Christian Russia believes that this used to be the place of the Third Rome, The Second Constantinople, New Jerusalem. Muslim Russia that was converted to Islam by peaceful means through persuasion and never through forcible conversion also believes that Palestine is a centerpiece of their collective political culture. And we will try to create a wide network of relationships and communications with the Russian society.

So I am going through a fascinating assignment. I want people to remember that we – the Palestinians – have been maltreated in history and even we have been maltreated by humanity. We have become… the victims of the victims of the European history!

Zionists started as the oppressed in Europe and turned to… the oppressors of the Middle East. We have found ourselves in invasion of the Israelis. And today all Palestinian society gets is a life of statelessness, homelessness, dispersion… Palestinians have no passports, no state, no home. So we did not get our share of sympathy and support from the world, because we were the victims of the victims of the European history. Today we have the state which is missing and needs to be created. And I always tell my audience: history is still undecided. You have to help history to make a right choice. Because sometimes the choices history makes are wrong.

And you know, Hegel once wrote, that what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history. And I know that he would not mind if we proved him wrong, on that one at least. I have never shared the views of optimistic school of thought that says that the oppressed people will finally be victorious. No, unfortunately the history is a cemetery of the oppressed people, who remained oppressed until they passed into historical oblivion.

I am confident in the future, because I believe that the “collective hero” – the Palestinian people – is impressive by determination and by his steadfastness. I should always mention Galileo and Bertold Brecht – the playwright has a beautiful scene on the Galileo. When Galileo under the pressure of the Inquisition retracts his position concerning the world being round and not flat. And the inquisitor says: “Unhappy are the people who have no heroes”. To which Galileo answers: “No, unhappy are the people who still have a need for heroes”. And I personally think that this scene is extremely powerful. Obviously my society, because we are still oppressed and persecuted, we still have a need of heroes. It means we are not happy people yet. But I bow in the respect of the “collective hero”. And I believe we have every moment in the history where we might need, may be, to redefine the concept of heroism. And the “collective hero” deserves our respect.

IslamRF: Today is delightfully marked by your meeting with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and your participation in such an outstanding diplomatic ceremony in Moscow Kremlin. What are your personal impressions of Medvedev?

A.S.: First of all, I should say that I had a privilege of meeting President Medvedev during the National Day in June already. And I believe he is a charming person. I was surprised how easily one can conduct the conversation with him in English, his English is excellent.

And I was very impressed by the beauty, the splendor of the building inside Kremlin and the emotional nature of ceremony. We were 12 ambassadors: there was a Belgian ambassador to begin with, and for me it means something because I happen to be married to a Belgian and I carry a Belgian passport, so we were joking that today Belgium was represented by two out of two ambs. And there was an American ambassador. The fact that Palestine was to share the same moment of history with the American ambassador is paradoxically and intriguingly interesting.

I had a moment of talk with Russian foreign minister Lavrov, whom I have previously met at international conferences and I conveyed to him greeting of his many friends in the diplomatic arena and among the leadership. So it was a moving ceremony, it’s a beginning of what I consider is going to be a fascinating experience. It has started beautifully and I hope it will end up just the same.

IslamRF: Here is a question to you as a diplomat. What’s new in the relations between Russia and Palestine now, during the last half year?

A.S.: Let me tell you the fear spread around the world. My personal opinion is that we are now near the end of American Unitarianism. And I believe whoever wins in American elections this November would be more sensitive and more cooperative in international system, rather then the confrontation to the international system. We are happy about Russia’s revival after the period of decline. And I believe we are heading towards a multi-polar system where Russia is a major player and we are happy because that type of equilibrium in the international system is preferable to people in the third world, who suffered from tempted American hegemony.

America is an important player that cannot be bypassed. I believe its foreign policy is going to undergo some modification, hopefully for the better, the reemergence of Russia as a key player is very important for the international system. I believe that Israel has been taking advantage of this equilibrium system for the last 15 years. But I believe we are witnessing the end of this era and the beginning of the new chapter.

I have always said that the most desirable alternative to a tempted American hegemony is a UN supremacy. I believe in universal values. I believe there is only one mankind – no different types of men and women, and there should be one set of standards and etiquette standards in international relations. Fortunately we have now a law that codifies the behavior of national states. And I am in favor of UN supremacy and I believe this is an opinion we share with our Russian friends.

IslamRF: What is the potential in relations between Russia and Palestine which is not used yet?

A.S.: I kept telling all my Russian interlocutor for the last four months that I am been here, that we are an important player in the world and in the region and that we are not only the miserable entity called West Bank and Gaza longing international support. We are the vibrant people. I always said that the PNO was an idea and an institution at the same time. And the idea is stronger then the institution. And you know the inspirational nature of ideas. We have a mobilizing idea, we have an inspirational idea – Palestine.

And I believe we are an important regional players because of our geographic, demographic dispersion. And I believe our Russian interlocutors understand central position of Palestine in the Middle East. By dealing with Palestine they have a partner that has ramifications all over the region. We are scattered all over the world, today you can find the Palestinians from Scandinavia to Pennsylvania, from California to Australia. We have become the global tribe. And everyone who deals with us, takes advantage of network and ramifications of Palestinians around the world. And except for Palestine where we are under occupation, we are very successful people. We have been tremendously successful people from Academia to media, from science to art – all over the world. So we are an ideal partner for new Russia.

IslamRF: On 25th of September we celebrated the International Day of Al-Quds for the 3d time in Moscow. Are there any signs for changes for better in Al-Quds now?

A.S.: There’s always place for hope. I always say that only the optimists make history, not the pessimists.

But today the Jerusalem is a very unhappy place, because it's under occupation, it's being fragmented; it's being mutilated, it's suffocating and being driven into the historical decline with this illegal wall that is snaking deep into the Palestinian territory, every urban center in the Palestine had been caged within the wall to suffocate. But the Israelis behave as if they had total monopoly, total hegemony on the city and they believe that there's a hierarchy of importance of the three religions and the Judaism is the most important one among them. I don't believe that there's any hierarchy or importance in religions.

I believe that Jerusalem is a city that should be shared. Its western part should become the capital of the state of Israel, and the eastern part should be the capital of the state of Palestine. You know, I happened to be a Christian Palestinian by birth and the idea of resurrection is a center of Christian thought. I believe that we are, the Palestinian people, will resurrect very soon. And I always say that here in Jerusalem we had a previous experience to the resurrection. I hope it would not disturb your other readers…who are not christians.

IslamRF: Mister Ambassador, you are known as a person who is very experienced in Russian culture. What from Russian cultural heritage find special place in you heart?

A.S.: Well, my heart has always palpitated with the musical works of Tchaikovsky. I like his symphonies, his “Swan Lake” and his “Nut Cracker”. I have attended different ballets based on his music. He emotionally talks to me in a very interesting manner.

I am also a great fan of Rakhmaninov, whom I have discovered later. I wake up with music, I listen to the music in my car, and unconventionally diplomat has usually music playing in his office.

IslamRF: Do you practice music yourself?

A.S.: No. The only instrument I can play is a whistle. I whistle well. You should hear me whistling the Bolero of Ravel. I am the consumer of music, not a performer.

Russian literature is also something I am indulged in, but I wouldn't call myself a connoisseur. Luckily my wife is a linguist and we complement each other. We are partners in life and she is an avaricious reader and she influences me with her impressions of the books she reads during our journeys together… So we are big consumers and big fans of Russian culture. She has been reading Pushkin for the third time…

IslamRF: What is her name? Could you tell a little about her?

A.S.: My wife is a Belgian and her name is Cristal Lecler. She used to be a lecturer in France at a university. Then when we moved to Beirut she became a journalist, then as a wife of a diplomat she had to abandon her carrier. And she was very instrumental in my work as a volunteer, and she has always been my partner in my work. By the way she believes that the French translations of Russian literature are more agreeable to read then the English translations.

IslamRF: Or Arabic?

A.S.: No, she does not speak Arabic. But she speaks German, English, French and Flemish. But she believes that the French translations are much more agreeable to read and reflect the Russian soul more. I believe that there is a thought for the linguist to discuss why the French translations are the more readable then the English ones.

IslamRF: Two months ago the great Arabian poet Mahmud Darvish died and he was the friend of him. What can you say about the significance of this poet in culture of Arabs and in the modern world?

A.S.: Mahmoud Darvish made a contribution to the civilization and to literature. He was of a big figure, he was again a universalist, he had a sensitive soul that reflected L'Air du Temp — the spirit of times and the mood of the whole era. And in a way with him we buried the entire period. Unfortunately we, the Palestinians, have lost in the past five or six years Anwar Saeed, Mahmoud Darvish, Yaseer Arafat, Haider Abdushafi, George Habash. So, in a way it's the end of the era and we have to write with hope, but with credible hope, the new chapter of our history.

Mahmoud Darvish was the ambassador of Palestinian culture, of Palestinian society. He was a great humanist. His works are translated into some 22 different languages and he had passed through the different demarcation lines: there was an early Mahmoud Darvish, the young Mahmoud Darvish, the mature Mahmoud Darvish, there was M. Darvish the politician, the human being falling in love and in the frustrated love because the political environment was not good. Mahmoud was a multidimensional character; the way you and I probably would like to be! He had a great sensitivity. It's a great loss. And I believe that every possible capital the literary community and the Palestinian community would co-memorize and celebrate his legacy. And his legacy is impressive.

IslamRF: And my final question. We may compare Palestine and Russia in religious sense. You come from the Christian community in Palestine which is a minority among Muslims there. The Muslims in Russia are minority amongst the Christians in Russia. What does it take to live together - Christians and Muslims?

A.S.: We are in Palestine blessed to have an excellent example of Christian-Muslim relationships. And I have worked with Yaseer Arafat very closely. Arafat was very proud of the two components in the Palestinian society. And he understood that the presence of Christians in the Palestinian society was not an impoverishment of society, but an enrichment of the society. So I am proud to be a Palestinian and I am proud of this harmonious cohabitation of two communities.

When I was in Europe I used to tell them as a Christian who has lived in a predominantly Muslim country: “I hope Muslims in the predominantly Christian countries would live as happily as I have witnessed and experienced”. I believe that we are close to enter the new era when the world would shrink and we speak of interdependence and global civilization and the dialogue of civilizations etc. I believe in all those issues. I believe in Palestine we speak more, we should be speaking more of our successful coexistence.

And I am happy to see that here, in Russia, you have vibrant Muslim communities and successful varieties of fields. I hope that we will intensify the cooperation and the transaction between the two components. I don't believe in the theory of the clash of two civilizations. We have to defeat this theory by having a successful dialogue between civilizations, cultures and religions. I believe in the respect of oneself and of the others. I have lived, I have lived it in the Palestinian society, I have never suffered any discrimination and I am proud of that. And I am always extremely sensitive to the discrimination of others. And I am still beginning my emerging in Russian society and I am sure I am going to discover different components of that society and probably with your help…

Interview by Jannaty Sergey Markus


Russian version of the interview 

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