Creating strong links with T&T and the world


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Category: International 02 Oct 11


“The eye of a human being is a microscope, which makes the world seem bigger than it really is." - Khalil Gibran, Lebanese poet and writer.

In an age of globalisation, interconnected economies, of multiculturism and migration in virtually every capital of the world, we would be foolish not to keep tabs on the impact of countries around the world on our tiny islands.

Last Sunday as part of a Guardian Media project to widen our perspectives, I began a diplomat and consul series in this space with an interview with Chinese Ambassador. The Syrian Lebanense community is small in numbers but is a strong thread in the multi cultural tapestry that is Trinidad and Tobago.

In this week’s interview Amer Haidar, Honorary Consulate for Lebanon and Dean of the Consular Corps tells us more his country and his people.

The Syrian/Lebanese community here is tiny yet has a disproportionately huge impact on this country, employing thousands, engaging in every area of public life, despite the fact that many of the early immigrants here arrived with nothing except the shirt on their backs. Explain the success of your community.

The population of Lebanon is about three and a half million. Outside of Lebanon we are 21 million. There is a small Lebanese Syrian community in T&T of about 4,000 people. Yes, we sometimes joke that we could be the second largest employer after the Government. More than half Syrian and Lebanese people in Trinidad have never been to Lebanon, or Syria, but they maintain our social behaviour—one for all, all for one.

In business we may fight over the price of cloth or merchandise, but as a community we are one. We retain our ancient culture yet remain loyal to Trinidad and Tobago. We say, ‘Trinidad is my country and this is where I am going to stay and where I am going to die.’ Yet, we Lebanese are adventurers, innovators, risk takers and hard workers. Trade is our blood, part of our 5,000-year history which we maintain up to today no matter where we go. Our ancestors, the Phoenicians who invented the alphabet—without them you would not be typing what I say or speaking different languages—were mariners and merchants, with a flourishing sea trade in cedar, pine, fine linen, Tyrian purple cloth, wine, ebony, ivory, silk, incense, horses, gold, spices, jewels, horses, ostrich eggs, you name it.

In every port they conquered along the Mediterranean from Malta and Sicily, to Sardinia Greece and Southern Spain, they spread the alphabet which gave birth to all modern languages. In our culture if you are not a hard working person you will be not be admired or respected. You will be excluded from the community. We know that nothing in life comes easy. Most of our community here started with nothing but became high achievers to our cultural values. Nobody handed success to us on a silver platter.

Tell me about your childhood in Lebanon and how you came to T&T.

I was born in a small peasant village in the north of Lebanon, Tal Abbas. I grew up in the countryside where my father was a judge. He also served as DPP and Attorney General in Lebanon. My uncle is a general in the police force. I have one brother—who, like me, is a lawyer. He is also the Honorary Consul of Trinidad in Lebanon. I was eight years old when the civil war began in Lebanon in 1975. It lasted 15 years. Our family spent three years running from one place to another from religious persecution. In my opinion it was not a civil but an   international war on Lebanese soil.

In 1990, war ended in Lebanon and there were no winners and no losers. I met my wife, a Trinidadian of Lebanese descent while she was on holiday in Lebanon. In 1991 I migrated to Trinidad and we got married. From the sound of missiles falling all over, I came to Trinidad to the sound of the pan. Instead of blood covering all the streets of Lebanon, I came to J’Ouvert and the colour of paint. It was a big change to come to a country in the Caribbean that from our perspective was so serene and at the same time so exiting with the diverse culture.

You witnessed civil war as a child, and up to 2008 there were internal armed clashes in Beirut not to mention political assassinations. Do you see a peaceful prosperous Lebanon ahead?

We are living together as a people for the last 1,500 years. Yes, there are fanatical Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, and the Muslim population has far outstripped the Christian which has its challenges. But our real problems are as a result of international interference in Lebanon driven by the greed and self interest of other nations. After the civil war which ended in 1990 Lebanon enjoyed stability for a decade with the help of Syria which is why we are so close to the Syrian community. From 2000 on, other countries, including Syria, Iran, America and Israel supported various political factions in Lebanon which triggered a long period of political instability

But agreements brokered by the Arab League brought an end to this crisis. Our economy has always been open, and based mainly in tourism and banking (we have over a hundred banks). We have been growing at a rate of seven per cent per annum. Despite all the problems in the Middle East, in 2010 we had over two million tourists. We have a free press in four languages—Arabic, French, English and Armenian. Peace and prosperity has already come to Lebanon.

What about Lebanon fascinates the world and brings in the investors?

Ours is the only country in the world where you can be swimming on the sea with a view of snow capped mountains and 45 minutes later you could be skiing in the Cedar Mountains. The cedar tree is the symbol of Lebanon, and we believe was blessed by God as King Solomon’s Temple was built with the cedar planted two thousand years ago around the time of the birth of Christ.

Our landscape runs through beaches and valleys, is dotted by Roman ruins, castles, Stone Age settlements, snow fed rivers, historic churches and mosques. Lebanon is among the most cosmopolitan and liberal in the Middle East. Like many developing countries Lebanon is a land of paradox and extremes of poverty, and the playground of the rich and famous.

What is the difference between a consul and a diplomat?

An Ambassador or High Commissioner (for Commonwealth countries) is technically a representative from one head of state to another. They are either career foreign service officials or political appointees. Honorary consuls are individuals who, while representing a foreign country are not members of the country’s Foreign Service. They can be a native of the country that they represent or a local. It is mostly unpaid. Our authority and responsibilities vary depending on the country we represent. As consul for Lebanon my duties and authority is similar to an Embassy with the power to grant visas, renew passports, register marriages in Lebanon, promote friendship and facilitate trade.

Others may have less or even no authority and their presence is largely symbolic. In this globalised world we need to create links but many countries cannot afford full embassies in every country so consuls play a vital role in filling the gap. From Russia to Peru, from Bahamas to Guyana, the Consular Corps in T&T represents 33 countries while ambassadors and high commissioner represent 22 countries. The Vienna Convention 1963 on Consular Relations which governs our authority, though 46 pages long, is ambiguous and as a result unfair, as it denies us many consuls our rights, impairing our ability to create links between countries. 

What do you think of T&T?

T&T is a magnificent place. I love it and the warmth of the people makes me feel like I am home, in Lebanon. We hope to raise awareness of the Consular Corps and what we do at the upcoming Food Festival (October 8). We promise food from around the world in three hours. Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar is our patron. This event will allow us to raise money for the PMs Children fund, the renal dialyses and animal welfare. The 33 consulates make a difference and we want the people of T&T to know this. (For tickets call Shaira at 480-0104 or Advantage Advertising at 624-4969). My colleagues in the Consular Corps and I want to create strong links between T&T and the world, give back in a meaningful way and this is just the start.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur