“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.
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
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
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
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
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.