BAABDA: During the course of a recent afternoon, Annahar had an opportunity to speak with Ukrainian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ihor Ostash, at the Ukrainian Embassy. The following Q&A features insights on the life of a diplomat, Ostash’s posting in Lebanon, and the Ambassador’s thoughts on Ukrainian-Lebanese diplomatic relations.
What did you study at university? And how do you feel that contributed to your current ambassadorial position?
I attained four diplomas at various universities. In 1982, I attended the Lviv Ivan Franko State University in Ukraine, where I studied Slavic Studies. In 1985, I obtained a PhD in Slavic Studies at Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. In 1993, I also attained my PhD at Harvard University. I reached my final diploma in 1998, whereby I studied law at Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University in Ukraine.
Since I was young, I liked studying foreign language. I’m currently studying Arabic, which is my 12th language. I speak almost all Slavic languages, French, English and now Arabic. In regards to Arabic I started with Formal Arabic and moved to Urban Lebanese. Therefore, I feel these studies have contributed immensely to my ambassadorial position, especially with the need of diversifying languages.
Is there any reason you chose the diplomatic path to become ambassador?
To be honest, it was my dream as a child. When my friends and I used to role play I would always play the role of an ambassador. Then in 1994, I became a Member of the Ukrainian parliament where I was part of the committee for Foreign Affairs for 12 years and its chair for three years. This further expanded my passion in foreign relation, which in turn pushed me to switch to the diplomatic path.
Is it difficult for you to move from one country to another, taking into consideration that you have a family?
I love travelling, reading, moving from one place to another and learning from different nations. For me, it wasn’t challenging since I’ve been to Lebanon a couple of times before this post, and I liked it a great deal. I see Lebanon as a world museum because it has all the civilizations; the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman or Christian period.
Was there anything you learned during your post in Canada that helped you in your post in Lebanon?
For starters, Canada is very multicultural and very tolerant. This tolerance was crucial to bring with me to Lebanon since the country is Multi-confessional. I had also met a lot of Lebanese people in Montreal and not to forget that the best restaurants in Montreal were Lebanese.
Could you please tell me about the developments of Ukrainian-Lebanese relationship?
The Ukrainian-Lebanese relationship is very dynamic and stable. We are preparing a Lebanese parliamentary delegation visit to Kiev for St. Maroun’s day in February. We are also planning in April the second Ukrainian-Lebanese business forum whereby all companies come together. Also there is a real growth in bilateral trade which is more than 25 percent.
Culturally, we work on creating several Ukrainian concerts and film festivals. There was also a Ukrainian participation in the Beirut Arabic Book Fair, where we presented a translation of Poetry by Ivan Franko. We also held a concert for Tenor Bel’canto from Ukraine at Saint Joseph Church under the Patronage of the Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, we visited Syrian refugee schools with Nora Jumblat. This action was done to portray solidarity with Lebanon since in Ukraine we have two million internally displaced people due to the Russian aggression.
Moreover, there was a football game organized by ONE Lebanon, consisting of a football game of diplomats versus Lebanese celebrities in aims to portray attributes of reconciliation. I scored a goal, but I immediately got concerned since I scored against a Lebanese team. Luckily the Lebanese team ended up winning. Additionally, we focused on having events that intertwine with both cultures. The first of February is world day of hijab and we invited researchers from Ukrainian to tell the story of the Ukrainian Shawl. This shawl is usually put in wedding and is a symbol for married women.
That goes without saying that we try to learn from Lebanese culture as much as we can to follow some of their traditions. Last year we organized an Iftar during Ramadan and invited all families from the Ukrainian community, both Christians and Muslims. It was a very emotional event portraying unity.
What are some similarities between the Ukrainian and Lebanese culture?
There are so many. To begin with, both cultures have enormous hospitality. Lebanese hospitality is fantastic and I usually joke that it’s impossible to stay slim around a Lebanese table since there are 25 types of Mezza and you can never reach to eat the main dish. Ukrainians as well love hosting people, and this is probably why we have around 5000 joined Lebanese-Ukrainian families.
Second, for both cultures, families are central. During my first visit to a Lebanese restaurant, I saw a huge table of 40 people filled with the entire tree of the family, whether grandmother, grandson, aunts and uncles and so forth. Another similarity I noticed was religious admiration for Mar Charbel and St. Maroun who are iconic saints in Ukraine as well. We have remains of St. Charbel in Ukraine. We also have remains of St. Barbara who is originally from Baalbek.
Finally, the main similarity I noticed is that of freedom. Both countries hold significant history; they both fought and struggled for freedom and independence. I see some historical events between the two as very similar; such as Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Cedars Revolution in Lebanon in 2005.
If someone were to visit Lebanon from Ukraine where would you take them?
There are two places that I cherish the most which compete in my heart; Byblos and Baalbek. I understand the importance of the Phoenician region which makes the north unique. Baalbek on the other hand, is unique with its Heliopolis city of Jupiter and Bacchus temple. We even organized a visit of the Ukrainian community to Baalbek.
There are also some other special places I would take my visitors. For example, I admire Tripoli with its Mameluke architecture. I’m also fascinated by the Hippodrome in Tyre which is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Not to forget other areas such as Jezzine, with its unique pine trees, the largest pine forest in the Middle East. Speaking of trees, I am also captivated by the cedars and their history and the feeling of being surrounded by 5000 years worth of history.
What is one main attribute or experience you would take from here when you leave?
Lebanese cuisine, I would take it all. I will take especially this culture of seafood and Lebanese fusion with food, for example hummus and fish and shrimps with yogurt which is very unusual yet fantastic. I would like to take with me some cedar and pine trees to plant in my garden in Ukraine. Additionally, I would also take virtues of hospitality and of patience that I learned from getting stuck in traffic.
From a negative point of view, my biological clock got used to late Lebanese dinners that start about 10 p.m. Back in Ukraine, 7 p.m. is the latest time for dinner. Another pitfall is the dangerous Lebanese sweets; I’m addicted now.
What advice would you give to thriving young diplomats?
Diplomacy is art, art of the impossible. The key to it is tolerance, whereby you should love interacting with people and attain great communication skills. It is a great privilege to able to connect with people and make friends. In Ukrainian we say “it’s better to have a lot of friends than a lot of money." What also helps is liking to move around. When I was the vice president of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, I went to a lot of dangerous places, and the ability of seeing positive attributes in each country is crucial. Therefore, being open minded and having a positive reaction is another essential attribute. Mainly it is loving the job.
Annahar will be running on ongoing series featuring informal introductions to the many ambassadors currently serving in Lebanon. For interested embassies please contact series editor: [email protected]
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