Georges and Golda Siam: Between Ankara and Beirut
by Bernard KENNEDY
Ambassador Georges Siam of Lebanon is one of Ankara’s longest-serving ambassadors. Although due to return to his country last year, he remains in the Turkish capital pending the formation of a new government at home. The delay has posed some dilemmas for the Ambassador and his wife Golda. But as our conversation with them demonstrates, it has done nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for work, life or Turkey.
A popular figure at diplomatic parties, with a reputation as something of a connoisseur, Ambassador Georges Siam of Lebanon is as tough as any of Ankara’s envoys when it comes to the business of his Embassy. His skills have been honed by a series of pleasant and occasionally unpleasant surprises, none of which he can possibly have imagined when he first opted for a diplomatic career. Before becoming one of his country’s youngest ambassadors over twenty years ago, he had already faced the unenviable task of representing a divided nation. While the civil strife of 1975-1990 created extraordinary problems, he recalls, the Lebanese foreign service abroad remained intact: “There were no splits or divisions that reflected what was going on in Lebanon. We had no problems performing our duties abroad for a unified Lebanon.”
Tours of duty in Canada, the United States, Italy and Jordan preceded five-year ambassadorial appointments to each of Qatar and the UAE, followed by four years in Beirut and on the hoof as head of the Ministry’s international organisations division. With all this behind him, Ambassador Siam remained modest enough to realise he had more to learn. He describes his stay of almost six years in Ankara as “a very interesting and enriching period from a professional point of view.”
“Turkey has a certain strategic and economic weight in regional and international affairs,” the Ambassador goes on, “Although I have served in various countries before, I would say that my experience in Turkey is quite special and has added much to my appreciation of regional and international politics.”
For the past 26 years of his career, Mr Siam has been fortunate in the bright companionship of his multilingual wife Golda, an equally sociable figure, who loves her Chinese restaurants and chocolates, but has also proved a hard-headed mother of their three children - aged 25, 22 and 16 – throughout the continuous disturbances of a diplomatic family life.
The couple have enjoyed the “rich heritage, history, culture and openness.” of Turkey. “If you take away the language, Lebanon’s way of life… is not that far removed from the Turkish one,” explains the Ambassador, “We have Turkish coffee, and our national drink is raký. We have a common history with Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. This part of the world is one that places importance on the family, traditions, social heritage and respect for religious beliefs – as well as appreciation of the ‘good life’. So we don’t feel that we live in a foreign society.”
In recent months, circumstances have dealt the Ambassador another surprise. Although due to return to Beirut last year, he was asked to remain in place - like other members of the foreign service – due to quickening domestic uncertainty. The passage of UN Security Council Resolution No. 1559 and the extension of the term of President Emile Lahoud in September were followed by the resignation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in October, the devastating assassination of Mr Hariri, prompting demonstrations and the resignation of the caretaker government, in February and the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April. The timing of Mr Siam’s return-to-base now depends on when the new government to be formed after the general election is able to turn its attention to diplomatic appointments.
Mrs Siam and their younger daughter, however, are on the move. As the baccalaureat approaches, she explains, “I can’t take the risk of changing schools in the middle of the academic year.” Accordingly, she will be working on their new apartment and hoping for visits from her elder children currently studying in Canada and France, while “leaving [the Ambassador] in good hands and preparing the ground for his homecoming.”
“I will miss all our friends,” says Mme Siam, “It is friends that makes any place special. But funnily enough, because Lebanon is so close to Turkey, in a way we feel we can come back any time and relive the good memories. Turkey is a place you can’t simply remove from your mind. People are very hospitable and there are so many places to visit. I hope we’ll keep in touch. I also want some of my friends to come and visit Lebanon.”
The Ambassador will have plenty to keep him occupied. When we spoke to him he was excited about the prospect of a trip to Lebanon by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdođan. Before the death of Hariri, Turkey and Lebanon were about to conclude talks on a free trade agreement, and a number of other accords signed last year await full implementation. Re-generating the momentum of business ties and tourist visits and building on the Arab-Turkish summit which took place in Istanbul in early May are also among the Lebanese envoy’s priorities. After the election and the setting up of a new government in Lebanon, he says, there is every reason to believe that cooperation will go back to usual. “We have never had serious issues or differences with Turkey. Turkey has always been supportive of Lebanon in regional and international instances… and of course we look at Turkey as a regional power which can be useful in bringing peace and stability.”
And are any of the couple’s children considering a diplomatic career? “They are very open to different cultures and glad that they have experienced the richness of a diplomat’s life,” replies Ambassador Siam. “But no, I think they would like to settle down and lead a normal life.”
A crucial period
Ambassador Siam also expressed his views on a range of issues concerning Lebanon and the international community.
Q How would you characterise the current political situation in Lebanon?
A We are going through a very crucial period. For the first time in so many years the Lebanese feel that they have the responsibility of taking the destiny of their country in their own hands. It is an opportunity to prove that we can put the country back on its feet and on the regional and international map. It’s not easy to exercise freedom and democracy in this part of the world. There has been much interference in our political life, and Lebanese society is very diverse. However, we can be proud of our national and democratic heritage. We have had a democratic process for many years. The rights of women and human rights in general are observed and respected. Freedom of religion, expression and the media are all part of our national heritage. I am sure many countries in the area look at Lebanon as a unique experience and would like to follow our footsteps. We hope to be able to present an example of peaceful coexistence between different communities.
Q Is there any indication of who was responsible for the bomb attack which killed Prime Minister Hariri?
A An international investigation team sent by the United Nations is working on it. The Lebanese authorities will extend every possible help. It is very easy to speculate but more difficult to find evidence. The departure of Mr Hariri was a great loss not only at the national level but also at the regional and world level. He was a political and economic heavyweight who called for regional and international cooperation and was a driving force behind major economic opportunities for Lebanon and the region. He was also a champion of close ties between Lebanon and Turkey.
Q Will the army now be deployed in southern Lebanon?
A The army is already deployed in the south of Lebanon. It’s not a no-man’s-land. However, in certain areas the United Nations is assuming the responsibility of keeping things quiet. When we are able to resolve the issue of the remaining occupied parts of our territory - namely the Shebaa Farm and surrounding areas - then the army will be in a better position to deploy further southward.
Q Will Lebanon continue to maintain good relations with Syria?
A This is a delicate period but we will definitely be able to overcome any misunderstandings that have resulted from the recent developments and to restore our relations back to a normal level because ultimately this is what history and geography requires.
Q What about the Palestinian issue?
A There is no major problem resulting from the Palestinian presence in Lebanon for the time being. Nevertheless, we hope for a quick solution to enable the Palestinian refugees that live in Lebanon to return to their homeland. We cannot integrate a large number of Palestinians into our national life, but they should not live in refugee camps for ever. It is the responsibility of the countries of the region and the international community to bring the peace process to a happy end. That said, we have no reason to be optimistic at this point.
(DIPLOMAT - June 2005 - Ankara)