Russia in the Heart of Lebanon

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On that cloudy day of Saturday, September 16, 2017, Russia was, more than ever, in the heart and mind of Lebanon. A cultural day was organized for the fifth consecutive year by the Lebanese Orthodox Gathering at Central Hotel in Dhour El-Choueir, with the presence of the Russian Ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin[1], a large number of the Russian diaspora in Lebanon, as well as religious, political, diplomatic, cultural, and social dignitaries.

The event aimed at launching the book “Russia in the Heart of Lebanon”, which required the participation of over 30 persons and was put together and documented by Sergei Forobeiev[2], as well as honoring some figures, among whom was the Lebanese Orthodox Metropolite Niphon Saikaly[3] for his forty years of service.

People started arriving around 9 am. At the entrance, tables were installed: one to register, another one to get the Lebanese-Russian pin, and the last one put the book to be sold on display. The reception area was an opportunity for people to meet and have some coffee. Then, after the reception, there a small tent was. Inside, four Russian women were selling their finest Russian-themed handcrafted items: mirrors, necklaces, jewelry boxes, matrioshkas, small religious icons…

About an hour later, and upon the arrival of Mr. Zasypkin, invitees, journalists, and participants headed to the conference room. Among the attendees were also Russia’s Ambassador to Bahrain and members of the Jordanian diaspora, as a part of the Orthodox expansion in the Middle East.

Mrs. Alexa Bourgi, Head of the Cultural Committee of the Orthodox Gathering, first talked about the importance of promoting the Russian language in Lebanon to deepen the already-strong bilateral ties. She noted that the aim of the Gathering is to make the Russian language in Lebanon an equivalent to French and English languages, which Lebanese speak fluently.

Afterwards, Mr. Iskandar Kfoury, translator into Arabic of the book and a tenant of a PhD in political science, took the floor and stated that the book is a first of its kind with its deep documentation. He then underlined that the difference between Russia and other foreign countries, is that Russia never had a colonization plan set for Lebanon – such as France or Great Britain for example – because Russia is already a very big country, thus her role was strictly one of friendship and of protection for Christian – notably Orthodox – presence in the Orient. He also mentioned the historical relations between the two countries on the cultural, trade, and religious levels. Before the revolution, 114 schools were built in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria (48 among which are in Lebanon alone). The founder of these schools was the Tsar’s uncle and the Tsar himself was an honorary President. These schools were free of charge, not just for Christians or Orthodox students, but for all students, regardless of their religious and regional background. He finally indicated that many Russian cultural events are often organized in Lebanon. “More than 5000 people watched the movies of the First Russian Film Festival in Lebanon last year.”[4]

For his part, Mr. Zasypkin shed the light on the importance of the bilateral relations between two people who put first their common values and who consider prioritizing rights for everyone a must. “Lubnan aydan fi qulub al rus [Lebanon is also in the hearts of Russians],” the Ambassador reminded. He added that the amicable feelings are mutual. He then said that the cultural and educational relations solidify the bridge that has been built between the two countries. “We hold dearly these constants and always take the right decisions for the benefit of our people,” he noted.

A number of figures were also honored at the occasion, among whom were Sergei Forobeiev, Iskandar Kfoury, and the Metropolite Niphon. Eight Lebanese, who studied Russian at the headquarters of the Orthodox Gathering, also received their certificates.

The MyLebanon team also met with four Russian women selling their magnificent handcraft work:

Olga Zgheib:

She has been in Lebanon for the past six years. She had come here for a visit and met the man of her dreams whom she later married. She is a photographer and teaches how to make handcraft items. She says: “Lebanese are very generous and people here live in a community, they frequently visit each other.”

When told about the MyLebanon project, she cared to add: “Lebanon is such a small country but it has a lot to offer for tourists. In ten days, you can see the beach, the mountains, experience the nightlife, taste the food and the wine, do activities and sports…”

Tatiana Beainy:

Twenty-five years already! She met her Lebanese husband while they were both studying at Krasnodar University in Russia. They were both studying engineering. When she moved to Lebanon, it took time for her to adapt, but she did. She talks perfectly the Lebanese dialect and says Lebanese people are extremely generous. She loves the weather. And even though she still visits Russia every year, she works in Lebanon as a tourist guide – accredited by the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism.

When told about the MyLebanon project, she said: “I really wish from all my heart that Russian tourists would come here, they have a lot to see.”

Irina Babikova Bitar:

Born in old Soviet Union in what has now become a part of Ukraine, she has been almost four years in Lebanon now, married to a Lebanese man. She used to be a professional ballet dancer and even made her own astonishing costumes. Nowadays, she mainly fills her time with handwork. She loves Lebanon and says Lebanese are very friendly.

When told about the MyLebanon project, she noted: “your country is really a paradise, unfortunately not so many people know it. I hope that now they will.”

Inna Feghaly:

Also part of the old Soviet Union, she has been in Lebanon for the past seventeen years. She got married to her Lebanese husband in her country home and, in 2000, they moved to Lebanon. She loved how the mountains are very close to the sea and qualifies the Lebanese as “happy people”.

When told about the MyLebanon project, she shared her thoughts on how interesting it is and pointed out the following: “we used to think that Lebanon is a scary country, very similar to the rest of its neighboring states. But the truth is, the Lebanese are very open-minded, happy, kind. They have their freedom, they have churches, and they live together with other different communities. In Lebanon, you can find delicious kinds of fruit all the year. The country has a nice nature, you can ski and swim during the same day because of the moderate weather. It is very different from what people usually imagine.”

[1] Alexander Zasypkin: Former Consul and former Ambassador of the Soviet Union in Syria, he has also worked in Yemen. Russian Ambassador to Lebanon since 2010. He has exceptional popularity among Lebanese.

[2] Sergei Forobeiev: Orientalist, PhD in International Relations. Worked in Arab countries for over 20 years. Worked as Cultural and Media Consultant at the Russian embassy in Beirut for several years. He was a representative of the Palestinian Orthodox Imperial Association. Professor in a number of universities in Russia.

[3] Metropolite Niphon Saikaly: Honorary Member of the Moscow Academy for Diplomacy.

[4] First Russian Film Festival in Lebanon: Dubbed «5 Years in 5 Days», the film festival, co-organized by Maria Ivanova – Producer of Buta Films and Head of MyLebanon – and the Lebanese department of Rossotrudnichestvo, took place between October 24th and 28th 2016 in Beirut.

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