A love affair that began with the language
ABU DHABI // Looking back, Victor Lebedev still cannot believe that he, from a poverty-stricken home in Russia, ended up meeting some of this region's most influential leaders and dozens of dignitaries because of his love affair with a language.
Pulling out one of his favourite photographs from a massive archive of mementos, Mr Lebedev remembered how the late Sheikh Zayed called him the "Sovieti" when they met in 1989. When the founder of the UAE asked him why Mr Lebedev learnt Arabic, he responded: "Out of respect for you and your culture." "Sheikh Zayed wished Mikhail Gorbachev luck, and knew a lot about Russia's history and its politics in the region," he said. "A man of great vision and knowledge."
Now 71, the veteran reporter, poet, translator and author, has a whole collection of stories of such meetings with historic figures, a perk of covering the Middle East for the past 40 years. For 20 of these years he was based in the UAE - and that is all because he studied the right language at the right time. "I don't know why, but I just loved how the Arabic language sounded on the radio," said Mr Lebedev in fluent Arabic, recalling how radios back in the Soviet Union in the 1950s would pick up channels in Arabic.
"There was just something about it," he said. In 2006 Mr Lebedev wrote The World of the UAE, one of the most popular guides to the UAE for the Russian community. The guide, published in Russian, provides advice on everything from history to doing business here, and he is regularly consulted by Russians coming to the UAE and by Emiratis wanting to do business in Russia. "There is a lot of stereotyping on both sides, and having experience in the region as well my home country, I try to break these stereotypes and bridge the cultures," he said.
"The image of the Russian changed over the years. In the 1980s, most of the Russians that came here were what I call the suitcase Russians, mainly the mafia and other opportunists. "Then with the change of situations in Russia itself, the Russians that started to come here were the more sophisticated rich ones that wanted to invest in a stable economy due to the instability of their own," he said.
"Now, the Russians here are mainly tourists, but the image of the suitcase Russian stuck, and we are regarded with suspicion most of the time," he said. Mr Lebedev admits that he has been repeatedly accused of working with the KGB and of being a member of the secret service by both the Arabs and the Russians. "People can't believe that someone might have just learnt Arabic out of love for the language and not for spying purposes," he said.
Mr Lebedev studied Arabic at the Department of Oriental Languages at the University of Leningrad in 1960. At the time of his studies, the Soviet Union was becoming interested in the Middle East and establishing political relations with the Arab world, as many of the countries were gaining their independence. Even before he completed his degree, he was sent by his government to Syria to work as a translator.
"It was the early 1960s and before the war with Israel, so I got the chance to see Syria and Lebanon before the war that changed everything," he said, recalling a drive along the Golan Heights and the many villages there that have long disappeared as well as the many Syrian officers and generals that he befriended. "It was very different than now, but Syria still remains my first love and my first introduction into the Arab culture," he said.
He then completed his degree and worked as a translator at the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Trade and the Social Sciences Institute, and was sent to Sudan for two years (1966-1967), where he studied Islamic movements. These stepping stones prepared him for a lifetime career with the Soviet Tass News Agency from 1967 until recently, when he travelled the region and covered North Africa as well as the Arabian Peninsula. He moved to the UAE in 1989 and headed the Tass office, renamed Itar-Tass with the collapse of the USSR, which coincided with the opening of the Russian Embassy. Since then he has been managing the Russian Regional Information Centre in Abu Dhabi.
"I was at the heart of the Arab culture, and fell in love with their poetry, their philosophy, their hospitality," he said. "I was lucky to witness the great transformations in the Middle East and Russia's role in many of the critical events," he said. Even though the UAE's landscape has changed dramatically since his arrival back in the 1980s, Mr Lebedev still can't bring himself to leave. "It is not the same any more, before I would walk down the street and people would call out to me 'ya Russi'," he said.
But nonetheless, this remains Mr Lebedev's home. "This is my other home after Russia, and like many before me and after me, I fell in love with the Arabs and their world."
Published: October 3, 2010 04:00 AM