In today’s global village, travel doesn’t deliver as many surprises as it did 20 years ago. There is such a predictable sameness about so many capitals in terms of hotel chains, malls, eateries and social interaction that travelers can be forgiven for waking up and momentarily wondering where they are. As a frequent business traveler, I thought I’d seen it all. I was wrong.
When I accepted an official invitation to visit from the oil and gas-rich Republic of , I had no preconceived ideas beyond the fact that its capital city Kazan stood on the banks of a river that flows in to the mighty and is considered Russia’s Oriental capital. Drawing from my experience of similar visits, I expected to be politely greeted by ministers before being taken on a tour of the city and sitting down to dinner with everyone on their best behavior making awkward small talk.
Instead, almost everyone I met treated me like a long-lost relative. Their smiles were genuine, their hearts were open and I was made to feel at home from the minute my plane touched down when I was met by a government representative.
When two people meet for the first time their chemistry either gels or it doesn’t. It’s rare when individuals click from the first moment but everyone from the President to ordinary men and women in the street exuded such warmth that I couldn’t help liking them from the get-go. The Director of the Foreign Affairs in the Presidential Office suggested we go for a walk. So we did, and as we strolled along the city streets passersby smiled, waved or stopped to greet us.
It was so refreshing to be around people who haven’t adopted social masks to relate to others. Their hospitality is incomparable in today’s world reminding me of the way we Arabs once were before we leapt on the fast train. I felt as if I had known those people forever. I was so relaxed I could almost have been among my own brothers and sisters.
’s 53-year-old President Rustam Minnikhanov, a commodity expert and economist, is a great guy who comes over as intelligent, dynamic and hospitable. When he’s not dealing with affairs of state he flies his helicopter or plays sports. He is a regular competitor in the FIA European Championship for Rallycross drivers and in 2006 he came first in the ‘Truck Category’ of the UAE Desert Challenge driving his KaMaz, manufactured in his homeland.
President Minnikhanov couldn’t have received my party more graciously. We met him in a ground-floor palace conference room where we engaged in a friendly 40-minute-long informal discussion before he showed me his office on the upper floor and was, later, courteous enough to walk with me out of the building.
It was clear that he cares about his people’s well being and closely monitors their security and comfort levels. He must be doing a good job because his country is generally cited as a success story. Its unified multi-ethnic, multi-religious citizenry are now benefiting from a low 1.5% unemployment rate and enjoying unprecedented prosperity, thanks to their country’s flourishing oil, chemical, engineering, aviation, automotive and textile industries.
He stressed that is a safe country that makes every visitor welcome and secure. Indeed, Kazan nestling among lush forests and green fields is Russia’s up-and-coming destination after successful bids to host the Youth Olympic Games in 2013 and the CIS Summit. And for the first time, this year, it has an independent exhibit at London’s World Travel Market. As Russia’s acknowledged educational and cultural centre there is so much for visitors to see and do.
I was bowled over by Kazan. I’ve never seen anywhere quite like it. My first impression was how organized and clean the city is; I didn’t notice a single paper littering its wide boulevards, spacious squares and parks.
Architecturally it is a mélange of old European grandeur, a Hollywood interpretation of “One thousand and One nights”, Baroque and contemporary. It is certainly not forbidding or austere like parts of Moscow. Dominating the skyline are minarets, cupolas, spires and the city’s historical Kremlin, nominated in 2000 as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.
It has 44 institutes of higher learning, museums, libraries, concert halls, and theatres, including an Opera and Ballet theatre which hosts an annual classical ballet festival in honor of the Tatars’ best-known son Rudolf Nureyev. This important industrial and financial centre is also acknowledged to be Russia’s cultural heartland and sports capital.
Eating out was a real experience. During my stay, I was invited for lunch and dinner in some of the older established restaurants. I felt like an actor in a 1940s or 50s movie. Their menus were so extensive and the surroundings so plush that diners could easily imagine they were in a Tsar’s palace.
The highlight of my trip was a visit to a beautiful mosque where the names of every prophet were inscribed on the walls. I was shown around by the mufti and the imam who were both fluent in Arabic, and was pleasantly surprised by the innovative way they teach young children the five pillars of Islam.
In a gallery annexed to the mosque children learn stories in the Koran with the aid of pictures, objects, dress-up clothing so they can easily relate to the ancient teachings. Kazan has 45 mosques in many architectural styles, including Europe’s largest Kol Sharif that stands close to the magnificent Orthodox Annunciation Cathedral.
Our troubled, ethnically and religiously divided Middle East can draw important lessons from whose population of 3.7 million is made up of ethnic Tatars, Russians, Ukrainians, Uzeris, Armenians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Georgians, Jews, Roma and others. The country is a magnificent example of ethnic and religious tolerance where all people live together in perfect harmony.
President Minnikhanov told me that his people are so integrated that the only way of distinguishing between people of different faiths is when we go to pray. “We are all brother and sisters,” he said. If only we in the Arab world knew how to celebrate our oneness instead of accentuating our differences, this region would be a far better and more peaceful place.