Latin American love story Georgine Mallat – Colombian Ambassador
By Christina Foerch
March 25, 2004
Georgine Mallat was born and raised in Lebanon, but she’s had an enduring love affair with Colombia that culminated last summer in her appointment as Colombia’s Ambassador to Lebanon.
Thousands of Colombians have Lebanese roots – successful businessmen, doctors, artists, politicians and even a former president, whose forebears immigrated to Colombia in search of prosperity and freedom. Mallat didn’t reach Colombia’s shores until adulthood though. As a child, she explains, “I grew up with the idea of Colombia”. Her father used to regale her with stories about his two brothers, who had immigrated to Colombia during the First World War, and went on to become very successful and respected identities in their adopted home.
The spirit of adventure that characterizes such immigrants fascinated Mallat, and decades later, while she was working as a lawyer, she decided to travel to Colombia and write a novel about a Lebanese immigrant to Colombia at the turn of the 20th Century. Once there, she found herself beguiled by the beauty of the Colombian landscape and culture.
“Colombia is very beautiful. It possesses a great natural diversity. It has very beautiful landscapes – mountains with eternal snow, tropical areas and the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. There are outstanding historical cities, too, and the people are courageous, hard-working and very patriotic.” The die was cast.
After her book was published, Mallat was approached by Colombian officials and asked whether she would act as the Honorary Consul for Colombia in the north of Lebanon. From that day on, she abandoned her career as lawyer, and dedicated herself solely to diplomacy. Nine years later, Mallat was appointed Ambassador of Colombia, and today she sits behind her desk in the Colombian Embassy in Jal-el-Dib, in front of a picture of the current Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Vélez and the Colombian flag.
“I understand the nature of the Lebanese-Colombian relationship – marked by a long history of family connections – very well,” she said, pointing out that this was probably an important factor in her appointment as Ambassador.
And what of the story that started it all? “The character doesn’t represent one of my uncles, but it was based on a real story,” Mallat explained. It was a tale about an impoverished but innovative and adventurous Lebanese migrant who eventually achieved great success. More than the story of a single person, the novel was also an historical study of migration and the events in both Lebanon and Colombia during this era of turmoil.
“The first Lebanese who migrated to Colombia were from Baabda, in the time of the Ottoman Empire,” recounted Mallat. This had been a period of oppression and economic hardship for many Lebanese. “[The Colombian capital] Bogotá was said to be the Athens of Latin America,” she explained, a reflection of the fact that Colombia has a long history of democracy.
“There has never been a military coup in Colombia,” Mallat continued – something exceptional in South America and something that the Colombians are particularly proud of. Democracy was attractive to Lebanese migrants, and in the decades to follow, Lebanese from all over the country made their way to Latin America. “Another attraction was the geographical diversity and the richness of natural resources, which provided excellent opportunities for Lebanese entrepreneurs,” she added.
Trading on success
Despite her deep affection for the country she now serves, Mallat recognizes that Colombia is not without its problems. She believes, though, that new president Alvaro Uribe Vélez will make an extraordinary effort to help the country to emerge from its current woes. “My mission as Ambassador is to emphasize and promote the good things about Colombia,” she said. She points to writer Garcia Marquez and painter Fernando Botero, as sources of pride for Colombians.
The only official agreement that presently exists between Lebanon and Colombia is a cultural agreement, Mallat explained, and most of the visas issued by the Colombian Embassy are tourist visas. “Cultural exchanges are important in the effort to strengthen the ties between Lebanon and Colombia,” said Mallat, adding that she has invited Colombian painter Rodolfo Sanchez to stage an exhibition in Beirut in February and that she also plans to hold a small Colombian film festival in conjunction with the Instituto Cervantes.
As important as cultural exchanges are, for Mallat, this isn’t enough. She sees scope for great advances in the economic relationship between Colombia and Lebanon and she’s working to forge further agreements that would facilitate this.
“We want to set up a framework that helps businessmen to trade, and that facilitates the import of Colombian products into Lebanon,” she explained. Flowers could be one product, as Colombia is the world’s leading flower exporter. It is also a major producer of coffee, sugar, coal, emeralds and textiles.
The long history of family ties between Lebanon and Colombia is a good basis for the development of an even closer relationship between the two countries. “Relationships are forged by people,” she said, “so we are constantly working to invite more official [Colombian] visitors to Lebanon.” There isn’t much time for reflection, though. There is much work to be done, to put such ambitious projects into place. Fortunately, in Georgine Mallat, Colombia has found a very enthusiastic representative.