Abdul Turay: The man who annoys Estonians
Interview by Priit Pullerits
Published Postimees 14 November 2009
He came here like a breath of fresh air. Some say he is showing us how the world sees us. Others question how he dare say something about us.
A year ago, a black man shocked Estonia when he wrote a couple of sentences in Postimees which enraged the nation.
“Suppose in three or four years, Russia decided to try its luck and attack Narva. We can be certain the United States and the whole West will condemn it publicly. But don't rule out the possibility that the United States and NATO are actually doing nothing, because the President's wife is privately thinking:
'Ah... Estonia, isn't that the little small-minded white country, to hell with them.'”
Curiously this do not lead to Turay becoming a pariah, quite the opposite. Through his work he has become an opinion leader (though he himself does not agree with the title). His opinion pieces have become eagerly anticipated and he is not cheated these anticipations.
In this week's column he decided definitively to settle the question why Estonian women prefer foreign men.
Namely, he argued, Estonian women prefer Estonian men after all.
Who is this black man who dares to talk so vigorously to a white society?
He was born and raised in England (Ed note: Britain), studied history at University in London, worked thereafter on the newspaper the Hong Kong Standard and in Taiwan on the China News. After returning to Britain, he went into public service. He led projects and wrote speeches (Ed note: and letters) for ministers.
Last year he came to Estonia together with his Estonian spouse to be Editor-in-Chief of the English-language newspaper The Baltic Times.
But soon he put that job behind him because the paper's owners refused to pay some of their employers.
Now Turay teaches at The Old Town Educational College; and he writes in addition for Postimees and Web sites.
How much courage do you need to come from a foreign country and start to write opinion articles here?
Quiet a lot; I am always nervous: do I have the authority to write about something? I am not Estonian, I don't speak Estonian particular well, I can read, but I need a dictionary. How can I write about economics or politics, if I am not an economist? So it needs courage.
Do many people listen to what you write?
Indeed, they listen but that doesn't mean that they always agree with me. A lot do not agree, but they at least think.
Sometimes it appears that you are tying to be provocative. Is that so?
No, I am just trying to be honest. It's said (Ed note: quoting Malcolm McLaren) that if you write something that doesn't annoy anybody, then you are doing something wrong.
Some people get annoyed simply because I am writing, and I can't do anything about that.
However there must be another reason why there is a turbulent reaction to your writing, What's your opinion?
Maybe the reason is this. As Barbi Pilvre(lecturer and political analyst) has said, in Estonia the same group of people are writing all the time and even if they write something very smart and special, people don't react because it's done by the same writers. I am different, I write in a different way and I have different things to say; that can be interesting.
How do people here relate to Foreigners?
If you are a foreigner, then it is automatically assumed that you are a tourist. People come and ask money from you almost every day. I have notice this more and more after the recession began.
Estonians are provincial, but the whole World is becoming like this. This is somewhat worrying. You'd think because of globalisation it would be the other way round. I am noticing also Britain (Ed note: he wrote England but I would have said Britain) is more provincial than 10-15 years ago. If you look at the British press for example it is all about local figures. Twenty years ago the picture the media painted was more international.
How do you feel walking in Estonian streets? Is it odd or different?
I am used to it. I grew up in a town where everybody was white. And if you are a child then you don't think this way. You can't see a white world, but only the neighbourhood, where you live, and if you are the only black child then you are used to this. That's your world.
But you notice that you are stared at sometimes?
Adults pretend not to stare, but children really stare. There is a big difference in how Estonian children and how, for example, Chinese children behave. Estonian children are just curious but Chinese children are sometimes afraid.
Once I was standing on a Hong Kong train platform and there was a woman with a child staring at me behind his mother's shirt. I started to fool with him slightly, I pulled faces, but his mother said that I shouldn't do that as the child was afraid. This has never happened here. In Estonia children are simply curious they are not afraid of anyone.
What was the most difficult to get use to in Estonia?
(He thinks for a long time) I don't like Estonian food especially. Obviously there is a reason why there are no Estonian restaurants in the rest of the World (laughs). You put sour cream on everything. I am not a big fan of Estonian food. There is not also a lot of variety of cuisines.
You have tried blood sausage?
Yes of course, In Britain there is something like this. We call it Black Pudding; and I don't especially like it.
What do you feel is strange of peculiar in Estonia?
Estonia are balanced, they rarely speak or express their emotions. But all the same they tell you all sorts of confidential thing which people from other cultures won't, even if you know the other person well. You can get closer to Estonians than with people from other cultures, where you do not talk about certain things for years. Therefore you have many open relationships with Estonians.
I was married before and I only discovered certain things about my wife after three year, which I didn't know. But I know similar thing about Estonian friends although I hadn't even known them so long.
You have written opinion pieces about Edgar Savisaar(Mayor of Tallinn, leader of the Centre Party) Mart Laar(Leader of IRL) What is your political viewpoint?
In Britain I was a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, which is the same here as the Centre party. I would define myself as an Adam Smith Liberal. Estonia has two party in the position of the centre, the Centre Party and the Reform Party
Even the right-wing IRL is more close to the centre than the equivalent party in Britain. Estonian politics is more grey in tone. There isn't strong opposition to the European Union or to membership of the Euro from the right, whilst in Britain the right-wing is strongly against the Euro.
So it is difficult to say what party I endorse. In any case, I am not a social democrat. In the long run socialism would be the best idea but then you need some type of “Star Trek” technology, like making water out of thin air, to make it work. Until we have this technology, socialism can't function.
Which way would you vote in parliament if you could vote?
For the Reform Party or IRL(Ed note: I can vote)
Interesting because the IRL embodies Estonian patriotism. Explain!
The IRL stands for liberal and conservative values. When I was young I was a Conservative, but the British Conservative party in the past 20 years has moved from Pro-Europeanism to Euroscepticism.
In Estonia, The IRL is both pro-Europe and pro-Estonia. They don't see a conflict between patriotism and internationalism. In Britain patriotism mean this that you must be against Europe. Therefore I have difficulty in supporting the Conservative party.
When it come to the question of the Reform party, they have made some mistakes when in government. I am not especially endorsing the Centre Party. They don't even have an ideology, except for populism and people know this. Even those who vote for the Centre Party know this. They do not represent anything other than getting back into power.
Have you noticed stress between Estonians and Russian?
The whole world saw this two years ago
Can Estonians and Russian reconcile?
This is a difficult challenge. The problem between Estonians and Russians is similar to the problems in Northern Ireland. The difference is it's a lot worse there and it's been going on for centuries.
The Protestants were originally a different ethnic group. They were brought there from Scotland to crowd out the Irish majority group. They looked different, they had a different language, different names. After four century the two group are very similar, the names and language are similar, but the conflict is still bitter. They don't live in the same areas, they don't talk to each other
I went to a school where there were Protestants and Catholics and there was conflict even there. One Protestant kid told me that he had nothing against Asians or Blacks, as long as I wasn't Catholic.
So it is difficult to say how to say how the problem between Estonians and Russians will be resolved. I don't have a solution for this. I don't believe anybody does.
Furthermore the emotions to these questions are too strong. So if anybody makes a proposal then he gets shouted down. And even if something is undertaken, it doesn't mean that this problem would be resolved. Look at Northern Ireland.
Despite the huge number of Russians, there is not especially much ethnic diversity in the Estonia. Would increasing diversity be beneficial?
The question is not whether Estonia needs more cultural diversity. Cultural diversity will come if you have a successful country. If diversity doesn't come then it's because the country is not successful. The Europe Union has a lot of countries that are already diverse, so this will happen also in Estonia if there is something here to attract a computer specialist or a doctor, for example a good salary. When people don't come its because there is nothing to attract them.
With success comes diversity, there is nothing that can be done to stop it, except leaving the European Union and if you did this you wouldn't get any more EU money, which is a bad outcome.
Is it good, when people of other background come here, or is it a risk to Estonia as the Estonian population is small?
Yes some people are worried about this. But I think that Estonian culture is very strong and will live on. You have preserved your own language despite 800 years of occupation.
The challenge is can you take it to the next level where people who are not from the Estonian population, speak also Estonian and have themselves become Estonian. This is a difficult task, because nobody wants to lose their own roots and origins.
Under what condition would you yourself become Estonian?
Then if I feel that people take me for that, if they are feel comfortable with me and dot want to eat me [after writing something] Estonians don't have a civic sense of national identity. It's difficult to be adopted here. People won't take you as Estonian.
It's harder to become Estonian than to become British or American.
But if you stay here for 10 year do you hope that you'll start to feel more Estonian?
It got to be so, if I stayed here for 10 years and my children come from here.
I've heard you are Moslem?
I am not religious. My parents are Moslem but I was raised with the Anglican faith. I can't really call myself a Moslem because I don't even know the rituals.(Ed note: I went on to say that Islam is a compassionate, humanist religion which has been misunderstood in the West. But they didn't publish this part of the interview)
Say what keeps you here?
My spouse probably.
And you've not had enough of it yet?
(Laughs) yes a woman is enough motivation to be here.
What does your spouse do?
She works in government service. She is modest and I must honour her wishes. She doesn't want attention or her name made public.
What do you plan to do here?
I have certain goals, but firstly I must raise some capital. These plans can change as my mother's health is not the best. If it gets worse it could be that I must go back home. This is not difficult because I am on leave from my work in the UK. My place there still exists but I don't get a salary now.
Would you like to stay?
Yes I would indeed, until my Estonian gets better
Do you feel that you want to do something after your writing. You will still be of value in Estonia because your writing is anticipated?
Yes some people expect it, but not everybody.
Looking back on Abdul Turay's opinion pieces.
But one thing is clear for anyone who cares about Estonia; we should all do whatever we can to make sure the bank don’t go bust and stop Putin’s gang from coming here, even if it means living on potato peels. (Let's eat potato peels)
Now Ansip must realise that it was a mistake to hold up Ireland as a model for Estonia to follow. (The hairdresser who ruined Tallinn)
What is clear is that Laar is in a bind. If he is truly a believer in the free market he would go to the people and say: “Look, if I get back into power, I will do nothing... doing something will only make the situation worse, we must take the pain.” (Laar's dilemma)
There is more to Edgar Savisaar than Estonia's answer to Brad Pitt though. He is more of a cross between the aforementioned Hollywood star, Richard Nixon and Jesus. (Savisaar: Estonia's sexiest man)
The electoral system in Estonia was designed to stop people like Savisaar. And stop him it will.(Pyrrhic victory)
I hope I don't sound to dumb in stating the obvious. Estonian women prefer Estonian men and it is normal and natural that they should. (Black men and Estonian women: the truth)