JEDDAH: Kazakhstan, an important Central Asian country, became independent after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, Saudi Arabia’s connection with Kazakhstan dates much further back — to 1927, when a prominent Kazakh was appointed as the Soviet ambassador to Jeddah.
The ambassador’s name was Nazir Turekulov. Not much would have been known about him but for Madiyar Ismailov, the current head of the Kazakhstan Consulate in Jeddah. Turekulov was in fact his great-grandfather.Talking to Arab News on Saturday — ahead of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s two-day state visit beginning on Monday — Ismailov said Turekulov had played a key role in establishing friendly relations between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union.
Ismailov told a fascinating story about Turekulov and his eight years in Jeddah as Soviet ambassador.
He was born in 1892 to the wealthy family of a Kazakh cotton merchant in the village of Kandoz, near the historic city of Turkestan in South Kazakhstan. Turekulov was initially educated in Kokand city in Uzbekistan and then Moscow where he attended the Moscow Commerce Institute, now known as the Russian Economic University.
The Soviet authorities appointed him plenipotentiary representative to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 24, 1927.
“This was the most brilliant period of Turekulov’s life. During his years in Saudi Arabia, he used his diplomatic skills to the fullest and established excellent ties between the two countries,” said Ismailov.
“It was during his time that King Faisal, who was then only a 17-year-old prince, visited Moscow in May 1932. The visit lasted 10 days. It was one of Turekulov’s major political achievements.”
During a visit to a telephone factory in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the Soviets presented Prince Faisal with an automatic telephone exchange system which was a technical novelty at that time.
Later, with the support of Turekulov, the telephone exchange was installed in the palace of King Abdul Aziz.
Turekulov was a polyglot. While in Saudi Arabia, he mastered Arabic. In addition to Arabic, he knew seven other languages: Kazakh, Russian, Uzbek, Tatar, Turkish, German and French.
“King Abdul Aziz called Turekulov his brother, and the diplomat enjoyed great influence and respect among his foreign counterparts and was the dean of the diplomatic corps in Jeddah,” said Ismailov.
Turekulov performed Haj several times. He helped increase the number of pilgrims from the Soviet Union from 10,000 to 15,000. The move was meant to produce “a very good impression (of USSR) and avoid accusations of oppression of Islam.”
In early 1936, Turekulov was recalled to Moscow for reasons that have not been fully explained. The very next year, in 1937, he was arrested on trumped-up charges and executed. “That was the oppressive era of Stalin,” said Ismailov.
The news of his death shocked King Abdul Aziz and he decided at once to break diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union. Relations between the two countries were not restored until 1990.
Much of this information is part of a dissertation that Ismailov wrote as part of his graduation requirements from Kazakh State National University in Almaty.
“I got into diplomacy because of Ambassador Nazir,” said Ismailov and explained how. “My grandfather, Ibray (Ibrahim) Ismail, was a government employee. After his retirement, he was told by people of the older generation that his close relative was a famous man and that his name had long been forgotten because of the Stalinist regime of that time.”
According to Ismailov, because Turekulov was executed, nobody dared to talk about him. All official records pertaining to him and his diplomatic accomplishments were erased. “There was no mention of him in our history books or the books that were taught to students of international relations,” he said.
In 1993, two years after Kazakhstan became independent, Ismailov’s grandfather decided to establish a fund in Turekulov’s memory.
“He wanted to revive his memory and to collect all the documents about him and his work as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia as well,” he said. “My grandfather paid several visits to the places where Ambassador Nazir was born, where he grew up, where he studied, where he worked and which countries he went to. My grandfather visited Moscow and Saudi Arabia several times during the 1990s.”
Around this time, Ismailov was finishing school. For the young, impressionable child the dramatic story of his ancestor gripped his mind.
“My grandfather told me the stories about my great-grandfather,” recalled Ismailov. “That was the turning point in my life. After listening to all those interesting facts about Ambassador Nazir, I thought I should become a diplomat too and continue in my great-grandfather’s footsteps.”
So in 1997, Ismailov enrolled in Kazakh State National University in Almaty and chose international relations as his main subject. “There began my journey in the world of diplomacy,” he said.
At university, he selected English as his first language “and Arabic as my second language.” There was no particular reason for him to take Arabic. “I am a Muslim and Arabic is the language of the Qur’an and so I thought it would be a good language to learn,” he said. That decision turned out to be significant, as later events would bear out.
As part of his university requirements, he wrote a thesis which focused on his great-grandfather’s eight years as a Soviet diplomat in Jeddah.
After finishing university, he went into Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Four months later, in early 2007, the ministry decided to appoint me as head of the consular section at the Kazakhstan Embassy in Riyadh,” he said.
This came as a pleasant surprise to Ismailov. “I never asked for the post nor did I lobby for it,” he said. “It happened through providence; I was 26 years old then and married with two children.”
He spent four-and-a-half eventful years in Riyadh. All through his posting in Riyadh he constantly thought about his great-grandfather and sought some trace of his presence in Saudi Arabia.
The real surprise came three years later.
In 2010, the Kazakh ambassador and Ismailov were working with the Saudis on organizing a Saudi Cultural Week in Kazakhstan. As part of the event, it was decided to hold a photo exhibition to document important events in Saudi Arabia’s history.
“We were told to coordinate the photo exhibition with the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies,” said Ismailov. “The center had the rarest of the rare and the best photos in its archives. As we went through the photos, I had a feeling that I might come across my great-grandfather’s photos.
“And lo and behold, I did. There were three rare, black and white photos of Ambassador Nazir with Prince (later King) Faisal, dated around 1929. I was jumping with joy at the discovery. These photos had not been seen for many years by any Kazakh.”
Ismailov went to the general manager of the center and explained why he wanted “those three photos” and explained the whole story about Ambassador Nazir.
“I got those three photos and I treasure them more than anything else,” said Ismailov. “They are a link with my history and my past.”
The scanned copies of those photos are in his cell phone and he takes pride in showing them to people who are interested.
In 2011, he ended his tour of duty in Riyadh and returned home to Astana. Two years later, in 2013, he was appointed as head of the Kazakhstan Consulate in Jeddah.
Again, he was unaware and does not know how to explain how he got the second posting to Saudi Arabia.
“This is from Allah. They could have sent me to Turkey because Turkish was my third language. But, here I am, representing Kazakhstan in Jeddah — the same city in which my great-grandfather served more than 85 years ago.”
Does he know where his ancestor lived in Jeddah? “No,” said Ismailov. “I was not able to find out where he lived. I could not come up with any documents talking about the exact location of his residence or of the Soviet Embassy in Jeddah.”
Ambassador Nazir’s wife was a Russian woman and they had a daughter. “My grandfather looked for Ambassador Nazir’s daughter but after extensive efforts gave up the search,” said Ismailov.
Then something happened that was a great help. After retiring from government service, Ismailov’s grandfather took up charity work and built mosques in Kazakhstan. He visited Saudi Arabia three times in the 1990s and often met with the prominent people of Saudi Arabia, including the minister of Islamic affairs and the secretary-general of the Muslim World League.
During one visit, he broached the topic of Ambassador Nazir and how he had contributed to Saudi-Soviet relationships. The minister’s adviser, Dr. Majed Al-Turki, immediately recognized Ambassador Nazir and his work because Al-Turki was a researcher himself and had done studies on the Soviet Union and Russia.
“My grandfather told him that we had not been able to trace Ambassador Nazir’s daughter,” said Ismailov. That is when Al-Turki came up with a surprise. He produced the address in Moscow of Turekulov’s only daughter.
“My grandfather was amazed and immediately rushed to Moscow. When he knocked at the door of the address, the woman inside — who went by the name Anel — refused to open the door. She had taken a new identity and because of the fear of the Soviet KGB, she had nothing to do with the past. My grandfather explained everything to her and produced the photographs and other tangible evidence. She gradually accepted his story. It was a happy ending.”
“Saudi Arabia helped us fill in many blanks with our past,” said Ismailov. “We will remain indebted to this great country.”
When he came to Saudi Arabia the first time, Ismailov had two children, one four years old and another three months old. Now he is a father of five.
“Saudi Arabia is the real home of my children. They grew up here. They went to schools here. All their memories are of this country,” he said.
When he was returning to Saudi Arabia for his second posting, his children exclaimed: “We are returning home.”
To Ismailov, now 35, home is where memories are. His memories span more than a 100 years.