The Arabs of Latin America

The Arabs of Latin America

The first wave of migrants from the Middle East to Latin America found acceptance by the locals as successful, hardworking merchants. Newer arrivals have had a harder time.


The conservative Beirut newspaper An-Nahar ran this headline last September: “Lebanese migrants’ son Michel Temer becomes Brazilian president.” The story didn’t mention the forced removal of Dilma Rousseff, the country’s former head of state, in favor of her vice president, nor that it was done so irregularly that millions of Brazilians viewed it as a coup. An-Nahar focused instead on the glorious achievements of Temer, the son of two peasants from Btaaboura, a town 70 kilometers north of Beirut, who had settled in São Paulo in 1925. The main street of Btaaboura (population 300) had already been renamed in Temer’s honor when he was vice president, so all the town’s mayor (who happened to be Temer’s cousin) had to do was paint out the word “vice” on the street sign in Portuguese and Arabic.

In South America, the son of Arab immigrants rising to become a national leader is nothing new. There are precedents in Argentina (Carlos Menem, 1989–99), Ecuador (Abdalá Bucaram, 1996–97, and Jamil Mahuad, 1998–2000), El Salvador (Elías Antonio Saca, 2004–9), Honduras (Carlos Flores Facussé, 1998–2002), and Colombia (Julio César Turbay, 1978–82). People of Arab descent are well represented across the political spectrum, and they’re prominent in other fields as well: for example, the Brazilian writers Raduan Nassar and Milton Hatoum, the Argentinian actor Ricardo Darín, and the Colombian singer Shakira. When Donald Trump, newly elected as president of the United States, resumed his belligerent remarks about Mexico, Carlos Slim—the son of Lebanese immigrants and the sixth-wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes—held a press conference to reassure his compatriots.

According to the official version of history south of the Rio Bravo, Latin America’s Arab immigrants have been fully integrated. The Arabs who began arriving in the late 19th century came mainly from the Levant rather than North Africa, and they were known as “Syro-Lebanese” (in Argentina and Brazil), “Lebanese” (Ecuador), and “Palestinian” (Honduras and Chile), or continent-wide as “Turks”—a reference to the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled the regions they came from. “There were relatively few of them,” says Paulo Gabriel Hilu da Rocha Pinto, a Middle East specialist at Fluminense Federal University in Niterói, near Rio de Janeiro. “One hundred and sixty thousand came to Brazil, for example—fewer than [went] to Argentina, and half as many as went to the US.”

Pinto’s archival research disproves the prevailing notion that there are more than 8 million people of Middle Eastern descent in Latin America today. “Arabs are the seventh-largest immigrant group in Brazil, after the Europeans,” he says. “But here, as elsewhere in Latin America, the overall immigration rate is low, so each of these populations has a significant impact.” Some of those who left Beirut or Tripoli had hoped to settle in the United States, but were duped by shipping companies that deposited them in Rio de Janeiro, Santos, Buenos Aires, or Veracruz. (They were still in the Americas, after all.)

Mostly Middle-Class

Unlike other waves of migration organized by states in need of labor, the Middle Eastern immigrants came spontaneously, impelled by economic crises and the British and French occupations in their home countries. In Brazil, the newcomers weren’t sent to the coffee estates, where workers were treated like slaves; most went into trade in the city centers. In Mexico, “the idea took hold…that the Lebanese, as the descendants of the Phoenician merchants of 6,000 years ago, had a special talent for making a profit,” says Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, who teaches history at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of So Far From Allah, So Close to Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2007). Of the Arab immigrants who registered in Mexico between 1926 and 1951, 45 percent gave their occupation as “trader.”

Their patterns of settlement helped shape cities throughout Latin America. In São Paulo, Arab immigrants were concentrated in the central Rua de 25 Março; in Rio, their area was nicknamed “Saara” (“Sahara” in Portuguese and an acronym for the “Society of Friends of Rua Alfandega and Adjacent Streets”). In Peru, two-thirds settled in Arequipa, the commercial capital; in Honduras, they were concentrated in the center of San Pedro Sula; and in Ecuador, in Quito and Guayaquil. Their specialty was often textiles: The Fauaz family ran one of the finest stores in San José, Costa Rica; José Elias Name ran the Flower of Turkey shop in Havana, Cuba; and the Paris stores in Managua, Nicaragua, were also owned by Arab immigrants.

“What lodged in people’s memories,” Pinto says, “is that when the Arab immigrants arrived in Latin America, they were very poor, and they were all Christian—they’d had to flee religious persecution. They all became traveling vendors, and through talent and hard work, they opened shops and then got into manufacturing and banking, which enabled their children to become lawyers, doctors, and well-known politicians. It’s a myth—in fact, the immigrants mostly came from the upper-middle class, whether they were from the town or the country.” Back home, those who came from rural areas had already been part of a monetized economy, while those who came from the cities were doctors, journalists, lawyers, and academics.

“The funny thing is, the official history of the Arab communities’ unstoppable rise through society is the same in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and throughout the region,” Pinto continues. This version of history was shaped by The Syrians in America (1924), by Philip Hitti of the American University in Beirut, who aimed to give coherence to a community that was highly segmented religiously, geographically, and politically. His narrative, which left out the Muslim minority and the poor—those who didn’t make it—helped facilitate acceptance by local populations.

“They Found Themselves in Limbo”

Ethnically, an Arab wasn’t viewed as a white European, who would supposedly improve the race and culture, but neither was he stigmatized as “yellow” or “black.” The newcomers were also hard to pigeonhole because they often arrived with French passports issued by the colonial authority. “The ‘Turks’ didn’t fit any category the elites used to classify race,” Pinto says, “so they were neither excluded nor wanted, and found themselves in limbo.” The immigrants were recognized for modernizing commerce by introducing credit systems, but they were also seen as wily and intent on moneymaking, and therefore tainted by definition in rural societies whose leading figures had aristocratic pretensions.

Cultural differences fed the xenophobia. Some people were convinced that Arabs were cannibals because of their taste for raw kibbeh, the Lebanese steak tartare. Hostility sometimes led to violence, as in the “war of the comb,” which erupted in 1959 in Curitiba in southern Brazil when a shopkeeper refused to give a policeman a receipt for a comb he’d bought. The argument degenerated into riots that led to the looting and destruction of 120 shops, most owned by Arab immigrants.

So the newcomers needed to negotiate their integration. Since they looked similar to Europeans, they sought to eliminate other differences, starting with the use of Arabic, especially during the 1930s and ’40s, when nationalist feelings ran high. From Argentina to Mexico, Arab immigrants stopped passing their native tongue on to their children. They also converted: The Christians abandoned the Eastern Orthodox Church, which Latin American Catholics viewed as too close to Islam, while Muslims converted to Christianity.

Social and material success as well as partial acculturation enabled these immigrants to win acceptance while still retaining their identity. “Some considered themselves Arabs by family tradition, others through their participation in Arab institutions…writers and actors took their origins as a source of inspiration,” Pinto says. Even so, “the only thing that really survived was their cuisine, which they still lay claim to, unlike their language, religion, and clothing.” Middle Eastern immigrants also affirmed their identity by embracing prevailing prejudices about the sensuality of Arab women or the commercial talent inherited from desert nomads, turning the ambiguities to their advantage.

Pinto points out that the intellectuals espoused an orientalism “that oscillated between representations of Arabs as indolent and irrational and others that presented their world as one of the cultural crucibles of Latin American nations, because of their long presence on the Iberian Peninsula.”

Orientalism Reinvented

Immigrant elites reinvented this orientalism and adopted elements acceptable to the local population to negotiate their differences, even if they had little to do with their history. The belly dance—an invented tradition if ever there was one—is an inevitable part of events organized by the Syro-Lebanese centers in Mexico, clubs for the Arab elite that thrive in the major cities. In Mexico City, Guadalajara, Veracruz, Mérida, and Monterrey, these clubs, in luxury premises, “have the twin functions of demonstrating the Mexican-ness of these prominent citizens and Lebanese cultural superiority in business,” says Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp. “Because their members have succeeded, they can acknowledge their roots, even use them to explain their success.” In 1966, for example, no one criticized Carlos Slim for marrying Soumaya Domit Gemayel, niece of the former Lebanese presidents Amin and Bashir Gemayel.

The Brazilian carnival allows this integration to be displayed playfully, with an idealized identity. Men and women wear Bedouin robes or costumes out of the Ottoman seraglio. They sing marchinhas (little carnival marches) that reference this orientalist fantasy. Allah-la Ô, written in 1940 by descendants of Lebanese immigrants David Nasser and Antônio Nássara, evokes the nomadic life of the caravan, the desert, and Islam, set to a samba rhythm. It’s still a classic.

Mohammed ElHajji , a former journalist on the Rabat daily L’Opinion, was able to use this blend of orientalism and ignorance to integrate when he arrived in Rio in 1991. “I’ve always introduced myself as Moroccan, but even to my university teachers, that didn’t mean much. People kept mixing up Morocco and India; they didn’t know where to place me. That gave me an opportunity to circumvent the implicit hierarchies—ethnic, geographic, and social—that are part of Brazilian society, and which sideline blacks, indigenous Latinos [Bolivians, Paraguayans, Peruvians], and the Nordestinos [Brazilians from the northeast].” In Brazil, he notes, “your place in society is determined by both your social level and place of origin.” ElHajji went on to teach communications at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). His daughter, he says, “is a Brazilian with a Moroccan father. Here, people aren’t so hung up on the concept of ‘second generation’ as they are in Europe.”

Anti-Islam Rhetoric

ElHajji was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to fit in at first, but after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, attitudes changed. Recently invited to sit on a thesis examination panel in Salvador de Bahia, ElHajji was shocked by a joke made by the supervisor, who asked whether he’d detonate his bomb before or after the presentation. Now his name has begun arousing questions and even suspicions. Gustavo Barreto, a researcher in communications at UFRJ, says “the rhetoric that elides ‘Arab’ and ‘terrorist’ didn’t take root quickly in Brazil because of the existence of a political and economic elite of Arab origin. But through force of repetition, Islam is increasingly being called a dangerous, fundamentalist religion.” Islam, though growing, is still extremely small: According to the Islamic Organization for Latin America, there are an estimated 6 million Muslims in a region with more than 625 million people: for example, 700,000 in Argentina (out of 43 million), 120,000 in Venezuela (31 million), and 115,000 in Mexico (122 million).

It’s in the tri-border area where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet that anti-Islam rhetoric has taken hold most readily. The area has always been a smuggler’s paradise, and the US authorities were quick to designate it a terrorist stronghold without providing proof. They targeted the second-wave Arab immigrants who arrived during and after the Lebanese civil war, from the 1970s on. These were mainly Muslims, and some had managed to retain a stronger link with the Arabic language through satellite TV and the Internet. Fernando Rabossi, an anthropologist at the UFRJ, says: “Up till now, in any case, the Brazilian government has rejected Islamophobic rhetoric. But that’s not true of Argentina nor, in particular, of Paraguay, which has increased the arbitrary detention of citizens of Arab origin.”

Rabossi concedes that Islamophobia is now rife throughout the region. Attacks are increasing, especially on women wearing the veil. In July 2016, academics at the UFRJ’s Institute of Physics were shocked by the deportation of a colleague, the French-Algerian physicist Adlène Hicheur. He was sentenced for terrorism offenses in France in 2012, after an examination of his e-mails allegedly revealed contact with a leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Hicheur was freed after two and a half years of detention. Brazil’s decision to expel him, without justification, is unprecedented.

Besides media pressure (the mainstream press is all too happy to retail US and European prejudices), ElHajji identifies another reason for these changing attitudes: the growing power of evangelicals in Latin America. Around 90 members of the Brazilian Parliament’s evangelical bloc have demanded changes in the country’s foreign policy, especially a more tolerant attitude toward Israel. “There is a confusion in the minds of many evangelicals between the Holy Land of the past and the modern state of Israel,” ElHajji says, “a confusion which only accentuates the rhetoric against Arabs and Muslims.” At the consecration of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God’s giant new Temple of Solomon in São Paulo in July 2016, Israel’s national anthem was played after Brazil’s. Evangelical activists—including some Catholic ones—are ready to defend “Christian identity” against all comers, especially Islam.

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