Cultural ties date back centuries

More Lebanese are said to live in Brazil than in Lebanon, a testament to the role played by Middle Eastern culture, cuisine and language for more than a century in South America.

    Even the South American samba has an Arab influence

    Practically all Arab nations are represented throughout Latin America, but Syrians and Lebanese make up the majority - having settled in their thousands from the 1890s onwards.

    José Asmar - a journalist and historian from the midwestern state of Goi?s (himself a son of Lebanese immigrants) - says the majority of those who came were the landless and unemployed poor.

    The Syrian Society in Uruguay was
    founded in 1906  

    He adds that many of those who had only planned to make a 'quick buck' before returning home often ended up staying on for good.

    "Arab immigrants adapted and mixed in to the country very well. You can find many who love this country more than those considered native Brazilians," he said.

    Settling in

    Most immigrants - particularly those that chose to settle in Brazil - started businesses which often specialised in textiles, furniture, construction and banking, according to the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce's Kamal David Curi.

    And some of the better known success stories are Adib Jatene, a top international cardiologist, and Guilherme Afif Domingos, president of the largest trade association in South America - the Sao Paulo Trade Association.

    But first- and second-generation immigrants in other South American countries have also made it to the very top, most

    Vilaron says Arabs have had
    a marked effect on architecture

    notably Argentina's former president Carlos Menem - whose parents came from Syria - and Ecuador's former president Jamil Mahuad.

    And Arab immigrant influence is not limited to politics and business. Andre Vilaron, a photographer who has helped document Middle Eastern culture in South America, points out that different Arab communities have had different influences.

    With pictures taken in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Bolivia, Vilaron adds: "It is very interesting that the public finds out the diversity of the Arab culture in other regions outside Brazil, particularly the influence in architecture, which is very strong in some countries."

    Rags to riches

    But a common theme of most immigrants on the continent is how they started from virtually nothing.

    Brazilian journalist Marina Sarruf tells the story of 95-year-old businessman Em?lio Bonduki - whose father Gabriel decided to leave the Syrian city of Homs in 1897.

    A Syrian immigrant sets up his
    store in Argentina, 1915

    "My father said everyone wanted to come to America. He said it was easy to find a job and start a business," Bonduki says.

    After working as a travelling salesman for many years, Gabriel had opened his first store by 1905 in Sao Paulo.

    Emilio was born in 1909 and still remembers how he was accepted by all into Brazilian society. "It was a country that offered many opportunities. It also received immigrants with love and attention - more than we could have dared to expect," he explained.

    By 1915, Gabriel had saved enough to give his son an expensive education in Syria. And after years of hard work, Em?lio had become head of the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, a major benefactor of the Lar Sirio Pro-Infancia orphanage and a board member for the Mao Branca Beneficent Society - which takes care of elderly people.

    Cultural legacy

    Additionally, Arab immigrant culture has left its mark on both Portuguese and Spanish.

    Asmar estimates that about 5000 words from Arabic have made their way into local Brazilian vocabularies.

    Third and fourth generation Arabs
    in Chile practise an ethnic dance

    Some of them are used regionally, such as alfombra - used by the population of states in the northeast of the country to mean curtain.

    But other words are more national, particularly foods such as kibes and esfihas. There is even an Arab influence in the Brazilian samba, where the Arab 'adufe' drum is used to give the characteristic samba beat.

    Touching on issues of cultural interest at the summit, Vilaron explains how his exhibition - with images by about 22 photographers from Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Uruguay and Chile - portrays four aspects of the Arab immigrant legacy.


    Entitled Amrik, the first part of the exhibition is intended to show Arab cultural presence through their customs brought from abroad - in cooking, music, language and architecture.

    Brazilian archives show a Mali
    slaves Quranic writings

    The subjects tackled will then address the difficult moments faced by immigrants on leaving their countries. The third part deals with the integration between the Arab and the South American - where images portray interaction through trade, industry and clubs.

    Last comes the Arab identity. A photographic essay shows how immigrants managed to keep cultural bonds in each country maintaining their roots, through religious and social tradition.

    Vilaron concludes that "the central idea ... is to show a part of the great influence that Arab culture has had in our countries".

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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