Arabs Making Their Mark in Latin America: Generations of Immigrants in Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico

Habeeb Salloum

“Nashara al-Islam bi-khawafiq al-alam” [“Islam spread under waving banners”]. I could not believe my eyes as I read these words etched in Arabic on a church bell preserved in the Palacio de la Inquisición in Cartagena, Colombia’s foremost resort.  It was dated 1317 A.D. and presumably brought to this former Spanish colony by early settlers from the Iberian Peninsula who thought the inscription was only a decoration.  Little did they realize that this remnant of the Spanish Moors, who had been forcibly converted to Christianity then shipped to the Spanish colonies in South America, was a statement of pride by a defeated people.
Thinking of this bell as I walked down Avenue Saint Martin, the main street of Bocagrande, Cartagena’s tourist section, the sign “Heladeria y Repositeria Arabe” caught my eye.  Excited, I entered the tidy-looking ice cream parlor.  “Are you an Arab?  Do you have Arab ice cream?”  I asked, first in Arabic then in English.  The girl behind the cash register shrugged her shoulders, not understanding a word.
In the ensuing days of travel through a number of Colombian coastal cities I found that the bell with its Arabic inscription and the sign “Heladeria Arabe” truly reflected the remains of the converted Moors, exiled to the colonies, and the Arab immigrants who had come in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both groups passed on but left their traces behind.
During the first years after the Spaniards landed in South America, a fair number of the settlers were former Muslims of Spain who had been required to convert to Christianity.  A hundred years after their conversion, they were still not fully accepted as true Christians, and many of them were sent to the new Spanish colonies.  Still yearning for the life of their ancestors, they preserved a good number of traditions inherited from their Arab forefathers.  Hence, when the first immigrants from the Greater Syria area came, they found a people with which they had much in common.
At the turn of the century, the Syrian newcomers, mostly from a peasant or working class background, landed on the shores of a land still living in the medieval world.  With hardly any roads or the other amenities of our modern age, these first immigrants used the coastal rivers as roads to trade with the inhabitants of the primitive and isolated villages. With great determination, hard work, and the mercantile traits which they had inherited from their forefathers, they prospered and eventually opened their own businesses in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal towns.  Due to their resourcefulness, those who settled in the villages of the countryside were admired and respected by the local inhabitants.  However, in the cities, the locals derogatorily called the Syrian newcomers “Turcos,” looking down on them while envying their success.
When the Syrians made some money, most brought brides from their homeland.  Only a minority wed Colombian women, including a few from the Guajira Indian tribe.  Trying to improve their lives in a land beset by feuding, revolutions and poverty, they had little time to teach their offspring about their Arab culture.  In the subsequent years, due to their work-filled lives, the Arabic tongue was almost lost to the Colombian born generations.
The society to which the Arabs came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reinforced the almost total loss of the language.  The church was all-powerful and every inhabitant had to fit into the narrow view of the Spanish-Catholic world of that time.
I asked George Baladi, a longtime immigrant living in Cartagena, if there were any Muslims among the early Arabs in Colombia. He replied, “I am told that five Muslim families from Tripoli, in present day Lebanon, had come with the early immigrants, but they all had to become Christian.”
Baladi, one of the few who has preserved his heritage, and is the representative of the Federacion des Entidades Arabes en Las Americas in Colombia, went on to say that in earlier times one had to be baptized to work and to become a Colombian.  Hence, Muslims had to hide their identity. Only much later laws gave freedom and equality to all creeds.  Today, there is no problem for people wishing to live under the religion of their choice.
The earliest known Syrian immigrant to Colombia is believed to be the Damascene Salim Abu Chaar who arrived by ship in 1885; a good number of others soon followed.  The second wave came in the 1920s. The descendants of these first two waves of Syrian immigrants are now involved in every facet of Colombian life.  Many are well-educated and they can be found in all professions.  A few hold high positions in the armed forces, while others are pillars in the business community.
In the political arena, the Arab immigrants have also left an impressive mark.  Gabriel Turbay ran for president in 1946, and Julio César Turbay Ayallah, born to an Arab father and Colombian mother, served as president of the country from 1978 to 1982.  When first elected he is reported to have stood up in Parliament and declared that he was proud to be of Arab descent.
At any one time, there are from 20 to 30 members of Parliament and the Senate who are of Arab origin.  It is estimated that there are over a quarter of a million Colombians of Arab descent —  almost all tracing their origins to Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.  The vast majority live along the Caribbean coastline; Barranquilla has the largest number of Arabs in the country.  Since it is a large commercial center, it drew many Arab immigrants who have built a huge community center which is the envy of the other communities.
One of the oldest of the other communities is in Cartagena, 136 km to the west of Barranquilla.  In this city, once known as the “Gateway to El Dorado,” there are only about 2,000 Arab Colombians, but they are very influential. Even though they are a small minority in a city of 900,000, a good number of the these emigrés and their descendants are prominent in all its avenues of life.
In this city, the Arabs have built a center, called Club Union, reflecting the unity of the Syrians and Lebanese in Cartagena.  With restaurants and numerous recreation facilities, it offers a home away from home for the residents of Arab origin.  The Arabs are the only organized ethnic community in the city and, according to Elias Daffach, owner of the restaurant La Olla Cartagena,  they are well respected by the other Colombians.
In spite of their small number and almost total assimilation, the Arabs have left a significant mark on Colombian society.  In every city where they reside, restaurants and cafes proudly display the nameRestaurante Arabe or Comida Arabe.  The Arab dishes, kubbah, shish kabab, taboula, tahini, and all types of pies stuffed with cheese, meat, sweets, and vegetables are well-known among the Colombians.  Many Colombians have come to think of these delicacies as their own foods, and a good number of these dishes are sold frozen in almost all markets. 
Strangely enough, even though the Arab immigrants’ descendants have lost their tongue and most of their traditions, they still form social clubs, and about 25 percent marry within the Arab community.
I feasted in the restaurant of the Centro Sirio Venezolano (Syrian Venezuelan Center) on the tastiest kababs which I had ever eaten.  The cook, hailing from Aleppo, had done a superb job.  No meal, even in his home town, could have been more satisfying than this dinner in one of Venezuela’s top resorts.
All around me in the outdoor restaurant and by the swimming pool, about 1,000 out of the 8,000 Arabs who reside in the town of Puerto La Cruz and the adjoining city of Barcelona were eating and playing backgammon, bingo, cards or dominos.  Others were watching Arabic videos or chatting while all around, masses of children played and shouted.
Above this din, I could barely hear the taped voice of Umm Khalthum, singing of a lost love.  This vibrant community had built the most magnificent of all the clubs in Santa Cruz.  Unlike in many other urban centers where Arabs have immigrated, in this town the Syrian community had founded a home where they could meet, socialize, and at the same time keep their heritage alive.
Credit for the effort and success of establishing the top ethnic center in Venezuela—some say in all of South America—is due, in a large part, to a few dedicated men, mostly from Aleppo, Syria.  They were mainly part of the huge Syrian migration to Venezuela which took place during the oil boom of the 1950s. These newcomers scattered throughout the country and are the core of today’s 400,000 Syrians living in Venezuela. 
Almost every town and village which had missed having Arab settlers from the earlier immigrations, which began in the late 1880s, now has at least one Arab family. They have joined the approximately 500,000 prior immigrants and their descendants, reinforcing Arab culture amongst the older Arab community which had been almost totally assimilated.
The center, even though it was almost entirely built by the Syrian community, accepts membership from all Arabs, regardless of their country of origin or religious affiliation. Arab students, not only from Puerto La Cruz, but from other parts of the country, are given free membership.
Arabs who emigrated in the early 1900s from the Ottoman province of Syria, part of which is now Lebanon, to the Yucatán, then a poor area of Mexico, had primarily come from poor villages themselves, and, like their compatriots in the other parts of the Americas, began their lives in the New World as peddlers.  Remarkably, soon after reaching Mexico’s shores, they did well. 
Today, about 30 percent of Mérida’s commercial life is controlled by the descendants of these early Arab immigrants.  However, the vast majority have totally assimilated into Mexican society and retain virtually no connection with their Arab past.
Despite the prevalent assimilation, a good number of these former Syrian-Lebanese have preserved a pride in their heritage, and today form a close-knit community.  Even though a fair number only retain the food of their forefathers and a faint recollection of their ancestors’ origins, they are the driving force behind the Lebanese community and its impressive club.
The Lebanese in Mérida organized in the latter part of this century. Their first community center was a rented hall on 63rd Street, in the heart of town.  Later, a number of the affluent members donated money to build a clubhouse on the outskirts of the city; the center is now the attractive and prestigious Lebanese Club, drawing the admiration of all Méridans.
I spoke with Michel Jacabo Eljure, whose father emigrated from the district of Qura, located in present-day Lebanon. He is a retired businessman who owned a ranch in the Yucatán.  He spoke Arabic well and was familiar with the history of the Arabs in Mérida. According to him, even though the Lebanese were only 1 percent of the city’s 1.5 million population, they controlled 30 percent of the commercial and industrial establishments.  As for religion, he explained that the Lebanese were originally evenly divided between Maronite and Orthodox Christians.  Today, they are all Roman Catholics with only about 20 families still practicing the Orthodox rites.  From time to time, a priest travels from Mexico City to administer to these few families’  needs.
With the tolerance of peoples to others in mind, I asked Michel, “Why is it that in countries like Canada,  multicultural societies are encouraged and here in Mexico it’s total assimilation?”  He replied, “Our society is montholitic.  We want everyone to be Roman Catholic and speak Spanish.  In our community only about 20 people still read Arabic.”
He continued, “As for our food, it’s another matter.  Even a great number of the non- Lebanese in Mérida cook in their homes our kubbah, grape leaves and other Arabic foods.  At least we contributed some of our heritage to Mexico - now our beloved homeland.”   
This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 30, Winter 2000.
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