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from issue no. 11 - 2006

INQUIRY. The Arab presence in the great South American country

A bridge between Latin America and the Middle East

Today the Brazilians of Arab origin number twelve million. They are from Lebanese and Syrian background. They live especially in the State of São Paulo and in the south of the country. There are about fifty mosques and numerous Islamic centers, but the majority of Arab Brazilians are Catholic

by Paolo Manzo

The first Southern Arab-America countries summit, held in Brasilia from 10 to 12 May 2005: an attaché raising the Palestinian flag in front of the work headquarters in the Blue Tree Hotel of Brasilia

The first Southern Arab-America countries summit, held in Brasilia from 10 to 12 May 2005: an attaché raising the Palestinian flag in front of the work headquarters in the Blue Tree Hotel of Brasilia

Geraldo Alckmin, candidate in the presidential elections of last November who supported Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the second round; Fernando Gabeira, deputy elect in Rio de Janeiro and leader of the Brazilian Green party; Paulo Souto, governor of the State of Bahia; Rosinha Matheus, governor of Rio. Thse are only four of the more than 140 green and gold parliamentarians of Arab origin who, together, constitute 25% of the 81 members of the Senate and of the 513 deputies of the Lower House of the South American giant. For the rest «art and politics are the two areas in which the Arabs are more present», the writer Milton Hatoum, born in Manaus and São Paulist by adoption, with a Lebanese father and Brazilian mother, explains. Certainly, the origin is in the greater number of cases three or four generation removed, but the Arabic origin of grandfathers and great grandfathers is a datum of fact also for the Brazilian registry office.
When the Arab family in Brazil is spoken of – family because the member countries of the current Arab League are in all 22 – Lebanese and Syrians chiefly meant, whose immigration since the second half of the nineteenth century has been the most continous and numerous . According to the writer and historian Manuel Diegues Júnior, Arabs have been living in Brazil since the colonial period, when Portugal had commercial relations with the Ottoman Empire; but according to the statistics of the Immigration Office it was between 1865 and 1900 that the first “Arab wave” to Brazil occurred, even if the first official registration of immigrants goes back to 1835, when the Zacarias brothers arrived in Rio de Janeiro from Beirut. They passed into history just because of that. The greater part of the Arabs who populated Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century arrived from Lebanon and from Syria (which at the time were colonies of the Ottoman Empire), departed from Beirut harbor and had Turkish passports. For that reason they were registered generically as “Turkish” immigrants, «despite the fact that the Turks of today have nothing to do with the Arabs: another race, another ethnicity, another nationality», as the representative of the Syro-Lebanese community, Rezkalla Tuma, told us at the State Council of Foreign Communities and Cultures (CONSCRE).
How is one to explain the fact that around 10% of all foreign immigrants to Brazil in the years between1870 and 1900 inclusive was Arab, third after the Italians (who reached peaks of 60%), and the Portuguese? Certainly the fact that the emperor Peter II spoke Arab fluently, had visited Beirut and Damascus in 1876 and asserted that the people «who built the Damascus of the millennia, cradle of civilization, will help us build Brazil», helped. In substance, the already strong bonds between the Arab world and Brazil reached a turning point 130 years ago because of a precise policy. After the imperial visit, in fact, the flow of Arab migrants to Brazil increased considerably and the Syro-Lebanese began to consider the Beirut-Santos-SãoPaulo route one of the most attractive for changing life and increasing one’s fortunes. Things didn’t change even after the proclamation of the Republic, 15 November 1889, when the custom of sending the so-called “acts of summons” was well under way, that is letters that Arabs already settled in Brazil sent to their friends and relatives with a one-way ticket inside, inviting them to join them.
Today it is estimated that the Brazilian citizens of Arab origin are over twelve million. The Lebanese are the most numerous community (seven million) followed by the Syrians (four million) and the Palestinians, of more recent emigration. While the presence of Brazilians of Egyptian, Moroccan, Jordanian and Iraqi origin is less strong. Geographically the great majority of the Arab-Brazilian community «is rooted in the State of São Paulo and in the states of the South, especially in that of Paraná», Tuma explains. «In reality, today, the greater part of the Lebanese population lives in Brazil. In this respect it is good to make a note of the Triple Frontera, the territory where three adjoining cities have arisen, the Argentinian Puerto Iguazú, the Paraguayan Ciudad del Este and the Brazilian Foz do Iguaçu, that belongs to the State of Paraná and in which 12 thousand Arab-Brazilians live, almost all of Lebanese origin and involved in trade. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the area came to the notice of the international mass media because of the potential backing the inhabitants might provide to international terrorism, meaning to Al Qaeda. So far, however, no evidence has emerged and, as far as I saw there in 2003 and 2005 the only illegal activity is widespread smuggling through Paraguay.
The Brazilian President Lula during a session of the summit

The Brazilian President Lula during a session of the summit

«In Brazil there are 7 million Lebanese, double the 3.6 million in Beirut and surroundings», explains Dad Squarisi, a writer born in Beirut and forced to emigrate to Brasilia in 1968 because of the political involvement of her father. Very active in strengthening the ties between her motherland and her country of adoption, recently Squarisi has helped organize the photographic show “Amrik. Arab presence in South America”: 140 unpublished shots by 23 Latin American photographers, commissioned and presented during the first Southern Arab-America countries’ summit. Strongly backed by Itamaraty (the Brazilian Foreign Minister) and hosted by the cultural Center of the Banco do Brasil of Brasilia, the show had more than a 100,000 visitors. A success.
Despite their numbers, the Arab-Brazilians who speak the language of the country of origin come barely to 240,000, only 2% of the total. Among the many explanations given by scholars, what most frequently occurs is that the third and fourth generations of today have been perfectly integrated in the Brazilian melting pot and that, beyond their culinary traditions and a propensity for trade that is typically Middle Eastern, have chosen to abandon their language of origin to assert “with no ifs or buts” their pride in being “true-born Brazilians”. That doesn’t do away with the fact, however, that many words in Portuguese-Brazilian have a clear Arabic origin, including the much used interjection oxalá, that is no other than a contraction of “Insha’Allah” (“God willing”).
Another fact to consider is that, contrary to the case in Europe, the greater part of Arab-Brazilians are not Muslim in religion but Catholic. On the basis of the last national census of 2000, that classified the population by religion, barely 27,239 of the 180 million Brazilians declared themselves followers of Islam. Since there are 50 mosques and about eighty Islamic centers in all of Brazil, the figures could be an underestimation and perhaps the Federação Islâmica Brasileira is right in claiming that Muslims lato sensu (i.e. including the non-practising) number around a million and a half. Even so, however, the percentage of Muslims out of the total of Arab-Brazilians remains very low, 12,5%. This is explained by the fact that the greater part of those who arrived at the end of the nineteenth century were of Greek-Orthodox, Maronite and Copt religion, and then adjusted to the predominant Catholic religion. According to the experts, Brazil is a positive example of ecumenic co-existence: «In fact», Tuma explains, «this is the only country in the world where the believers of the different religions – and they are many – live quite tranquilly. Here, the descendants of the different ethnic groups, whether African, Arab, European or Asian, blend in mixed marriages at an impressive rhythm».
A place for finding out more about the “Arabs in Brazil” theme is the headquarters of the Agência de Notícias Brasil-Árabe, at 326 Avenida Paulista, in the very center of São Paulo. From the eighteenth floor, where the editorial offices of ANBA are, the logo of the agency, one gets a real vision of the close economic relations tying Brasilia to the 22 members of the Arab League, beginning with the exports that, in the month of October, beat all records, surpassing 730 million US dollars. An increase of 57% on October 2005, according to the data released by SECEX, the Secretariat of Foreign Commerce.
Driving the Brazil-Arab countries export is the agro-business sector with a monthly sales turnover of 540.3 million dollars, a growth of 85% on October 2005. The aggressive strategy toward these markets is well described by a phrase of Anthony Sarkis jr., president of the Chamber of Arab-Brazilian commerce: «Brazilian sugar production is continuously winning more space in Arab shops, replacing the European product. Especially now that the World Trade Organization has limited the Brussels quota in the sector to 1.4 million tons». The figures seem to prove him right, if it is true that it was indeed the export of the “sugar product” that increased most (by 170%), reaching a trading value of over 325 million dollars. Individual analysis of the main markets that have taken the totality of the Brazilian export show the greatest percentage increase to have occurred in Iraq, with plus 229% against the same month of October of 2005, with 38 million dollars in absolute value. Following is Algeria with 53.5 million (+ 188%), the United Arab Emirates with 176.8 million (+ 172%), Egypt with 107 million (+ 61,3%) and Saudi Arabia with 147.6 million (+ 18,7%). From January to October 2006, exports from Brazil to the Arab Countries increased by 22.9% compared with 2005, thus achieving a quota of 5.26 billion dollars. This, too, is a record.
Noteworthy among the industrial successes was the delivery of 15 planes to Saudi Arabian Airlines by Embraer, and the signing of similar contracts with EgyptAir and Royal Jordanian. On the import side, essentially composed of oil and its by-products, in the same period the increase was lower (+ 8,3%), for an aggregate value of 4.65 billion dollars.
In the past years, Brazil-Arab relations have also been greatly reinforced politically. Especially after the first official visit made by Lula from 3 to 10 December 2003 to Syria, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Libya
In the past years, Brazil-Arab relations have also been greatly reinforced politically. Especially after the first official visit made by Lula from 3 to 10 December 2003 to Syria, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Libya. A very important visit aimed at giving an impetus to commercial relations between the two blocs but, as the president himself explained to hundreds of Cairo business people, decisive because «negotiation with the G8 countries is difficult, even within the World Trade Organization. If, in any case, developing countries such as Egypt and Brazil unite, the competition with the developed countries will be more balanced...». Something that happened within a few months later, with the entry of Egypt into the G20, the group of emerging countries strongly backed by Itamaraty and Lula and that proposes to negotiate from a position of greater strength with the wealthy countries, above all on questions of trade. A subsequent fundamental stage from the political point of view was the first summit among the twelve countries of South America and the 22 countries members of the Arab League, hosted not by chance in Brasilia, in May 2005. The declared objective of the meeting was that of strengthening the economic relations already existing but, above all, of including the Arab world in the Brazilian president’s global strategy for South American. On that occasion, the Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, revealed that MERCOSUR – formed by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela – would shortly sign a trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Community, composed of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, that is to say the wealthiest Arab countries in the region. And it happened as planned on the morning of 10 May 2005.
Today, a year and a half later, Amorim explains to 30Days the importance of this new relation: «The cooperation with the Arab countries established at the summit of May 2005 has been a wholly new element in Brazilian politics and, I would say, also in world geopolitics. Clearly this cooperation will require a lot of time to consolidate but it is without doubt highly innovative, if not to say “revolutionary”». Meanwhile, the second summit between the two blocks has already been arranged for the Spring of 2008 in Morocco.

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