Brazil: Arab Immigration Yields Cultural and Economic Gains-Huh?

by Andre Carletto

As a kid growing up in Brazil during the 1970s, there was no Middle East. No, that is not completely true. As a matter of fact, when some place was rather far away, Brazilians used to say that it was “pra lá de Bagdá” (passing Baghdad.) But the truth is that, although we knew very well about the Arab nations of Lebanon and Syria—mainly due to kibeh and sfiha, which represents some of the greatest culinary contributions and widely consumed in Brazil—everybody with a particular last name was called by “turco” (which means Turkish). Later on, while roaming in Latin America, I had discovered that other Lebanese and Syrian immigrants to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico were also called “turcos”… And this happened because back then they traveled with the Turkish Otoman Empire passport… Yes, Arab immigrants to Brazil were labeled as ‘Turco/Turkish’ because of the Ottoman Empire. However, despite the present day globalizing trends of increased information flow, many South Americans commonly refer to this nickname, which in turn became part of our folklore. At the same time, we do not exclude the word “árabe” to refer to the Levant’s culinary influence on Brazilian food.

Introduction of Arabs into Brazil
The Arab immigration to Brazil started by the end of the 19th century and grew steadily over the beginning of the 20th century. As a result, the Arab Diaspora experience after World War I (the fall of the Ottoman Empire) emerged as a key factor in Brazil’s development. Today we have around 15 million Brazilians of Arab descent, mostly Lebanese—but with a strong presence of Syrians alongside Egyptians, Moroccans, Jordanians and Iraqis.

The Arab Diaspora experience started with Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II. (Yes, Brazil had a monarchy, and it was by choice!). Pedro II visited the Middle East and became fascinated with the local culture and its peoples’ hospitality. According to Brazil’s Royal Archive, Emperor Pedro II wrote to his Prime Minister describing his worry about the Christian Arab persecution by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. He decided to offer political asylum. In reality, I think, he saw a great opportunity to bring a skilled labor force to Brazil since the Industrial Revolution started to spread to South America.

Brazil was unknown to the Arab world. As a matter of fact, most immigrants though that they were coming to America—as in the United States—not to America, as in South America. There is no need to mention the frustration of some when they realized that they had taken the wrong boat. But I believe that eventually they realized that an economic destiny brought them to the right place.

In 1880, the first group of 5,400 Lebanese immigrants arrived. They took up employment as traders roaming the vast country to sell textiles and clothes. The new merchant class opened up new markets, which facilitated a transformation for many Lebanese-Brazilian merchants to assume large retailerships. In fact, they became industrialists, and Aziz Jereissati and Abraão Otoch are examples of that. It was definitely the American dream establishing itself as a reality in Brazil. Who could predict?

Brazil expanded because of our immigrants, and Arabs played an important role for this. Arab Brazilian immigrants settled across the country. I already mentioned about the food, but words, uses, and fashion, were absorbed into Brazilian culture and society as if it were a multi-cultural people sponge. They settled down in different cities from North to South and raised their large families. Inter-marriage was very high between Brazilians of Arab descent and other Brazilians, regardless of ethnic ancestry or religious affiliation. Today, most Arab-Brazilians only have one parent of Arab origin. As a result of this, the new generations comprising Brazilians of Arab cent do not speak Arabic. When Arabic is spoken, the usage is often limited to a few basic words.

Brazilian Arabs Compared to Other Arabs
Like Shakira in Colombia, Brazil also has its share of entertainment celebrities of Arab ancestry. However, it is in Brazil’s political life where they play a major role. Brazil is an open and integrated society, where all of us prefer to be called simply as ‘Brazilian’ rather than by our ancestral origin. I think Brazil differs from the US in this regard of assimilation.

The list of famous Arab-Brazilians is very long, but some of the most influential are: Carlos Ghosn (CEO of Groupe Renault and NISSAN Motor Co.), Geraldo Alckmin (Governor of the State of São Paulo), Paulo Maluf (former Governor of the State of São Paulo), Gilberto Kassab (Mayor of the City of São Paulo), Fernando Haddad (Minister of Education), Tasso Jereissati (Senator), Raimundo Fagner (composer and singer), Arnaldo Jabor (Movie director, journalist and writer), Luíza Thome (actress), and Luciana Gimenez Morad (actress).

Recently, on immigration issues between 1975 and 1991, Brazil received a new flow of immigrants, with a considerable number of Muslims. Both Christians and Muslims did not find any difficulty to adapt to the Brazilian society. The Federeção Islãmica Brasileira (Brazilian Islamic Federation) estimates that 1.5 million Muslims live in Brazil, which is a small minority within Brazil’s population of 180 million.

Now, I will present a few statistics comparing Brazil and the Arab world. According to the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, in 2010 the Brazilian exports accounted for US $12.57 billion, and imports for US $6.96 billion, which represents an increase of 34% and 33% respectively. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Algeria are the four main importers of Brazilian goods. Conversely, besides some oil and oil sub-products, Brazil imports fertilizers and minerals.

Once someone said that the world was like a handkerchief: very small. However, as small as it is, we are so close and yet so far: like Baghdad for Brazilians. Considering the reciprocal influences to both areas, isn’t the 21st century the time to close the gap? Can Brazil become as important for new Arab generations as once it was for those Lebanese and Syrians that venture to come to South America? Only the time can tell, but certainly the Arab world continues to operate as a destination to explore, even if it is only for vacations…

Andre Carletto is an International Development/Governance Specialist in the Washington, DC area. He may be reached at andre@carletto.co.

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