The “Brazilebanese”, or Brazilians from Lebanon
The history of Lebanese emigration to Brazil is long. It is said that Lebanese Christians began to emigrate to Brazil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while Lebanon was still part of the Ottoman Empire. However, even after the Ottomans were defeated in the First World War, the waves of Lebanese emigrants did not cease. On the contrary, the number rose due to the events that took place in the region such as the establishment of the French protectorate, the creation of the State of Israel, and the civil war which lasted from 1975 to 1990, and was responsible for a wave of migration of Lebanese Muslims.
In Brazil these Lebanese migrants – known as “Turkish” – worked as peddlers, trading manufactured goods like clothes and jewellery in big Brazilian cities. Later, many of them would open their stores in shopping centers such as the Vinte e Cinco de Março and Oriente Streets in the downtown area of São Paulo, changing forever the urban landscape of the capital city as well as the way of doing business.
As usual happens in these cases, initially the Lebanese remained apart of Brazilian society: they spoke their language (Arabic, but in many cases French), ate their own food, educated their children in their own way. However, it did not take long for them to adapt their culture to the country which they had adopted, and soon they learned Portuguese, adapted their recipes to the ingredients found there, intermarried with Brazilians of older Lebanese origin, but also from other communities such as the Portuguese and Spanish. Anyway, everything went its natural way, with their descendants fully integrated into the country where they were born.
The economic crisis that Brazil suffered in the 1980s and 1990s directly affected these families, dependent on the income from trade. Many chose to return to Lebanon and rebuild their lives in the old fatherland. Of course they were no longer the same, since their children were native Brazilians, who did not speak languages other than Portuguese. This group is called “Brazilebanese”, as Roberto Khatlab says on the blog of the Council of Brazilian Citizens in the World:
[It is] a neologism with which I identify the bi-national Lebanese-Brazilian citizens in Lebanon – which has about 10,000 people (not including those who returned to Brazil without having obtained Brazilian nationality). In 1954, the banker Jean Abou-Jaoude based in Beirut, founded the Association of Brazil-Lebanon Friendship, which is in operation until today. The “Brazilebanese” are present all over Lebanon, in the north (Dar Beechtar) and south (Kabrikha), but mainly in Bekaa, where there are whole villages – such as Sultan Yaacoub, Kamed-Lawz and Ghazzé – with 90% “Brazilebanese” who speak Portuguese fluently and continue the Brazilian customs (food, music, architecture, agriculture).
A very interesting phenomenon has occurred in Bekaa: in that area there are towns such as Sultan Yakub where the first language is neither Arabic nor French, but Portuguese. On his blog the journalist Gustavo Chakra addresses [pt] the subject with some surprise.
Those travelling to Sultan Yakoub are advised that once in the town, they may request information in Portuguese since anyone responds instantly. After all, in this small village in an isolated hill in the middle of the Bekaa valley, almost all the inhabitants lived or still have a close relative who lives in Brazil.
This reporter took the test and, indeed, the first pedestrian who was approached did speak Portuguese. It was Hussein El Jaroush. Born in Lebanon, he went two decades ago to Brazil, where he lived for 13 years. He passed by Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Maceió and, as many of his countrymen, ended up in Santo André. In that town on the outskirts of São Paulo, there is even a sort of club called “Farmstead Sultan Yakoub,” where people from this village in Lebanon gather on weekends to play football and to barbecue.
Gustavo Chacra cites another “Brazilebanese”, Jamal, 39 years old, to which the new times impose new challenges, such as the maintenance of Portuguese among the younger generations, especially those now born in Lebanon:
To Jamal, the most important is to maintain ties with Brazil through the Portuguese language, especially because of his son. He says he always speaks in Portuguese with the boy, though often gets the answer in Arabic.
In order to ensure the maintenance of Portuguese among “Brazilebanese” families, among other elements of Brazilian culture, the Brazilian government established [pt] the Brazil-Lebanon Cultural Center in Beirut in April 2011. On Wednesdays the center “shows free movies for the people of Beirut, most Brazilians and descendants”.
The blog “Excessivamente Humano” provides [pt] more details:
“It was a longstanding demand of the Lebanese in general, and the community of Brazilian origin in Lebanon in particular,” said Roberto Medeiros, minister-counselor and head of the cultural section of the Brazilian embassy, on the initiative of founding the center. “In social or cultural meetings with members of the embassy in Beirut, the Lebanese always asked that the Brazilian government create an institution with a specific function to disseminate the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture,” he added.
The fact is that this request had been made for many years, and for decades it had been trapped in the bureaucratic network of Brasilia. Moreover, although the initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil is laudable, it is still far from meeting the main public for whom the center was created, because Brazilians like Jamal cannot attend it because they live in the Bekaa Valley, where most Brazilians are concentrated. The next step would be to take Portuguese teachers to that region as well as encouraging and supporting Brazilian cultural associations and other cultural centres dedicated, for example, to Latin America, such as the Latin American Studies and Culture Centre at the University of Kaslik and the Project Alecrim International in Lebanon, an institution committed to maintaining the cultural identity of Brazilian children who live abroad.
The time is opportune for Brazil to meet a longstanding demand of Brazilians in Lebanon, but also to involve them as intermediaries in the trade between the two countries.
Originally published in Global Voices.