The Lebanese in Latin America
There is a parallax view of recent events in Lebanon—one from the Americas south of the Rio Grande—that adds another dimension to that conflict. This perspective tells us not so much about ongoing conflict in Lebanon as it does about the spirit of our times and more surprisingly about immigration to the Americas.
Lebanon as a modern country is a variation on an Ottoman theme. For much of its history, it was joined to Syria as a western province of that Empire. It is an ancient crossroads, a physical space where Islam and Christianity met, struggled, and coexisted. The province contained within its boundaries a wide variety of ethnicities and faiths—Druze, Jews, Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians; Alawi, Shi’ia, and Sunni Muslims. In the ethno-religious struggles of the middle nineteenth century there, the Christian population was more often than not the loser. Although Christianity itself was never suppressed by the Muslims, for over 120 years, there has been a continuous emigration of Syrio-Lebanese Christians to other societies that allowed distinctly different terms of social and political participation.
While the Lebanese Christian immigrant communities initially looked to the United States as a safe haven, the vast majority found in the Americas south of the Rio Grande a world that was generally welcoming and inclusive. If the Portuguese and Spanish-speaking Americas were today a single country, they could be called Nuevo Líbano(New Lebanon). Brazil’s population of citizens of Lebanese descent alone is two times larger than that of Lebanon. There are also almost a million Lebanese in Argentina, 400,000 in Venezuela; and the Triple Border area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay has one of the highest concentrations of citizens of Syrio-Lebanese immigrants in the world. In Chile, so common are the Syrio-Lebanese in its small mountain villages that there is a popular saying that these villages all have three things in common–a carabinero(a military police ofcer), a priest, and a libanés(a Lebanese).
In sharp contrast to the experience of the Syrio-Lebanese in the United States, in the other Americas, they became an integral part of their respective countries moving with remarkable rapidity from immigrants to fully transculturated citizens; becoming Portuguese and Spanish speaking members of their respective societies and achieving cultural, economic, political, and social prominence within a single generation. There are no Syrio-Lebanese Towns in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City, Santa Fe de Bogotá or Santiago de Chile. There are instead Azads, Dabas, Maloufs, Sauds, and Zagluls who live where they wish, work at what they want, and if they choose to eat kibbee and mezza at El Club Árabe, such choices are personal and an incidental part of their complete identication as members of their new nation state homes.
Afif Abukanan is a Lebanese immigrant from Beirut. He owns a furniture store in the eastern Venezuelan city of Puerto La Cruz. He is a fairly recent arrival to the Americas, having come during the 1956 US invasion of Lebanon. He already had family there–two uncles had arrived at the beginning of the twentieth century. Af’s Spanish is indistinguishable from the other store owners on the side street where his small factory and show room are located. His employees are Venezuelans. At home, however, Af still speaks Lebanese Arabic with his wife, although increasingly less so these days with their children. While he eats traditional Venezuelan foods–arepeas, pabellón and drinks his marroncitos(coffee with milk), his wife, who like many Venezuelan women, native born or not, has not yet joined the work force, stays home to care for the couple’s children and still prepares Lebanese foods as well. Afif is not a hyphenated Venezuelan. He is a Venezuelan who in the private spaces of his life continues to maintain and preserve elements of his Lebanese cultural identity.
If Afif is upwardly mobile and Venezuelan, throughout the Portuguese and Spanish speaking Americas, there are countless immigrant sons and daughters of Lebanese parents who have achieved a level of status, privilege and importance in their countries that places them far above Afif as members of the elite. Today the two most prominent South American female artists are the daughters of first generation Lebanese fathers–the Colombian Shakira Mebarak and the Mexican Salma Hayak. In the economic realm, the Portuguese and Spanish speaking Americas equivalent of Jeff Bezos is the Mexican Carlos Slim(Salim)the billionaire son of a Lebanese street peddler who controls the region’s most important telecommunications empire amongst other business ventures. His is but the most prominent example of successful Syrio-Lebanese entrepreneurs who play major roles in the economies of their countries.
If in the arts and the economy, the nuevos libaneses have distinguished themselves, it is in the political realm where they have achieved a level of prominence which is truly exceptional. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, the presdents of Argentina(Carlos Menem), Brazil (Michel Temer),Ecuador(Abdalá Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad),Colombia(Carlos Turbay Ayala) and the Dominican Republic(Jacobo Majluta)have been Syrio-Libaneses. Countless others play major roles on the local, regional, and national levels as well.
Finally, for the previous generation of Syrio-Libaneses, distance effectively separated them from the living realities of their homeland producing a romanticized nostalgia about the world they left behind. Homeland politics were simply too removed from their daily reality for the possibility of their active participation. Today global communications have created a fluid world where the events in Lebanon are as accessible as those in their new homelands. The Internet, e-mail, cell phones, skype, and satellite dishes have created a new denition a new denition of citizenship. The new distant nationals of Syrio-Lebanese origins in Portuguese and Spanish speaking Americas in fact may be ready and able to play a role in the politics of Lebanon . Perhaps the solution to Lebanon’s current problems will come from a distant Syrio-Lebanese national from Brazil or Argentina, who, freed from the entanglements of both Lebanon’s past and the Middle East present, will return home to govern on behalf of the Greater Lebanese nation.