Lebanese online archive chronicles Arab immigration to Latin America

SAO PAULO, Brazil: Although approximately 18 million Latin Americans can trace their ancestry to the Arab region, little effort has been made to chronicle and preserve the writings, photographs and news clippings that document the history their migration and installation – so far.

Most of the Arabs who moved to Latin America did so in the last decades of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, with the majority coming from Syria and Lebanon in search of fortune and a new departure far from the Ottoman Empire. .

To collect and shed light on the individual journeys of these Arab pioneers and their contribution to the New World, an archive dedicated to telling their stories has been created by the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, also known as USEK , a private non-profit organization. Catholic University of Jounieh, Lebanon.

Inaugurated at the end of March this year, the collection currently includes around 200,000 pages of Arabic newspapers and magazines, stacks of photographs and other illuminating documents that help shed light on the presence of the diaspora in Latin America.

Brazilian-born Roberto Khatlab, director of USEK’s Center for Latin American Studies and Cultures, or CECAL for short, conceived the project after spending several years working in the cultural department of the Brazilian Embassy. in Beirut and to conduct independent research on Lebanese migration to Brazil.

Some of the documents that have been digitized and are now part of the USEK archives, including the magazines Oriente and A Vinha. (Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (CCAB) / USEK / Fourni)

“Over the years, I have collected many documents regarding this story,” he told Arab News.

While traveling in Latin America a few years ago, Khatlab realized that a significant amount of historical material was in danger of being lost unless it could be properly collected and collated.

“Over time, these documents end up in the hands of grandchildren or great-grandchildren who don’t speak Arabic and don’t know what to do with them,” he said.

As a result, many people end up throwing away family collections or donating them to local libraries, which are not always equipped or qualified to catalog them properly.

Additionally, newspapers produced by early Arab immigrants were often printed on cheap, poor quality paper that does not always stand the test of time, and surviving copies can therefore be extremely fragile.

“I received 100-year-old newspapers that literally fell apart as we tried to pull them out of the envelope,” Khatlab said.

Syrian-Lebanese immigrants established the first Latin American newspaper in the Arabic language, called Al-Fayha, in 1893 in the Brazilian city of Campinas.

In the local Portuguese language, its name was Mundo Largo, which translates to Wide World. As the author of several books on Brazil’s historical relations with Lebanon and the wider Arab world, Khatlab recognizes the value of these historical documents for scholarly study and posterity.

Latin America has nearly 18 million inhabitants of Arab origin, most of them in Brazil. (AFP)

“Under the Ottoman Empire, many intellectuals were unable to publish their ideas in the Arab world at the end of the 19th century,” Khatlab said. “In the nascent Arab press in countries like Brazil and Argentina, they found the space they needed.

“Many times, the articles published in the Arab press of Latin America by such thinkers were sent back to the Arab world and were disseminated there in intellectual and political circles.”

Most early Arabic newspapers in Latin America were produced by Syrian or Lebanese migrants, but there were also a number of Egyptian publications. Over the years, the Arab community launched newspapers that reflected a variety of viewpoints based on political ideologies, religious beliefs, social clubs, and the arts.

“Many poets and writers have published works in the Latin American Arab press,” Khatlab said. “Some of them were famous in the Arab world, while others have disappeared. But their production and the ideas conveyed in their texts have great significance for Arabs even now.

The archive has attracted support from institutions across Latin America that have ties to the Arab community and they have provided small teams that help collect and digitize the documents, using equipment donated by USEK.


Estimated Arab population by country

Brazil: 7-12 million

Argentina: 4.5 million

Venezuela: 1.6 million

Mexico: 1.5 million

Colombia: 1.5 million

Chile: 800 000

Source: Atlantic Council

One such institution is the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, or CCAB for short, which has helped put together comprehensive collections of magazines, including Revista Oriente (Orient Magazine), one of the most important publications produced by the Arab diaspora in Brazil during the 20th century. .

“Different libraries and institutions had partial collections of Oriente,” Silvia Antibas, director of the CCAB’s cultural department, told Arab News. “Now we have managed to bring them all together and digitize them all for the first time.”

The Brazilian team also managed to build a collection of Al-Carmat magazine, known in Portuguese as A Vinha (The Vineyard). It was edited for many years by a Syrian-Brazilian author called Salwa Atlas.

The CCAB has also contributed to the archive of an illuminating collection of photographs that offer a window into the social and domestic life of the diaspora through the years.

“The images we have collected show not only the social events of the community, but also the architecture of the houses, the fashion trends of those years and how the immigrants progressed financially and integrated into Brazilian society. over time,” Antibas said.

The cover of an edition of A Vinha, published for years by Syrian-Brazilian intellectual Salwa Atlas, who was a pioneer among female intellectuals in the Syrian-Lebanese community in Brazil. (Club Homs / USEK / Supplied)

The Jafet family – which ranked among the most illustrious families in Sao Paulo at the start of the 20th century – contributed a superb collection of photographs illustrating the sumptuous mansions built at that time by the city’s industrial bourgeoisie.

“Benjamin Jafet, my great-grandfather, came to Brazil in 1890 and worked as a ‘muscat’ (a word used in Brazil for an Arab door-to-door salesman) for a few years in the countryside until he founds its first boutique in downtown Sao Paulo,” Arthur Jafet, a 38-year-old lawyer and businessman, told Arab News.

Over the years, Benjamin and his brothers built one of Brazil’s largest textile manufacturers and became wealthy leaders in the country’s Lebanese community.

As prominent philanthropists in Sao Paulo, the Jafets helped fund not only Arab institutions such as the local Orthodox Cathedral, the Syrian-Lebanese Hospital, and the Mount Lebanon Club, but also publications such as Revista Oriente.

“Their small palaces indicated a rather European taste, with visible influences from the French neoclassical style but also oriental aspects,” Jafet said.

One of the photos in the collection shows Camille Chamoun, President of Lebanon between 1952 and 1958, staying in one of the sumptuous residences of the Jafet family during a trip to Brazil.

As director of the Institute of Arab Culture in Sao Paulo and adviser to the CCAB, Jafet is part of a new generation of Latin American Arabs who are reinterested in their cultural origins.

Paulo Kehdi is the executive director of Chuf magazine, the in-house publication of Mount Lebanon Club. He is one of a number of Lebanese community leaders who launched Lebanity, a movement dedicated to encouraging Lebanese-Brazilians to rediscover their cultural roots.

“There has been a deliberate effort to reconnect Lebanese-Brazilians to their homeland, encouraging them to obtain Lebanese citizenship, visit the country and help with donation campaigns,” he told Arab. News.

Lebanese President Camille Chamoun with members of the Jafet family in São Paulo. He visited Brazil in 1954 and stayed in one of the family palaces. (Arthur Jafet / Supplied)

The situation is similar in Argentina, which is home to around 3 million people of Syrian or Lebanese origin.

For several years, Ninawa Daher, a journalist of Lebanese origin, hosted a television program in the country dedicated to reviving the interest of younger generations for their Lebanese origins. After he died in a car crash aged just 31 in 2011, his mother, Alicia, established the Ninawa Daher Foundation to continue his legacy, and she partnered with USEK for the archive project.

“With Ninawa’s contacts, in a very short time we had already been able to access several wonderful community collections in Argentina,” Alicia Daher told Arab News.

The team collected stacks of newspapers, photographs and other rare documents, including two books written and autographed by renowned Lebanese-American writer, poet and visual artist Khalil Gibran.

“The Syrian and Lebanese people have had a huge cultural impact in Argentina,” Daher said. “Now more and more people and institutions are contacting us to offer immigration materials.”

Meanwhile, in Beirut, Khatlab hopes the archive will continue to grow as the work expands to other Latin American countries and includes other types of documents, such as letters, film footage and even passenger manifests from ships that brought Arabs to the area.

Access to the archives is free and open to the general public.

About Pamela Boon

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