In Brazil today you can see Arabic dishes alongside local fare on the menu; you might hear occasional Arabic names and words; and someone may even greet you with a cheerful "marhaba". It is surprising how many shops sell Arab products and services and are owned by Arab Brazilians. You may not be too surprised, though, to learn that many of them do not speak Arabic.
Arabs across Latin America are an example of a sizeable group of immigrants who have integrated successfully into the host culture. Acceptance of difference, tolerance and respect for the other, over and above distinctions of race or creed, are fundamental Brazilian values which have enabled Arabs to blend into society. While playing an important role in that society, the Arab community in Brazil is facing many challenges, not least the disappearance of their language and identity among the second and third generations.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Arab migrants came mainly from the Levant: Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. According to the International Organisation for Migration, there are 13 million Arabs living in Brazil.
Jehad Hamada, the President of the Latin-Arab Centre for Strategic Studies, has a fairly typical background story: "I was born in Syria and came to Brazil with my family when I was seven years old in search of a better life." His mother was very strict about keeping the Arabic language alive within the family. "My mother used to talk with us in Arabic in the house, but the external effect of the Brazilian environment was more effective." Nevertheless, Hamada wanted to know more about his Arabic language and identity, so he went to Saudi Arabia when he was 16. "After a few years, I came back to Brazil and noticed that many of my friends had forgotten their Arabic language and culture. It is now my duty to keep my Arabic identity and their identity alive."
As has happened in other parts of the world, the first generation of migrants from the Middle East to Brazil struggled to integrate due to religious and cultural differences, and basically formed their own communities to support each other. Holding on to their identity and language was thus easier.
"The first wave of migrants were adults for whom it was difficult to lose their identity and language," he explains. "Their aim was to work for a short time, save some money and then go back home."
That didn't happen, and now the second and the third generation are well integrated into Brazilian society. According to Professor Mohammed Habib of the University of Campinas, their biggest challenge is to preserve their Arab identity. "The Brazilian people are very open and accept others, which tends to make foreign identities blend into Brazil's very easily." The early Arabs were economic migrants who didn't worry about the cultural legacy or impact of the move. Their children and grandchildren soon lost contact with their relatives "back home" as well as the language they spoke. Little by little, generation after generation, disassociation has taken place.
As Portuguese has become the main language used by Arabs in Brazil, Arabic struggles to be part of their culture. Today, only a minority of Arab Brazilians know and speak the Arabic language; the vast majority are monolingual in Portuguese. "Even though the Portuguese language is full of Arabic words which appear in many landmarks, books, food and names in Brazil," says Habib, "the language factor poses a great challenge to the Arab community here."
According to Hamada, most of the Arab immigrants who came to Brazil were uneducated people. "They were not qualified enough to educate their children in Arabic or to keep the language alive. As a result, the gap between their grandchildren's culture and the original culture is growing."
Brazil once witnessed the introduction of Arabic literature in the country, a period marked by many publications translated for the first time into Portuguese. Furthermore, many well-known Arab authors like Nobel Literature Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) were featured in the catalogues of Brazilian publishers. "Moreover, in some years, more than 60-80 newspapers in Brazil were published in Arabic," Habib points out. However, a lack of translators has seen a marked decline in this exposure of the language.
Because the first wave of Arab immigrants did not go to Brazil with the intention of settling there, Arabic schools were not a priority for them. Even with 13 million Brazilians of Arab descent, you will find very few Arabic schools around the country. Some cities have never had any, but now there are classes being held in, for example, Christian schools which hire out classrooms for the local Arab community to teach "mother tongue" lessons.
As the melting pot that is Brazil's culture continues to dominate the Arab community, it is difficult to distinguish the Brazilian citizens of Arab descent. "We need to build bridges between the Arab community in Latin America and the Arab countries," says Hamada, "because there are many commonalities in terms of personality, peace and customs. So, the Arab countries should get to know about Brazil and Brazil should get to know about the Arab countries."
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.