Viva Los Turcos: Latin America and the Arab connection

From Carlos Menem to Shakira, Latin America has inherited the usual Jeudo-Christian ambivilence towards its Arab populations. Candela explores the continent's love-hate history with the Arab world, inside and out of its borders.

Latin America is probably the last thing on people's minds when it comes to the  current turmoil in Libya, but not William Hague. In full Gaddaffi crisis, he told the world that the Libyan dictator was en route to Venezuela, home to his ‘friend’ Hugo Chavez.

Perhaps Hague was relishing the chance to engage in the favourite US past time of bringing up Chavez’s association with unsavoury Arab leaders at any opportunity (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being a particular favourite). Ofcourse, Chavez' association with the Arab world is not that alarming considering that Venezuela, Iran and Libya are all members of OPEC. Chavez benefits from a practical partnership with other oil producing nations while also following his favourite pursuit of aggravating the ‘Yankee Empire’s’ phobia of the Muslim world, as Al Jazeera’s Dima khatib recently commented :

‘In Gaza and Ramallah ... next to Arafat's and Che Guevara's posters, a new poster of Chavez is being added.... [O]ne could even see Venezuelan flags in demonstrations in Beirut, next to Lebanese and Palestinian flags.’

And yet the the aggravations and yes, affections, between the two continents and their cultures goes far beyond the Chavez spotlight, as Candela explores...

The Muslim Otherhood

Religion often makes or breaks a politician’s mass appeal. To be seen as a religious ‘other’ can alienate the public - these days the big 'other' is usually the muslim 'other' but the manifestations of this Islamophobia varies across regions. Take North and South America: while in protestant US Obama’s father’s Islamic background was enough to provoke Christian far right followers to threaten to take up arms; in the 90s middle class Argentines reacted to the re-election of President Carlos Menem, actually born a Muslim in a 92% catholic country, as it does to most of its politics, with a large dose of resigned humour : ‘Argentinians are like camels.....they’re exhausted by hunger and thirst but they still follow the ‘turk. ’, And so...  El Turco stuck with Menem, even though there’s nothing Turkish about him whatsoever. For the Argentine middle classes and media, Menem encapsulated all the racist muslim stereotypes; crafty, corrupt, conniving and ofcourse the short lascivious playboy who coudln't keep his hands off tall beautiful blonde women.

The long-held Spanish suspicion of Arabs

The history of Arabs in Latin America goes back to way before Obama or Menem, to the times of colonisation. While 1492 was the year that Columbus travelled from Spain to Latin America, it was also the year that the Moors were defeated on the Iberian peninsula and Christians once again ruled what is now Spain and Portugal. However, the Moors left traits of their culture with the Spaniards that went on to colonise Latin America. While the Moorish influence came with the Spaniards, and can be found in beautiful colonial architecture and language (words such as ojalá come from arabic), many Africans who came to Latin America as slaves were Muslims, so Islam and broader Arab culture have been present in the Americas for hundreds of years.

Later, Arab influences came directly from the middle east. According to Theresa Alfaro-Velcamp, associate Professor of History at Sonoma State University and author of So Far From Allah, So Close to Mexico: Middle Eastern Immigrants in Modern Mexico, many middle-eastern Jews and Christians fled from the former Ottoman empire (from countries such as modern day Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) at the very beginning of the 20th century to avoid new conscription laws. During World War I more citizens of the Ottoman empire emigrated, fleeing mass starvation caused by an allied blockade of the Syrian coast and the Ottoman authorities confiscating food from inside the empire for military use.

This chaos during and after the World War I and later World War II, drove people to migrate, sometimes unintentionally, to Latin America says Alfaro-Velcamp, "In some instances the immigrants were confused or misled into believing that they were heading to the US  when in fact they were destined for a Latin American Port." So immigrants left expecting the Statue of Liberty to welcome them, but instead were greeted by Rio’s Christ the Redeemer! This was not always the case though, with many people headed for Latin America to join existing family and village networks formed by earlier immigrants.

While Middle eastern immigrants to Latin America were not necessarily discriminated against because of visible racial differences, after all many Latin Americans have similar physical characteristics to people from the middle east, middle eastern immigrants have suffered from cultural and religious discrimination. In 1927 the Mexican Government passed an immigration law that discriminated against ‘Syrians, Lebanese, Armenians, Palestinians, Arabs, Turks’ amongst other groups that the Mexican government did not consider desirable.

While it became harder for Arabs to even enter Mexico, the Arabs already living in Latin America were also discriminated against. When Carlos Menem ran for President in 1989 he was required to convert from Islam to Catholicism to be eligible, a requirement that has since been abolished.

Apart from the institutionalised racism of Latin American Governments, non-Arab Latin Americans have often treated Arabs with suspicion, making claims that Arab immigrants stole business from existing Latin American businesses. Muslims also suffered from backlash following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre.

The success of discrimination

Despite the obstacles, Latin Americans of Middle Eastern descent seem to have been disproportionately successful. Carlos Slim Helú, the richest man in the world, according to the Forbes rich list, is a Mexican of Lebanese descent (Slim is a hispanicised version of Salim). Slim is not the only Lebanese Latin American gracing the pages of business magazines, Carlos Ghosn, the current CEO of Renault and Nissan, is a Brazilian of Lebanese descent who was Fortune magazine’s man of the year in 2003.

Latin Americans of middle-eastern descent have also been successful, if at times controversial, politicians. Apart from Carlos Menem, they have occupied the presidencies of Ecuador (Abdalá Bucaram, Jamil Mahuad), El Salvador (Antonio Saca), the Dominican Republic (Jacobo Majluta Azar) and Colombia (Julio César Turbay Ayala).

Alfaro-Velcamp says that while success in business can be attributed to tight family ties and the participation of entire households in business ventures (including women) the reason for such widespread political power is less clear and varies by country.

It could be said that Arab community centres have played a role in the success of Arab communities in Latin America as it gives them support and a place to network. These centres are often the focal point for middle eastern communities in large cities, and can be high profile associations. For example, the ‘Centro Libanés’ in Mexico City has high profile events with speakers such as President Felipe Calderón. In Argentina more than 160 arab community groups belong to a federation called ‘Confederación de Entidades Argentino Arabes’ (FEARAB - which gives the group members a wide networking base. Indeed the Arab community in Argentina has a visible media presence with no less than 4 different T.V. shows: ‘Desde el ajibe’, ‘Luz de medio oriente’, ‘Dami u damak’ and ‘Las mil y una noches’. The shows discuss current affairs in the middle east and feature cultural activities such as arabic cooking demonstrations. There are also numerous Arab themed radio shows throughout the country.

Whilst men seem to have high profiles in business and politics, Latin American women have risen to success in the arts with superstars like Oscar nominated actress, director and producer Salma Hayek and grammy award winning singer Shakira representing Latinos of Arab descent at an international level. Shakira’s Arab heritage is evident in many of her songs especially ‘Ojos Así’  and of course her belly dancing moves have made her popular with the men as well as the ladies! Arab influences can be found in artists other than Shakira, some reggaeton songs such as ‘Que Buena Tu Ta’ by Fuego have an eastern feel to them, and the group Tres Mundos have even released an album called ‘Bellydance Reggaeton’.

While Shakira made Arab music and dance mainstream in Latin America, Arab food has also become standard fare. From Tijuana to Santiago de Chile Latin Americans go out to enjoy Arabic food. One particularly successful example is Habib’s, a Brazilian fast food chain specialising in middle eastern cuisine that has more than 300 restaurants across Brazil. Habib’s was created when an Arab cook and Brazilian baker met by chance in the 1980s.

The international language of football hasn’t escaped the Arab influence in Latin America either. Palestinian immigrants formed Club Deportivo Palestino in the 1920s, C.D. Palestino plays in the Chilean first devision and uses a red, green and black strip, the colours of the Palestinian flag. The team can even boast defender Roberto Bishara Adauy, a Chilean of Palestinian origin, who plays for Palestine’s national team.

According to Colombian writer Luis Fayed, whilst the christian supicion of arabs' endures in Latin America as  in all parts of the world,  Latin America is probably the place where the Arab community has achieved the most  “complete” integration of anywhere in the world. The Lebanese in Colombia feel Colombian not Lebanese, and thus do not feel the need to write about the immigrant experiences as opposed to "Arab immigrants in Europe, or (people) of other nationalities, will always write about how they’ve integrated (into the new society). They always write about that, and the difficulties they’re having, how they’ve accommodated to society. They talk about justices and injustices ... They never stop having the feeling of being from (elsewhere),” he said.

The Arabic world has a long history of cultural exchange with Spain that later expanded to Latin America and continues to this day. The next time you see a girl belly dancing in a reggaeton video or a Latin American politician with an arabic last name, you can put it down to brave Middle Eastern immigrants who in spite of difficulties and discrimination have gone on to fulfil their Latin American dream.