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Studies shed light on Arab presence in Brazil

Initiatives provide opportunities for new lines of research on the topic

Images Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in BrazilOpposite page, an example of the magazine A Vinha (or Al Carmat), meaning “the vine” in English. The publication founded in 1914, in São Paulo, was edited by Syrian immigrant Salua Salame AtlasImages Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in Brazil

Considered the most important literary group from the Arab community in Brazil of the twentieth century and made up of over 30 poets and writers, the Andalusian League of Arabic Languages and Literature (Al-Usba alandalusiyya) was created in 1932, in the city of São Paulo. “Great Arabic poets living in Brazil, the majority from the lands that are now Syria and Lebanon, took part in the league,” says poet and translator Michel Sleiman, of the Department of Oriental Languages from the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). It was the case of Chafic Maluf (1905–1976), who arrived in Brazil from Lebanon in 1926 and wrote books here such as Abqar (1936), originally published in Arabic and later in Portuguese, French, and Spanish. “Until today his poetry is extremely valued in the Middle East,” says Sleiman about the poet who also worked as a businessman in the country’s textiles sector.

The São Paulo group is an offshoot of another important representative of mahjar (meaning emigration, in Arabic) literature: The Pen League (al-Rabita al-Qalamiyah), which functioned between 1910 and 1930, in the USA. Among its members was the Lebanese poet, writer, and painter Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883–1931), author of books such as O profeta (The Prophet,1923). “These groups took part in the process of reviving Arabic literature written on both sides of the Mediterranean, in the case of emigrants to Europe, and the Atlantic, for those who came to America,” says Sleiman.

Throughout the two decades, between 1933 and 1953, the São Paulo–based collective published a magazine with the name of the association, which besides literature also covered topics such as politics and sociology. The publication with irregular frequency was “distributed across all of America, as well as having a certain number of subscribers in the Arab world,” recorded sociologist Oswaldo Truzzi in Patricios: Sírios e libaneses em São Paulo (Syrian and Lebanese Patrícios in São Paulo) (Editora Unesp, 2009), a reference work on the topic. According to Sleiman, from the pages of the magazine it is possible to know, for example, who wrote Arabic literature in that period not only in Brazil but also in other places in the Americas, in Europe, and in Asian countries. “Furthermore, it is clear in the periodical that there was dialog among the Arabic language authors and between them and the modernist Brazilian writers, such as Menotti del Picchia [1892–1988], one of the leaders of the 1922 Modern Art Week,” continues Sleiman.

The magazine is one of 38 periodicals digitalized so far by the Project for Digitalizing the Memory of Arab Immigration in Brazil, carried out since 2018 by the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK), located in Lebanon, in partnership with the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (CCAB), in São Paulo. The list also contains titles such as the newspaper Al-Fayha, (or Mundo Largo) meaning “wide world” in English, which first appeared in 1895. “As far as we know, it is the oldest newspaper in Arabic in Brazil,” informs historian Heloísa Abreu Dib, coordinator of the project in the country.

It is estimated that Arab immigrants, especially Syrians and Lebanese, began arriving in Brazil in the 1870s. The peak occurred in the 1910s and the largest community was formed in São Paulo State—between 1908 and 1941 the country received just over 100,000 Arabs; 48,000 of whom settled in São Paulo State. Besides the Southeast, others settled in states in the South, Midwest, and Northeast, not to mention the Amazon because of the rubber cycle. “Although some studies point to the existence of over 300 titles published by the community in these early days, our research has so far located, or found mention of, 212 newspapers and magazines, mainly between the 1900s and 1930s. In any case, it is an expressive number that reveals the vigor of the press made by Arab immigrants at that time in Brazil,” reports Dib.

Obin Waterfield / Wikimedia CommonsMembers of the Pen League, a group of Arab literati that existed between 1910 and 1930, in the USA. The Lebanese poet, writer, and painter Gibran Khalil Gibran is the second in the photo, from the leftObin Waterfield / Wikimedia Commons

Ninety percent of the digitalized material corresponds to newspapers and magazines, but there are also books and institutional documents. With around 100,000 pages completed, the result of the first stage of the task was recently launched in the Museum of Immigration of the State of São Paulo. The research took place in public and private institutions located in the São Paulo State capital, such as the CCAB itself, the Institute of Arab Culture (ICARABE), Lar Sírio Pró-infância (Pro-Childhood Syrian Home), Clube Homs, the Mário de Andrade Library, and the Public Archives of the State of São Paulo. For this undertaking, Dib had support from Mirna Nasser, a law student and intern at the CCAB, who is fluent in Arabic. The idea is to extend the investigation to the rest of São Paulo State and other states across the country. “This material was dispersed,” points out historian Silvia Antibas, cultural director of CCAB. “One of the objectives of the project is to reunite the collection in a digital database to aid consultations and enable research possibilities.”

The digitalized material is stored in the USEK library, where it is possible to access the collection catalog. To consult the desired documents, those interested need to complete a registration in English on the website itself. “Everything is free for academic research and noncommercial projects,” affirms Brazilian historian Roberto Khatlab, creator and director of the Latin American Studies and Cultures Center (CECAL), who works at the Lebanese university. “Besides preserving credits and copyrights, our idea is to know which academic studies are being made about the topic of Arab immigration in Latin America. The studies that arise based on our collection will be incorporated into the digital library to help the work of other researchers.”

Images Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in BrazilBelow, from the top, A Patria Livre (The free homeland), a Syrian National Party magazine, created in the 1920s, in São PauloImages Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in Brazil

The Brazilian section is part of the Project for Conserving the Memory of Arab Immigration in Latin America, started in 2016 by CECAL-USEK. The following year, Argentina received the initiative, which continues to be developed in partnership with the Ninawa Daher Foundation, in Buenos Aires. In both countries, USEK set up a digitalization studio in the partner institutions, which included a photographic camera, lighting equipment, a state-of-the-art scanner, and laptops. In 2019, the project began surveys in Mexico and Chile, which were interrupted as a result of the economic crisis in Lebanon and the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Khatlab, around 100,000 pages of documents have been digitalized so far in Argentina, Mexico, and Chile. “Besides that, we have researched material in public and private collections in Lebanon related to Latin America sent by families of these immigrants. The collections complement one another,” observes the historian.

The saga of the thousands of immigrants of Syrian and Lebanese origin who came to Brazil from the last decades of the nineteenth century began when the region known as Greater Syria, which today includes Syria and Lebanon, among others, found itself under the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. “The Turks dominated the region for four centuries, between 1516 and the end of the First World War [1914–1918], when France then took political control of the region until the 1940s. There was a lot of repression and the Ottoman Empire censured the press,” says Truzzi, of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar). “That political tension reverberated in the pages of the newspapers and magazines of the overseas community. Part of these publications were not confined to Brazil: they circulated in Europe and, in a clandestine manner, in Syria and Lebanon.” According to Heloísa Dib, who has Syrian ancestry and has independently studied the history of her ancestors for almost two decades, the press made by the immigrants shines a light on a little-known aspect of the community in the country. “The majority of Syrians and Lebanese that came to Brazil from the nineteenth century dedicated themselves to commerce, but there were also intellectuals among this group who fled the political repression in their homeland. Here they found freedom to write and influence who was there,” she says.

Images Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in BrazilPart of the material collected by the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik project, from Lebanon, in partnership with the CCAB, of São PauloImages Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in Brazil

“These periodicals are a relevant source for research, above all for those who speak the Arabic language. They follow the transformations of the community over time,” adds Truzzi. “In the beginning, a large part of the newspapers and magazines were only in Arabic and many of them were founded with the purpose of promoting the political independence of Syria and Lebanon. Over time, they became bilingual and, in the end, circulated only in Portuguese. In the 1950s, the majority were completely depoliticized and some were transformed into a type of extended social column.” The change of language relates to the campaign of nationalization during the Estado Novo (New State) (1937–1945), which among other things prohibited the use of foreign languages, including in publications produced by immigrants. “But this was not the only factor. The generations born in Brazil were also losing interest in speaking the language of their ancestors,” affirms Truzzi.

Truzzi and Dib are currently organizing the chapter dedicated to the Arab press in a yet-to-be titled e-book, which should be launched next year by Transfopress Brazil. Based at São Paulo State University (UNESP), the research group investigates the country’s foreign language press and is linked to the “Transnational network for the study of foreign language press (eighteenth–twentieth century)” project, coordinated by Diana Cooper-Richet, of the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, in France. So far, over 800 titles of periodicals in languages such as Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Hebrew that circulated in Brazil between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century have been collected. “We are going to create two lists. One with newspapers and magazines available in public institutions or private collections in the country. The other with titles that have been cited in the past in books of memories, for example, but have never been located,” says historian Tania de Luca, of UNESP, Assis campus, who coordinates Transfopress Brazil with historian Valéria Guimarães, from the Franca campus.

Images Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in BrazilConsidered the first Arabic newspaper published in Brazil, Al-Fayha (meaning “wide world”) appeared in 1895, in Campinas (São Paulo State)Images Provided by the Digitization Project for the Memory of Arab Immigration in Brazil

Reflecting on the Arab presence in the Northeast of the country, as well as in other regions of Brazil and in Latin America, is one of the goals of the International Center of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Federal University of Sergipe (CEAI-UFS). Established three years ago, the transdisciplinary initiative joins around 30 researchers from Brazil and countries such as Argentina, Mali, Lebanon, and France. “The presence of Arab immigrants in states in the Northeast is lower in numerical terms compared to São Paulo, for example,” informs Geraldo Adriano Campos, director of the center and professor in the International Relations Department at UFS. “The Arab influence in Brazil, however, transcends the arrival of those immigrants in the nineteenth century. It was already here in its Iberian and African interventions since the beginning of the colonial period.”

This year, the CEAI should receive around 580 books about Arab and Islamic cultures donated by attorney and bibliophile Ricardo Calil Cury, from São Paulo. The titles cover architecture, art, urbanism, history, philosophy, politics, literature, and immigration to Brazil. “They are works that, above all, make the connection between the Arab world and Portugal, Spain, and Brazil,” defines Cury, whose collection began four decades ago and who usually picks up the volumes on trips to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He donated 269 titles to the Mário de Andrade Library in 2018 with a focus on Arab history and geopolitics, now all together in a collection named after him. “The idea is that these books can enrich the perception of Arab culture in Brazil, which, in my opinion, is still very restricted,” concludes Cury.