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Turcos – the Arabs of Latin America

Viewpoints, June 2016
Dr. Michael Ehrlich

Mauro Vieira, until recently the Brazilian Foreign Minister, told the Arab-South America Summit, which took place in Riyadh in November 2015, that there are about 16 million Brazilians of Arab origin out of a total population of 200 million.

I believe that this figure is somehow exaggerated, and yet, it is undeniable that in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America there are large, important and influential Arab communities. The main segments of these communities are descendants of Christians who immigrated from the then Ottoman Empire to Latin America during the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. They became known as Turcos – because they arrived from the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.

Acting Brazilian President Michel Temer is the son of Maronite Lebanese immigrants; he assumed the presidency May 12 following the suspension of Dilma Rousseff (right) during her impeachment trial. Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Acting Brazilian President Michel Temer is the son of Maronite Lebanese immigrants; he assumed the presidency May 12 following the suspension of Dilma Rousseff (right) during her impeachment trial. Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Arab migration to Latin America is very successful. Arabs integrated into local society and some of them became key players in various fields – in the arts, sport, economy and politics.

According to some researchers the first immigrants from Arab lands who arrived in Latin America as early as 1823 came from modern-day Morocco. They settled in Brazil’s port city of Belem, the gateway to the Amazon. The new arrivals were Moroccan Jews and their immigration was not immediately followed by their Muslim or Christian neighbors. It is not clear how the Jewish immigration became the catalyst that set off the chain reaction that caused mass Christian and Muslim migration.

The first registered Arabs in Latin America came during the 1860s from modern-day Syria and Lebanon.   This migration took place shortly after the “Lebanese” civil war in 1860, during which many Christians were massacred and others fled the region. Most of the Arab immigrants settled in poor neighborhoods of port cities, where they had disembarked. Subsequently, some of them began to work as peddlers in remote zones.

The success of some of the immigrants convinced more Arabs to cross the seas and to immigrate to Latin America. Until World War I many thousands of Arabs immigrated to the continent. These people underwent intensive assimilation; many of them were males who married local women, who were mostly Catholic and did not speak Arabic. Many of the descendants of the immigrants do not speak Arabic.

The relationship between the Latin American Arab communities and their countries of origin were and remain complex. Many of them consider themselves as ethnic Syrians and Lebanese, but they hardly identify themselves with the present states of Syria and Lebanon.  For example: according to the website of the Argentinian Syrian-Lebanese club the history of Syria and Lebanon stopped in the 7th century CE, when Roman Syria and Phoenicia were conquered by the Arabs.

The Syrian civil war was not a central issue in recent electoral campaigns in Brazil and Argentina.  Despite the fact that important figures, such as Argentina’s present First Lady and Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer are of Lebanese descend, the topic did not generate much public interest.

Unlike the rather passive or even indifferent policy of Latin American states towards many Middle Eastern issues, many of them support the Palestinian side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus, Venezuela and Bolivia cut diplomatic relations with Israel in 2009 and during the Protective Edge operation conducted by the IDF in Gaza (7/7 to 26/8/2014). Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Peru, and Chile summoned home their ambassadors to Israel for consultations.

It is beyond the scope of this short article to analyze the policy of these countries towards Israel, but it seems worthy to indicate that in some of them there are substantial and active Arab communities that certainly facilitate and welcome anti-Israel measures.

Dr. Michael Ehrlich is on the faculty of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, Bar-Ilan University and a Senior Research Fellow at Bar-Ilan’s Center for International Communication.