At Lebanon’s centennial, it’s time for scholars to take a closer look at the country’s historic ties to Brazil, argues MAAS alum Diogo Bercito.
By Diogo Bercito
With the recent centennial of Greater Lebanon, scholars of different fields have been gathering in panels across the world to discuss and commemorate Lebanon’s history. Given that the centennial coincides with the crumbling of the Lebanese economy and the lingering effects of the 2020 explosion in Beirut, there is a sense of urgency to understanding how the country’s past can better situate its current events. Despite the extensive discussions of Lebanon’s past, a significant part of the country’s history is rarely accounted for: the mass migration of its people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—a period marked by the collapse of the silk industry and intercommunal tensions. Similarly, scholars seldom acknowledge the role of the Lebanese diaspora, failing to incorporate the vibrant migrant communities of places like Brazil, where millions claim Lebanese descent, into these discussions.
Around 150,000 people migrated from the Eastern Mediterranean to Brazil starting in the late 1870s. Most came from areas that would later become parts of contemporary Lebanon and Syria. Now their descendants may measure in the millions. Last year, the Arab-Brazil Chamber of Commerce released the first-ever census of this community, claiming that there are 12 million people of Arab descent living in Brazil. According to Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, between 7 million and 10 million people of Lebanese descent, specifically, live in the country. These estimates need to be read with a grain of za‘tar, as taking them at face value would mean that more people of Lebanese descent live in Brazil than in Lebanon, which has a total population of under 7 million. Yet, regardless of their precise numbers, it is hard to deny the impact that Lebanese migrants have had in Brazil over the past century, or the ways they have deeply entangled the histories of the two countries.
One of the most obvious examples of these entanglements is the large number of Brazilian politicians of Lebanese descent. Among them are former president Michel Temer, former São Paulo governor Paulo Maluf, and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad—whose parents migrated, respectively, from Btaaboura, Hadath Baalbek, and Ain Atta. During some periods, the percentage of representatives of Lebanese descent in Brazil’s Congress has reached ten percent. As I heard from Lebanese people during my research over the past years, it is ironic that Lebanon has spent long periods without a president while people of Lebanese descent have often ruled Brazil.
The history of Lebanese descendants in Brazil goes beyond politics, however. For example, Lebanese migrants and their descendants published a trove of Arabic-language newspapers in Brazil, contributing to the nahda (a cultural movement around the turn of the twentieth century, often translated as “Arab Renaissance”). Between 1880 and 1929, there were 82 Arabic newspapers and magazines published in Palestine, whereas the number reached 95 in Brazil. By 1944, Arabs in Brazil and their descendants—mostly Lebanese—had published at least 156 books in Arabic. The existence of a vibrant Arabic press was directly related to a rich literary scene, organized around a group of writers who called themselves the Andalusian League. Their Arabic poems, short stories, and novels remain underestimated by scholars due to a lack of systematic research and our still incipient understanding of the transnational quality of the nahda.
Lebanese migrants also impacted Brazilian foodways, a term for the ways food is produced and consumed. Since the late nineteenth century, Lebanese migrants and their descendants have been cooking their dishes in cities like São Paulo and Rio. Kibbeh—which later became one of Lebanon’s national dishes—is so widespread in parts of Brazil that it is eaten side by side with local staples like pão de queijo (cheese bread) and coxinha (fried dough filled with shredded chicken). Evidence of the reach of Lebanese cuisine in Brazil can be found at one of the country’s largest fast-food chains: a restaurant called Habib’s, which has a genie as its mascot and sells 600 million units of sfiha meat pies a year. The fact that Habib’s owner is a man of Portuguese descent, not Lebanese, speaks to the rooted presence of Lebanese food in Brazil.
The examples of Lebanon’s impact on Brazil’s politics, food culture, and publishing scene may make the influence appear one sided. This assumption, however, stems from a lack of scholarship on the Lebanese diaspora. Take Arab nationalism, for example. A great deal of the intellectual debates of the early twentieth century occurred in the diaspora, and Brazil provided an important stage for that transnational conversation. Antoun Saadeh, for instance, spent several of his formative years in São Paulo before returning to Beirut and founding the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). Another telling example comes, again, from food. Syrian and Lebanese migrants took yerba mate, an herbal drink, from Argentina and Brazil to their homeland as they returned from the diaspora. Yerba mate is now a common sight there, particularly among Druze populations. In the Beqaa Valley, one also finds villages like Sultan Yacoub, Ghazze, and Kamed El Laouz, where Portuguese is spoken and the inhabitants are what Roberto Khatlab––a professor at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik––calls “brazilebanese,” or people of mixed Lebanese and Brazilian descent. Brazilian supermarkets dot the roads connecting these villages to Beirut.
In celebrating one-hundred years of Lebanon, it is time for scholars to also celebrate the Lebanese community that, albeit across an ocean, still thinks of itself as part of the homeland. The cultural, economic, and political ties between Lebanon and Brazil could be strengthen as a result.
Diogo Bercito is a Brazilian journalist and scholar, and a 2020 graduate of the MAAS program. At MAAS he focused on the Arab mass migration to Brazil between 1870 and 1930––research he now pursues as a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University’s Department of History.
This article is part of the Spring/Summer 2021 CCAS Newsmagazine, which is illustrated with art from Lebanese artists.