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from the November 2008 issue

Brazilian Arabesques

At the very beginning of the twentieth century, at the height of the rubber boom, my paternal grandfather left Beirut for the Bolivian territory of Acre, where he worked as a peddler on the rivers from Rio Branco to Xapuri. He was one of the first Lebanese immigrants in my family. Eight years later, he returned to Beirut with pictures and stories about the Amazon region, which he passed along to his children and relatives.

It's said that he told fantastic stories of shipwrecks, duels, floods, epidemics, of hunting in the rainforest and fishing in hidden lakes; it's also said that before his death, surrounded by his many children and a small crowd of relatives, he named innumerable Amazonian fishes and animals. An episode narrated by my grandfather—and recalled by my father—has tragicomic elements: he related that, before leaving the ship in Porto Acre, he was caught in a gunfight. He leapt overboard and swam toward shore and the forest. He was crouched down in the vegetation when someone handed him a Winchester rifle and shouted, "Long live Acre's revolution!" Then he started firing at the opposite bank. Unwittingly, he was taking part in the final battle against the Bolivians, who were defeated and thus lost a vast territory. A short time later, that Bolivian territory was annexed by Brazil.

"If I had swum to the other bank," Fadel used to tell my father, "I could've been killed or taken prisoner, and my Brazilian adventure would have ended right there."

My father grew up hearing these romanesque stories and decided to emigrate to Acre. He came with a male cousin before the Second World War and, while passing through Manaus, married my mother, a native of the state of Amazonas who was the daughter of Lebanese Christians. They met at the restaurant in the boardinghouse belonging to my maternal great-grandmother, whom I never met. My mother said he was an excellent chef and a Pantagruelian gourmand who would mix Arab dishes with Amazonian ones and who went from table to table sampling the customers' food to see if the seasoning was right. But as a good businessman, it must have been a way of charming his clientele.

On my mother's side, my great-grandfather, named Hana (John), a native of al-Batrün, was the first to settle in Manaus, also at the beginning of the twentieth century. From a Christian family, his daughter—my grandmother Emily—married a Muslim, and that mixed-religion marriage (less common in Lebanon) was repeated in the union of my parents. Because of this, the Bible and the Koran were the sacred books in the house of my childhood. It was that way for half a century, and thanks to God and my parents, neither religion was imposed on me.

The founding nucleus of my family settled in Manaus, but I have relatives scattered around Brazil. The itinerant life, living in various places and belonging to more than one country, is the fate of immigrants. Perhaps something similar happened with the first Arabs who emigrated to Brazil (and perhaps the rest of Latin America) around 1880, when the Great Migration (Mahjar) began that gave rise to Jaaliya (the community of already settled immigrants), whose descendants today total more than ten million Brazilians.

The reasons behind Arab emigration (Lebanese and Syrian) were several. The Christians (Catholic, Maronite, or Orthodox) were fleeing the Ottoman Empire, but I believe the large majority left for a better life. Few wish to leave forever, few have the desire to have to communicate in a different language, knowing that their mother tongue will be restricted to a small circle of friends and relatives in the community to which they belong. In Latin America, Arab immigrants were (and still are) called Turks, because of the passport issued by the Ottoman Empire. I remember that my grandmother, a practicing Christian, used to tell us: "Me, a Turk? But my family fled from the Turks... "

The elders would tell stories of the flight, of displacement, of long journeys, of commercial activities on the rivers of the Amazon region. They were chronicles of adventure and risk, in which the desire to settle down and to prosper in the new country was almost an imperative. The Arabic tongue was spoken by my father and my maternal grandparents, but my mother, as a Brazilian, never uttered a single word in the language of her parents. So for me Arabic was a kind of melody with familiar but distant sounds. Little by little, it became a collection of sounds that memory would evoke as the elders began dying off. French was more accessible, both because it was less difficult and because my grandmother Emily alternated between French and Arabic, having studied at a French-speaking lycée in Beirut. My grandfather would scold her: "Why are you speaking French to our grandson? It's the language of the colonizer." And she would reply: "D'accord, mon vieux" in a perfect feigned Arabic accent.

I think this intersection of cultures and origins was crucial in my childhood and adolescence. As a rule, immigrants strive toward achieving a place in their chosen country. They work and save, planning to return, even if temporarily, to the land of their birth. They live on a cultural borderland: between two languages, two cultures. A long phrase is spoken in Arabic, another shorter phrase in shaky Portuguese. Nevertheless, the vast majority end up putting down roots in the other country, and their children no longer maintain strong ties to the land of their parents. Immigration therefore implies partial loss of origin and assimilation into the new culture.

This brings to mind the statement by Octavio Paz about the condition of the Latin American: We are and are not Europeans, for we speak a European language, with one basic difference: it is a transplanted language. So, Paz asks, what are we? It's difficult to define what we are, but our works speak for us. That is, a literature written in a transplanted tongue.

Around 1994, in the United States, where I went to give a lecture about my first novel, I saw a poster that said: The Lebanese-Brazilian Writer. I told the moderator, "That doesn't mean anything in Brazil."

"Why?" he asked.

Because we don't consider ourselves Afro-Brazilian, Italian-Brazilian, or Japanese-Brazilian. We don't make that distinction, we don't emphasize the origin or ethnicity of a social group in order to differentiate it.

This dilution of origins lies at the formative base of Brazilian society. Dilution signifies the mixing of races, the assimilation of diverse, nonhierarchized cultures. And it also signifies the rejection of a rigid and immutable identity.

In the public schools in Manaus I mingled with children and youths whose parents were native Indians from the Amazon, blacks, Portuguese, Spanish, Germans, Jews from Morocco, and the many other immigrants who made up the region where I was born. In Brazil that type of commingling appears to have been the rule rather than the exception. I don't wish to idealize or give a false impression about the mixing of races in Brazil. Those who in fact remained at the margins of society were the blacks and the Indians, not to mention millions of Brazilians from various origins, and that indignity remains one of the legacies of our colonial past and the brutal inequality of income throughout the history of the republic.

What I'd like to emphasize is the importance of the coexistence of different ethnicities and backgrounds, even though it may seem utopian. In any case, hybridization and miscegenation are not exclusive attributes of Brazil or Latin America, as they also are part of the European past.

If we think of the novel Don Quixote, one of the monuments of Western literature, Cervantes credits the original story to an Arab sage and historian, Cid Hamete Benengeli. Countless references appear in the Quixote to authors of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, but Cervantes understood the importance of the Arab and Judaic cultures in Andalusia, without which Spain would be poorer.

Actually, when one speaks of Arab immigration to Latin America it is necessary to remember a much older fact: the presence of a vocabulary and linguistic expressions of Arabic origin since the time of the Discovery. Spanish and Portuguese chroniclers were already using this vocabulary, which was incorporated into the transplanted languages of which Octavio Paz speaks.

In contemporary European and Latin American literature, there are various significant examples of this heritage, with the work of Luis Fayad as one instance. Or a novella by García Márquez (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) and certain novels of the Colombian poet and writer Álvaro Mutis, in which some of the characters are the children of that immigration. In Brazil, these characters also appear in several of the novels of Jorge Amado, and in the last book published before his death, The Discovery of America by the Turks. Still in Brazilian literature, the extraordinary novel by Raduan Nassar, Lavoura Arcaica, or Amrik, by Ana Miranda, among many other books, evoke the presence of the Arab immigrants. Alberto Mussa published O Enigma de Qaf, a novel whose historical perspective, set in the time before Islam, recalls a skillfully woven Borgesian storyline.

In present-day Spain, part of the prose of Juan Goytisolo evokes the culture of North Africa, and in the magnificent novel Larva, by Julián Ríos, an entire chapter entitled "Algaravias" is written using words of Arabic origin.

Unfortunately, some "intellectuals" prefer to construct tenuous and fantastic theories about the "clash of civilizations," about the "evil" rooted in Islamic or Asian societies, and more recently, about the social and cultural dysfunction that Mexican and Hispanic immigrants can occasion in white, puritanical New England society. This is a cynical, not to say racist, assertion on the part of anyone who belongs to a country that is composed in essence of expatriates and immigrants. Purity and superiority are dangerous arguments of racist discourse and imperialist ideology.

As Edward Said pointed out in his essay "The Clash of Definitions" (from the book Reflections on Exile), "So strong and insistent is Huntington's notion that other civilizations clash with the West, and so relentlessly and chauvinist is his prescription for what the West must do to continue winning, that we are forced to conclude that he is really most interested in continuing and expanding the Cold War, by means other than advancing ideas about understanding the current world scene or trying to reconcile different cultures."

Reconciling different cultures and dialoging with them seems to be one of the challenges of our time that, unfortunately, heralds a new barbarism. I have mentioned the example of Cervantes, among many other great writers and artists who understood the vital importance of knowing the Other.

Goethe, creator of Weltliteratur, was also a reader of the Qur'an in his youth, as well as a reader of Arabic poetry and the Persian poet Hafiz (Shamsu'din Muhammad), the same poet mentioned by Manuel Bandeira in "Ghazal in Praise of Hafiz." In old age, Goethe was the poet of "The Occidental-Oriental Divan," whose title inspired Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim to form an orchestra of young Arab and Jewish musicians.

The Brazilian poet and critic Haroldo de Campos, in an essay about Goethe, observed: "It is the Orient that begins to erupt in [Goethe's] Occident and produces one of the highest moments in all his fruitful poetic career." According to Karl Viëtor, Goethe was perfectly aware of the profound analogies that existed between him and Hafiz. Thus, the German poet remains himself in the garb of the Orient and speaks as oriental and occidental poet at the same time.

In some manner, writers, poets, and readers are immigrants of the imagination, for they also feed on the imagination of others, from a foreign land, on foreign dreams, on the cultural landscape and the languages of others. Like the immigrant, we can choose a new cultural homeland, without, nevertheless, disdaining our origin, which is always plural and diffuse.

"Do you know the country where the lemons grow?" (Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?) asks Goethe's lyrical "I" in the poem "Mignon" (1872).

To conclude, I would like to cite a fragment from a personal account.

At the beginning of the nineties, my first novel (Tale of a Certain Orient) was translated into various languages and published in seven countries, including France. It was the French translation that led to the publication of articles about my novel in the Lebanese press. Those newspapers crossed the ocean and came into the hands of my father, in Manaus, more than half a century after his definitive departure from Lebanon for Brazil.

One of the most moving recollections that I have of my father was seeing him sitting on the veranda of his house in Manaus, reading one of those articles, published in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. I remember that he called the entire family together to hear it, as if for a solemn ceremony. It was the first time I ever saw him cry, inconspicuously: the silent weeping of an unexpressed pain. At that moment, as I looked at an elderly man who would one day be buried in that place so distant from his homeland, I thought of the pain of immigrants, the exiles and expatriates who with great difficulty returned to their native land to see relatives and friends once more, or simply to gaze upon the landscape of their childhood, when all the others had already died. I thought that a society, whatever it may be, owes something to these lost beings: men and women who, impelled by the wish to live a less arduous life or by a mad desire to survive, even as tormented souls, choose another cultural homeland.

Emotionally, my father read the article in Arabic, his mother tongue, and slowly translated it into Portuguese, his adopted language. When he finished the translation, he said: "It's strange, I never thought I'd return to Lebanon through a book written by my son."

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