Just a week after his latest trip to the Middle East, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is being honored by the Arab community this evening of March 25 at the Mount Lebanon Club, in the city of São Paulo. The event, which marks the 130th anniversary of Arab immigration in Brazil, is organized by the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce.
According to the Arab Brazilian Chamber’s president, Salim Taufic Schahin, the organization decided to hold the tribute because of Lula’s effort to establish closer ties between Brazil and the Arab countries. “He has been a great promoter of the development of better political, business and cultural ties between the two regions,” he stated.
Since the beginning of his first term in office, in 2003, Lula set the establishment of closer ties between Brazil and the Arab world as a priority. On that same year, he became the first Brazilian president to visit the region while in power.
He traveled to Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Libya, and launched the idea of promoting the Summit of South American-Arab Countries (Aspa), which had its first edition in 2005, in the Brazilian capital Brasília, and the second one last year, in Doha, Qatar. The third summit is scheduled to take place in 2011, in Lima, Peru.
After his first tour of the Middle East, the president also went to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Libya once again, to participate as a guest at the Summit of the African Union, Qatar, for the 2nd Aspa Summit, and more recently, Palestine and Jordan. In May, he will be back in Qatar in return for the visit that emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani made to Brazil in January.
Regarding his last trip, which also included Israel, Schahin, who accompanied the president in Palestine and Jordan, stated that the welcome was “exceptional.” “The fruits of that trip will be increased business, political and cultural relations,” he claimed. “Plus the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, to which Brazil, by means of president Lula, wishes to contribute,” he added.
In the economic field, Brazilian exports to the Arab world have gone from US$ 2.76 billion in 2003, according to data supplied by the Brazilian Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade, to peak at US$ 9.82 billion in 2008, and totaled US$ 9.4 billion in 2009, a year of crisis and retraction in foreign trade.
This year, business has already returned to growth. In the first two months, shipments from Brazil to the Arab world generated US$ 1.37 billion in revenues, representing growth of 33% over the same period of last year.
25th of March
But why is the tribute being paid on the 25th of March? Well, since 2008, by force of a bill passed by the National Congress, the date marks the National Day of the Arab Community. To those who enjoy ephemerides, March 25th, in Brazil, is originally the Day of the Constitution, because on that date, in 1824, the first Brazilian Constitution was ratified by emperor Dom Pedro I.
But 25th of March is also the name of the best known popular shopping street in São Paulo, in which many Arab immigrants settled. “The date of 25th of March is deeply linked to the Arab colony, because it lends its name to the street that is known throughout Brazil as the street of the Arabs,” said senator Romeu Tuma, author of the project that established the National Day of the Arab Community.
Tuma, the son to a Syrian father and to a mother of Lebanese descent, is part of the 10% of Brazilian congressmen who are of Arab origin. The community is strong in the field of politics, and also has five ministers in president Lula’s cabinet.
Tuma’s family history is similar to those of many members of the colony, currently estimated at around 12 million people. His father started out his life in Brazil as a merchant, selling goods in the interior of the state, and then settled at the 25th of March street with a haberdashery, fabrics and bed, bath and table linen shop.
“One of the great objectives of immigrants was to be able to provide their children with a diploma, to see them graduate, which is something the were unable to do in their countries of origin,” said the senator. After their beginnings in trade, the Arab descendents then spread across Brazil in all fields of activity. Presently, for instance, the Lebanese who live in Brazil and the Brazilians of Lebanese origin outnumber the population of Lebanon itself.
The 130th anniversary of Arab immigration is also being celebrated in the South American Festival of Arab Culture, which will continue until March 31st in four cities in the state of São Paulo. Several activities take place at 26 locations in the state capital and in the cities of São José dos Campos, Santos and Campinas.
Also today, a new space for culture and research will be inaugurated in São Paulo: the Arab-South American Culture and Research Center. Furthermore, the 25th of March Street will be turned into a stage for several attractions, such as presentations of Moroccan and Lebanese groups, two cordel artists and two improvisator singers (repentistas) from the Cariri, in Northeast Brazil.