They started arriving
in Brazil in the nineteenth century. In their
luggage was a great desire to work and dreams of riches. Today
the Arabs, their children and grandchildren total 12 million
people. Their culture, customs and entrepreneurship can be
seen in the Brazilian industry, cuisine, music, and vocabulary.
25 de Março
Businessman Gabriel Issa Bonduki arrived in Brazil in 1897. Bonduki was only
18 years old. He came from Syria to São Paulo, nowadays the largest
city in Brazil, by ship, bringing little luggage but a large desire to explore
the country described as a paradise for work and opportunities.
The time to win the Americas
had come. The Europeans had already noticed this and were coming to Brazil
by the thousands. The Arabs had also started coming.
To Bonduki buying cloth
and lace, putting them in a trunk, and selling them from store to store, door
to door, was no great effort. Brazil was a great promise of riches. And it
was in the country that spoke a language so different from his that he decided
to stay. He called his brothers, opened two stores, and later a factory.
The story of late patriarch
Gabriel Issa Bonduki, whose family currently owns one of the largest spinning
houses in the city could be repeated using the names and surnames of other
Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Iraqi and Palestinian men and women.
The Arab community started
arriving in the country over one hundred years ago. There are currently over
12 million immigrants and descendants spread around Brazil’s main states.
"They came after
a new life," explained journalist and historian José Asmar, from
the midwestern state of Goiás, son of Lebanese immigrants.
His profession as a traveling
salesman, common to most immigrants arriving in Brazil, was an honor to those
who had traveled thousands of kilometers in uncomfortable ship holds. Most
of the immigrants were poor, and had no land to plant on and no jobs in their
countries of origin.
That was not the only
reason, however, for them to stay. Even those who had only come to make some
money and then return changed their minds. Brazil had become a second homeland.
The immigrants and their descendants are the largest Arab colony in the world.
"The Arab immigrants
adapted to the country very well, and mixed in with the Brazilian people.
We may currently find many Arabs who love the country more than the Brazilians,"
Rio de Janeiro and São
Paulo, in southeastern Brazil, Paraná, in the south of the country,
and Goiás, in the Midwest, were the states the immigrants decided to
live in, and to open their stores and industries.
There are, however, Arab
descendants in practically all states. In the state of Paraná, where
they arrived between 1915 and 1920, they were pioneers in the wood, furniture,
and civil construction industry.
"The Arabs favored
industrialization and agriculture, trade, and the banking sector," stated
the administrator of the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (CCAB) office
in Paraná state, Kamal David Curi.
Throughout Brazil they
became well known as "businessmen." And they honored the title.
In the state of São Paulo, it was the sons and grandsons of immigrants
who ran hundreds of companies in the garment sector.
Most started small in
the Bom Retiro and Brás industrial neighborhoods, and on 25 de Março
street, a famous business street, later opening branches and becoming chains.
The Arabs are currently
not only in business and in industry, but also in the service sector, in politics,
and in health. Some are at the top of the rank in their sectors and professions,
as is the case with Adib Jatene, known as one of the most important cardiologists
in the country, and Fuad Mattar, president of Paramount, one Brazil’s most
important textile industries.
Guilherme Afif Domingos,
president of the largest trade association in South America, the São
Paulo Trade Association, and Paulo Skaf, president of the Brazilian Textile
and Apparel Industry Association (Abit) to be sworn in as president of the
Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp) this month,
are another two famous Arab descendants in charge of Brazilian industry and
The Arab culture has even
become incorporated into the simplest things in Brazilian daily life, including
the language. According to historian Asmar, many words that begin with al,
like alface (lettuce) and algarismo (characters), are of Arab
"The Arab culture
is very much rooted in here," he said. Around 5,000 words from the Arab
language have made their way into the Brazilian vocabulary. Some of them are
used regionally, including alfombra, used by the population of states
in the Northeast of the country meaning curtain.
The culture and the customs
of the Arabs have even found their way into Brazilian dishes and music. Kibes
and esfihas, for example, may be found all around Brazil.
There is Arab influence
even in the traditional Brazilian samba. The Arab adufe drum originated
the beat that is characteristic to samba, and is currently used by famous
samba schools like Portela in their Carnaval parades.
Brazil, the New Nation
The Arab community in
Brazil is made up mainly of Syrians and Lebanese, although there are immigrants
from practically all Arab nations in the country. Arab immigrants and their
descendants total 6.5% of the Brazilian population.
In Brazil there are more
Lebanese than in Lebanon itself, which has a population of 3.7 million inhabitants.
The stories of Arabs who arrived in Brazil in the late nineteenth and twentieth
centuries are numerous.
All the stories include
very much work. Brazilian businessman Emílio Bonduki, 95 years of age,
likes to recall the story that started in 1897, when his father, Gabriel,
arrived in Brazil from the Syrian city of Homs.
"My father said that
everyone wanted to come to America. They said it was easy to find a job and
start a business," stated Emílio.
After working as a traveling
salesman for many years, in 1905, Gabriel opened his first store on São
Caetano Street, in Luz neighborhood, where many textile industries are located.
Later on, together with
his friend Bechara Moherdaiu, he opened fabric store B. Moherdaiu & Co.
a wholesaler on 25 de Março Street. In 1915, Bonduki and his partners
set up a cotton spinning-house. Gabriel was also the first president of the
Syrian Homs Club, established by former residents of the city in Syria.
"Dad loved Brazil.
It was a country that offered many business possibilities and received immigrants
with love and attention greater than usual," explained Bonduki. Gabriel
liked the country so much that he convinced his brothers and cousins to move
from Syria to Brazil too.
was born in 1909, in one of the Arab nests in São Paulo: in Bom Retiro
neighborhood, a fabric pole. In 1921, Emílio went to study in Syria,
where he graduated in Arab literature in Damascus. "I learnt how to speak
Arabic, French, German and English," stated Bonduki.
After graduating, he worked
for the Bank of Syria and Great Lebanon and returned to Brazil, at the end
of 1934. He found a devastated country, recovering from a crisis. It was his
turn to contribute to the country.
He worked as a manager
at a spinning house belonging to one of his cousins and a few years later,
in 1941, opened store Bonduki Bonfio, which sells all kinds of material for
sewing. He still runs the store.
Bonduki was also a director
at the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (CCAB), and was responsible for
the organization’s recognition by the General Union of Chambers, in 1994.
Emílio is still
one of the directors of orphanage Lar Sírio Pró-Infância,
and helped develop the Mão Branca Beneficent Society, which takes care
of elderly people.
"My nickname was
`beggar,’ as I was always after companies with possessions that could donate
money to the poor children," recalled Bonduki. "As I have always
liked Brazil, I found that I had to do something for the poor," he said.
Some examples of Arabic
words incorporated into the Brazilian vocabulary: alface (lettuce),
almanaque (almanac), alfaiate (tailor), bazar (bazaar),
mascate (travelling salesman), almofada (cushion), alcaide
(mayor), arroz (rice), açúcar (sugar), alfombra
Marina Sarruf is a Brazilian journalist.
is distributed by ANBA _ Brazil-Arab News Agency
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