How Arabs Helped and Continue Shaping Brazil’s Culture and Trade

Arab immigrant to BrazilShopping in Brazil before the late 19th century meant facing a Portuguese immigrant, almost always serious, standing behind a counter, demanding guarantees to grant credit. Around the 1880s, however, common men carrying bags full of fabric, thread and lace started knocking on the doors of Brazilians.

They spoke little Portuguese and were always ready to lower the prices of products and to accept payment in installments, as they would return later.

They were the Arab immigrants who, without planning it, brought innovation to the activity they chose as their breadwinner in Brazil, trade.

“They brought a breath of fresh air to trade in Brazil – marked by the Portuguese traditionalism – with credit, discounts, and stock flow. Trade was reinvented,” said Oswaldo Truzzi, a professor at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar) and author of book “Patricians – Syrians and Lebanese in São Paulo.”

As they carried their merchandise, they could not walk and walk, selling nothing. “So they sold in installments, gave discounts and traded,” said the professor.

According to Truzzi and to the director of the Center of Arab Studies of the University of São Paulo (USP), Arlene Clemesha, trade was one of the areas in which Arab immigrants brought the greatest contributions to Brazil soon after their arrival.

Arlene recalls that, as tradesmen, the Arabs also played an important part as suppliers of products to workers on large farms, mostly European immigrants.

“Their salaries were very low and they soon became indebted with the land owner if they bought their products at the farm shop. Arabs, playing the part of tradesmen and peddlers were an important way out for these people,” explained the director. Arabs would travel to the farms to sell.

This agriculture, in fact, based on large properties, caused Arab immigrants to work in activities other than those developed in their countries of origin after arriving in Brazil. The agriculture practiced by the Syrians and Lebanese was small scale and family. In Brazil, however, they needed large tracts of land, mainly for coffee. Due to the option of occupying small properties, with bad land, or being in the hands of a boss at a large farm, they became tradesmen.

“Between being a subordinate and having economic independence, they preferred the latter, even if the businesses were small enough to fit in a case. It was just a case, but it was his, and he had the autonomy of a boss,” said Truzzi, regarding the peddler activity.

In the Arab countries, explained the UFSCar professor, those who played the part of tradesmen in the Arab countries, at the time, were the Greek and Armenians.

Arlene says that Arab immigrants were warned by their relatives not to say they were farmers on arrival, seeking another activity soon.


The Arabs arrived in Brazil in the late 19th century, at a time of great immigration, not just from the region, but also from Italy, Spain and Portugal. Different from the Europeans – who had free access, covered by the government of Brazil due to the need for labor after the abolition of slavery -, the Arabs paid for their tickets on ships. And many believed they were traveling to North America.

According to Arlene and Truzzi, the reason that caused immigration in the beginning was mainly the economic condition. Entrance of European industrialized products in the Arab nations resulted in great competition for the production of small Arab properties, explained the UFSCar professor, and was one of the factors for traveling to Brazil.

Arlene recalls, however, the political conditions in the period. The Arabs, who up to then felt they were part of the Ottoman Empire, which had dominated the region since 1516, started to feel excluded from power in the late 19th Century. European colonization, with the Europeans joining forces with religious groups in the region, also changed the harmony.

These factors, together with others, were involved in the first phase of Arab immigration to Brazil, between 1870 and 1930 – with a pause during the First World War. According to Truzzi, there was, however, also another moment of strong immigration due to the civil war in Lebanon. Different from the start, though, when Christians came to the country, in the second phase, most of those coming were Muslim.

Currently, according to Arlene, it is not possible to speak about a new phase of Arab immigration to Brazil. What there is, he recalls, is the arrival of some groups of refugees, like the Palestinians.

It is not comparable, however, to the movement of the past, mainly in the late 19th Century and in the early 20th Century. Between 1870 and 1900, for example, 5,400 Syrians and Lebanese arrived in the country. In 1913 alone, another 11,000 immigrants came to the region. There are now around 12 million Arabs and their descendants in the country.

Reaching Success

Arabs now are in all walks of political, economic and social life in Brazil. Many, truly many, are in prominent positions. One example is the largest city in South America, São Paulo, whose mayor, Gilberto Kassab, is of Lebanese origin.

The same may be said about the current Brazilian minister of Education, Fernando Haddad, the personal physician of president Lula, cardiologist Roberto Kalil Filho, and the most famous wedding organizer in Brazil, businesswoman Vera Simão, all whose roots are in Lebanon.

Whatever the area of operation, the characteristic that brings them together is the entrepreneurial talent and respect for values like ethics and respect to others, above all other objectives. Together, every day they write a story of work and, mainly, of pride for their origins.

“In my veins flow safihas and kibbehs,” guarantees Roberto Kalil Filho, president Lula’s doctor and the director of the Cardiology Center at the Syrian Lebanese Hospital. Such passion for his roots causes the cardiologist, to date, to follow a lesson he was taught by his mother: “Always hold your head up high to face problems with dignity and succeed in life.”

Apart from Kalil, other prominent Brazilian doctors of Arab origin are Adib Jatene, the most famous Brazilian cardiology surgeon, and Riad Younes, a specialist in lung cancer who got here at the age of 16, escaping the civil war in Lebanon. And he helped generate international projection for the São Paulo Cancer Hospital.

Also from Lebanon came the relatives of Education minister Fernando Haddad. “My father came to Brazil in 1947. He was the last one to come to Brazil to meet his family,” said Haddad.

Apart from that, public men like the president of the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp), Paulo Skaf, are proud to speak about their Arab origins. Ahead of the main union of industries in the state that answers to 33.9% of the GDP of Brazil, Skaf explains that his talent for business comes from the crib.

“The Arab tradition and the talent for trade is part of my roots. I started working at a very young age, assisting at shops during Christmas,” he said. “My first important sale was at the age of 14, when I got a good commission for the sale of some real estate on Paulista Avenue. To my father and me, the sensation was one of fulfillment, and he showed the check I got as commission to his friends, very proud,” he recalls.

Another successful businessman, the Marketing and Expansion director at Ri Happy Brinquedos, a chain with 94 units in 17 states in the country, Ricardo Sayon is also proud of being of Arab descent.

“The first immigrants were heroes,” said Sayon. “I love Arab culture. We express solidarity, emotion, passion. We are capable of fighting for one cent and then paying a thousand times more just to help a friend, for the pleasure of it,” he explained.

What remained of this personal and professional heritage for the owner of Ri Happy? Two important lessons learnt from his father and closely followed to date. “He says that principles and relations are above business and that all definite decisions must be postponed to the next day, so there is time to ponder and act calmly,” he said.

It is values like this that businesswoman Vera Simão refers to when she talks about her Arab origin (her father was Lebanese and her grandparents on her mother’s side were also from that country). “At home, I learnt the importance of ethics, correctness, respect for people and sincerity in business,” she said.

Responsible for establishing the first wedding sector fair in the country, Casar, in 2002, Vera has been working in the event area for 30 years. And she feels she is part of a victorious story, which began with the arrival of the first immigrants and is celebrated today in the National Day of the Arab Community. “I feel as if I had lived many lives, all those that came before. I bring this story in my DNA,” she said.

Such a rich history serves as raw material for artists. The same who, with sensitivity and talent, made different references into art. This is the case with writer Alberto Mussa, from Rio de Janeiro, who is the author, among other works, of The Enigma of Qaf, The Pendular Movement and Elegbara, published by Record.

The author’s origins are in the pages of his books. And they greatly influenced him. “My grandfather on my father’s side, born in Lebanon, was an educated man. He had an enormous library and spoke ten languages,” he explains.

Another illustrious representative of the community, artist and professor Ferres Khoury, also brings in his productions the influences he had. “It is good being a son of Lebanese, having made contact with other cultures inserted into Brazilian culture,” says the artist, who uses Arabic calligraphy as an artistic model.

In life, Khoury says that he owes to his father the care he takes when opening his home up to friends. “He liked being well treated, establishing close ties with people,” he said, referring to a tradition that, way beyond his family, became engraved in an important page of the history of Brazil.



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