Welcome to a universe of strong men and sweet, sensual women with strong personalities. Crooks, heroes, colonels, workers, mothers, wives, girlfriends, prostitutes. A wide array of characters that became richer and more interesting with the inclusion of Arabs and their descendents in the plots written by Jorge Amado, one of the best known Brazilian writers.
And one of the most talented when it came to describing the people and landscapes of his homeland: the state of Bahia, in Northeast Brazil. The author of 32 books, Jorge Amado was the Brazilian novelist that placed immigrants from the Middle East in evidence the most, as was the case with the Syrian Nacib, owner of the Vesúvio bar in Gabriela Cravo e Canela (Gabriela Clove and Cinnamon, 1958).
“Jorge Amado gave magnitude and space to the figure of the Arab among us, portraying him as an integral part of our nationality and culture,” explains Ana Ramos, a professor at the School of Languages at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA).
“The love story between the Syrian immigrant Nacib and the mulatto woman Gabriela charmed readers all over the world,” she says.
According to the director of Fundação Casa de Jorge Amado (House of Jorge Amado Foundation), in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, Myriam Fraga, Nacib is surely the most famous Arab character created by the writer, but there are other equally important ones, such as Fadul Abdala, in Tocaia Grande (Showdown, 1984), and Fuad Maluf, in Farda, Fardão e Camisola de Dormir.
“As a measure of the author’s fondness for the Arabs, who are often mistaken by the Turkish in Brazil, according to him, we may cite the book A Descoberta da América Pelos Turcos (How the Turks Discovered America, 1994), featuring unforgettable characters such as Adma, Raduan Murad and Jamil Bechara,” she claims.
According to Myriam, the writer’s novels have been translated to 49 languages and sold in 55 countries. The foundation’s collection includes Arabic copies of Capitães da Areia (Captains of the Sand, 1937), São Jorge dos Ilhéus (1944), Gabriela Cravo e Canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, 1958), Seara Vermelha (1946), Dona Flor e seus Dois Maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, 1966), Farda, Fardão e Camisola de Dormir (Pen, Sword and Camisole, 1979), O Cavaleiro da Esperança (The Knight of Hope, 1942), Tenda dos Milagres (Tent of Miracles, 1969), Tereza Batista Cansada de Guerra (Tereza Batista: Home from the Wars, 1972), Terras do Sem Fim (The Violent Land, 1943), and Velhos Marinheiros (Home is the Sailor, 1961).
The number of works translated into Arabic would not be so high, had Amado not been so close with the community. And where does such affinity come from? “It stems from friendship ties between the author’s family members and families of Middle Eastern immigrants that settled in Bahia, such as the Nazals, the Adamis, the Medauars and the Soubs’, for instance,” says Ana.
“It is also worth highlighting the description that he makes of the contacts he had since childhood with representatives of the Arab people, through the figure of street vendors, who used to bring dreams and “civilization” to the cocoa farms, explains the professor.
It was due to cocoa, by the way, that this group ended up in Bahia, a state that alongside São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul and Pará received the most immigrants, who started arriving in Brazil in the late 19th century.
“The height of the cocoa-based economy boosted trade in the southern region of Bahia, which in turn attracted the Arabs,” explains History professor Augusto Spínola. “Now, even in Feira de Santana, in the northeast of the state, there are records of families of Arab origin,” he claims.
To the History professor and coordinator of the Center of Documentation and Regional Memory at the State University of Santa Cruz (Uesc), in Ilhéus, André Luiz Rosa Ribeira, the Arabs who settled in Bahia used to work mainly in trade, but some owned land, and others still had strong participations in local politics.
Economic activities aside, according to him, the main legacy of Arab presence in the state was cuisine. “You can eat a kibbeh in any bar in the city of Ilhéus, the most famous being that of Bar Vesúvio, which appears in Gabriela and actually existed, and still does until this day in the city,” he explains. “Those immigrants adapted themselves to local culture very fast,” says André.
It is precisely this integration that the writer’s literature reflects. “Characters such as Nacib and Fadul Abdala, another character filled with humor and joy, represent two values that constitute the Brazilian nation, in the author’s opinion: labor and solidarity,” says Ana.
“To the author, the sentiment of national identity is formed through diversity,” she explains. The same diversity that enabled Bahia and Jorge Amado to welcome the Arabs with open arms.