Monday, July 11, 2005

SAO PAULO, Brazil - Crowds line up every day at Habib’s for quibes, esfihas and other Middle Eastern snacks. At home, Brazilians tune in for Arnaldo Jabor’s ironic opinion pieces on the nightly TV news, and read about the latest corruption charges against former Mayor Paulo Maluf.

Arab food, Arab culture, Arab roots. The Arab influence is so deeply ingrained in this South American country that many don’t realize how pervasive it is. It just seems, well, Brazilian.

“Assimilation and integration have been so strong that sometimes it is difficult, if not impossible, to know who in this country is of Arab descent and who is not,” Sao Paulo State Gov. Geraldo Alckmin said at a recent meeting of Brazilian and Arab businessmen.

Arab communities are spread across this continent of about 365 million people.

About 10 million Arabs live in Brazil, giving it the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, said Antonio Sarkis, president of the Arab-Brazilian Chamber of Commerce.

About 7 million Arab descendants live elsewhere. Among them are four former presidents: Carlos Saul Menem of Argentina, Abdala Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador and Julio Cesar Turbay of Colombia.

Chile’s Palestinian community of about 350,000 supports a first-division soccer team called Palestino. Colombia’s 200,000-strong Arab community produced one of that country’s hottest cultural exports — the pop star Shakira.

The original Arab settlers were mostly Christian Lebanese and Syrian immigrants who began arriving in the late 19th century, fleeing the Ottoman Empire.

“Many of these immigrants came to Brazil without really wanting to,” said Helmi Nasr, head of the Arabic Studies Center at the University of Sao Paulo. “They had purchased steamship tickets to America, thinking they were heading for North America. After quickly recovering from the initial shock of discovering they had arrived in South America, they started to make the best of it.”

Many of the accomplished merchants settled in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, and earned a living as traveling salesmen, roaming the vast country to sell textiles and clothes and open new markets.

As they prospered, relatives joined them, and “with their help they eventually opened their own textile and clothing shops and factories,” Mr. Nasr said.

Today, many of their descendants are prominent in the arts, politics, business, communications and medicine.

Perhaps the best-known Brazilian politician of Arab descent is Mr. Maluf, a perpetual presidential hopeful who twice served as mayor of Sao Paulo and once as governor of Sao Paulo state. Mr. Maluf faces charges of embezzlement and is accused of overbilling highway and tunnel construction projects while serving as mayor between 1993 and 1996.

Ibrahim Abi-Ackel, the son of Lebanese immigrants, served as justice minister under the military regime of President Joao Figueiredo. A leading adversary was liberal Sen. Pedro Simon, also of Lebanese descent.

The Globo TV network capitalized on the strong Arab influence in its popular soap opera “The Clone,” a love story that highlights differences between Islam and the Western world.

A Globo rival, the Bandeirantes network, is owned by the Saad family, which originated in Syria. One of Brazil’s brightest literary lights is Milton Hatoum, the Lebanese-descended author of the acclaimed novel “The Tree of Seventh Heaven.”

Rio de Janeiro also boasts Arab influences. For years, the hottest carnival balls were at the popular Monte Libano and Sirio-Libanes social clubs. If you missed the party, you could catch the gossip in the social column of Ibrahim Sued, a must-read for Rio society.

Arab cuisine is wildly popular among Brazilians. Arab restaurants and fast-food outlets serve hummus, kibbeh, tahina, tabbouleh and halwa in just about every neighborhood in major cities.

But some trends are troubling.

In recent years, Lebanese Muslims have settled in the southwestern city of Foz de Iguacu, in the “Triple Border” area where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil converge in a region of loosely controlled borders that is a haven for gunrunners, smugglers and counterfeiters.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the U.S. State Department called Foz de Iguacu and its Muslim population of about 25,000 a “focal point for Islamic extremism in Latin America,” though no evidence of terrorist activities has been presented.

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