by Manuela Borraccino | Spring 2012
Buenos Aires, a view of Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, seat of the Presidency of the Republic of Argentina.
"When we were small, in the 1940s, my parents would sometimes think about returning to Beirut. But then we grew up, built our lives in Argentina and we never spoke of it again. Only in 2004 did I visit Lebanon for the first time, with other retirees. The trip was filled with emotions and discoveries.”
Mary Zogby reflected as she sipped a spiced black coffee in the receiving room of St. Maron School in Buenos Aires. Since 1901 St. Maron has been the heart of the Maronite community in Argentina, which today counts four parishes and 10,000 registered faithful. Elegant and tiny, Zogby is the ex-president of the Ladies of St. Maron and for years was a leading figure in the main Middle East community of the city.
“My age? It got lost in time.” She smiled almost crushing the question with her hand.
“It was the very stories of those who returned home that discouraged us,” she recalled. “After spending 15 years in America or Europe, it’s never easy to readapt to the Middle Eastern mentality, to its limits, to its rhythms. Youngsters as well as the elderly felt uncomfortable. They ended up returning to Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the countries with the largest communities.”
Summer is in bloom in Buenos Aires. The school has not yet opened its doors to its 325 students from three to 18-years old. The four members of the Congregation of the Lebanese Maronite Missionaries have half-opened the blinds of the building in the center of the capital and receive guests in semi-darkness, to protect against the dog days.
“The first migratory wave of Syro-Lebanese – the overwhelming majority were Christians – arrived in Buenos Aires starting in the 1870s after the slaughters perpetrated by the Druze in 1860,” recounted Father Pablo A. Nassif, 75. He is originally from Tyre and has lived the past 40 years in Buenos Aires.
In 1860, the ethnic tensions never alleviated under the Ottoman Empire, led to the massacre of 6,000 Christians in southern Lebanon and of thousands more in Damascus. In these same years flotillas of Russian Jews and steamboats of Italians from Piedmont and Sicily embarked from the ports of Odessa and Genoa heading for the endless prairies of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
Today, the 40 million Argentines represent about 95 nationalities. The top three are Spaniards, Italians and Arabs. The Jewish community, with 230,000 members, is one of the largest of the diaspora in the world. The descendants of Lebanese are estimated at more than a million.
“The better educated Lebanese went to Sao Paulo where they founded banks and newspapers,” recalled Father Pablo “The poorer ones continued to Buenos Aires, where the first group arrived in 1872. But in the city, everything was in the hands of the Spaniards and Italians, so our people retreated to Corrientes. Accompanying them was Father Pablo Kassif, an agronomist, who in a short time organized an agricultural colony of the first order.”
That was just the first of the migratory cycles. Others included 1905-07, 1918, 1927 and 1940.
“Yesterday as today, the main causes were regional instability, poverty and the fear of persecution.” he explained. “In that era there was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the world war and finally the destabilization provoked by the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. It is estimated that in 1975, when the civil war started, the Lebanese in the rest of the world were four times those in the country.”
Today, although not having the same visibility of the Brazilian community, Lebanese constitute a relevant group even if the majority, already in the fifth generation, continues to have an ever more feeble tie with the mother country. In Brazil, citizens of Lebanese origin number about seven million, represented by, among others, the current vice president, Michel Elias Temer, the first Maronite to hold this office.
“Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the pioneers don’t speak Arab. ‘Yes and no’ when asked if they know some recipes from Lebanese cuisine. They consider themselves Latin Catholics and few know the differences with the Maronite rite,” explained Father Philippe El Khazen, 55, whose hometown is Juenin north of Beirut. Six months ago he became the new director of the St. Maron School.
“I’m totally integrated into the country,” he affirmed. “And clearly the objective no longer is to encourage returning to Lebanon but, at best, to not let them lose the ties to their faith and homeland. The difficulty is, above all, to identify the Maronites, involve them in the activities of our mission and restore their sense of belonging to the community, given that maybe 300 families out of thousands frequent the cathedral. In a metropolis of 12 million inhabitants it is inevitable that the majority goes to Mass in the local parish rather than come downtown. What we are trying to do, along with the embassy, is to reconstruct family histories with the help of a colleague in Brazil, a major expert on family genealogies. We want to reconstruct the movements of the past decades because many Argentine Lebanese have lost contact with uncles and cousins. They don’t know they have relatives in Chile or Brazil.”
For several years, organizing trips to Lebanon has been another activity. “For many of the third and fourth generations this turns out to be the first opportunity to visit their own land and get to know their relatives. And then, we also seek to publicize through social networks our cultural meetings organized in the cathedral,” said Father Philippe, turning around toward the school patio and looking at the wall of the church dedicated to the founder of the Maronite Church.
The cathedral was built with tons of stones coming from Lebanon at the cost of $1.5 million raised by the faithful. It was inaugurated in 2001, the 100th anniversary of the mission, a few months before Argentina’s default on its foreign debt.
The expectations of the diaspora faithful was one of the themes of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.
“Permit me to correct you. We never use the word ‘diaspora’ which belongs to Jewish culture. Instead, we rather speak of Lebanese extension in the world,” affirmed Bishop Charbel Merhi, 74.
For 20 years he has been bishop of the Maronite Eparchy of Buenos Aires. At the synod, someone proposed that the jurisdiction of patriarchs no longer be limited to eastern territories but be extended to anywhere there are migrant faithful.
“I think that if the Vatican has not followed up on this request, it has good and well-founded reasons,” retorted the bishop. “I personally think that having a patriarch who comes and goes in countries where our faithful are a minority could create conflicts with the local clergy, with whom we enjoy great collaboration. And then, I don’t see the need. We lead a minority which is already totally integrated into society. The challenge is that of keeping alive our traditions.”
The dilemma remains: How to transmit Middle Eastern cultural and religious identity in a distant geographic and historical context? This is a problem especially felt by the oldest generation.
“Do I speak Arabic? I understand it a little, I admit. And I’ve been in Lebanon a couple of times, not more. But in contrast to the majority of Argentine Lebanese, who are rich and ignorant, I retain the faith of my parents, and much to my regret this is not the case with young people,” remarked Antonio Maron Haddad, 74, son of a Syro-Lebanese couple who arrived in Argentina in the 1920s.
He is a notary public. His flashy shirt unbuttoned down to his belly, is only one of the vices of this charismatic jurist, considered a bigwig by the Maronite community. Tony Haddad is a professor emeritus of the philosophy of law at the University of Buenos Aires and for years the treasurer of the powerful Buenos Aires Association of Notary Publics. He is among the biggest benefactors and severest critics of his community.
“I constantly repeat to everyone: A body which doesn’t move atrophies, thus there is a need for more movement, to organize many more meetings with original Lebanese because already we all consider ourselves Argentines. The roots die. The branches dry out and only the fruit remains which sooner or later rots,” he affirmed, swaying in an armchair in his office lined with diplomas, awards and plaques for good citizenship.
Meetings with representatives of other communities of Arab origin confirm how common it is to all immigrant groups to fight against forgetting, to try to identify the descendants of immigrants, to make them exit from invisibility, to participate and to return to weaving the threads of memory. Let’s start with the sparse Palestinian community with maybe 400 families dispersed in the capital and the provinces. The biggest community of Arab Christians in Latin America, meanwhile, lives in Chile with about 400,000 Palestinians.
“The challenge is to locate the Palestinians and let them know we exist. The question which spurs us today is how to unite to make more visible the national Palestinian cause,” explained Tilda Rabi, 59, actress and social worker. Rabi, born of a Chilean mother and Palestinian father from Beit Jalla, is president of the Federation of Palestinian Organizations of Argentina.
She first began with leafleting and then with street theater made possible only in 1984, after the end of the military dictatorship started by Jorge Rafael Videla. With a group of volunteer actors she traveled to plazas, neighborhood music halls and parish centers to put on a musical dramatization of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, called “Song of Love and Liberty.”
“To our great surprise, because of this, people approached us and, with great circumspection, told us, ‘I am also a Palestinian’.”
Today, the federation has dozens of active members and a few hundred sympathizers. In a country which experienced one of the cruelest dictatorships in South America – with 30,000 people still missing having been swallowed up by a regime because they were dissidents or suspected dissidents – it is not by accident that there is a bonding between the struggle for justice and the Palestinian cause.
Every Sunday at 8 p.m. on the radio of the Association of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Tilda Rabi conducts a program called “Breaking Down Walls” in which several guests comment on the week’s news from the Middle East. It is a way to make those who have remained in Gaza and the West Bank feel less alone. But it is also to an effort to gather together those Palestinians in Latin America who have turned their backs on the past and spur them to keep their eyes open regarding the fate of their compatriots.