« Program: Lebanon 2: Diasporas

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Robert Moser: The Lebanese Diaspora in Brazil

Robert Moser is an Associate Professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies at the University of Georgia. In recent years, he has teamed up with UCLA ethnomusicologist A.J. Racy in a study of the cultural legacy of the Lebanese diaspora in Brazil. The two scholars traveled there together, and both have contributed insights and music to Afropop’s program on the Lebanese diaspora. Here’s Banning Eyre’s conversation with Professor Moser.

B.E.: Let’s start at the beginning, Robert. Tell us a little about your work. 

R.M.: My work deals with Portuguese, Brazilian and Lusophone African literature in general, but I’ve had an interest over the years in looking at immigrant populations, Lusophone—that is, Portuguese-speaking—immigrants that have come to the United States and worked and lived and written various pieces of literature here, as well as immigrant groups in places like Brazil, for example.

Robert Moser

Robert Moser

One of my recent projects was an anthology of Portuguese-speaking immigrant groups here in the United States—Brazilian, Cape Verdean, Portuguese immigrants that have written short stories, essays, novels, letters, various things, here in the United States. Another project was the work I did in 2009 looking at the cultural production of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants in Brazil. This is work that I did with Professor A. J. Racy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

B.E.: And that’s our principle topic today. Why don’t you give us a picture of Lebanese Sao Paulo? Take us there with some visual details and tell us about some of the key sites where you would feel that presence.

R.M.: Okay. Well, you could say that there is a subtle but palpable presence of Lebanese culture in Brazil. If you pay attention and you look for the details, some of the manifestations of Lebanese culture that you might notice range from politics to the food you eat in a corner luncheonette in just about any city in Brazil. It is very common to walk into one of these corner restaurants and order a kibbe or a sfiha, one of these meat pies. They very frequently serve steak sandwiches called beirutes, as in “from Beirut.” One of the most popular fast food chains, Habib, sells Arab food and you can get your hummus and kibbe there. This is one of the largest fast food chains in Brazil, in fact.

Habibs3 copy

If you were to go into some of the cities where the Lebanese population is greater, for example Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, you can find entire blocks of textile and clothing stores that have been run by generations of Lebanese families selling their wares. Then you might turn a corner and come across bakeries and restaurants selling very traditional Lebanese food. There is the Casas Pedro Bakery in downtown Rio. And nearby, there is a hundred-year-old tobacco shop called the Cedar of Lebanon. If you go into the Paraiso district—the Paradise district—of Sao Paulo, there is a Malachite Greek Catholic church that has a distinctly Near-Eastern feel.

Then at the more institutional level, you have social clubs that are very important to the Lebanese and Syrian communities. For example, there is the Syrio-Lebanese Athletic Club in Sao Paulo, and this is a place where people come and meet and eat Middle Eastern food and socialize. One of the most popular and established hospitals in Brazil is the Hospital Sirio Libanes in Sao Paulo. So, really there is a wide range of these cultural manifestations.

ArabFood2B.E.: Wow, that’s interesting. You mentioned politics too. What did you mean by that? 

R.M.: Well, the Lebanese and the Syrians eventually, as they became more and more prominent in Brazilian society, began to take prominent positions within Brazilian politics. An example would be Paulo Maluf who was the governor of Sao Paulo for quite a few years, and the mayor of the city of Sao Paulo. He was also a presidential candidate. So both within business and politics, the Lebanese community as become extremely active and well-known.

B.E.: What can you tell us about how and why this small country of Lebanon has dispersed so many influential people all over the world? It is an unusual situation where the diaspora population is far greater than the four and a half-million people who actually live in Lebanon today. How did this come about?

R.M.: Well, at the end of the 19th century, both Syrians and Lebanese were inclined to leave their homeland, mainly because they were living in a rather oppressive situation under the Ottoman Empire. They were also seeking economic opportunities abroad, and the Americas represented a real place of opportunity for them and so large numbers left for the Americas. You certainly see that in the United States with the large populations that settled in New York City and other locations. In the Americas, you had quite a dramatic number that eventually made their way to Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, a number of countries throughout the region. Interestingly, some of these immigrants who thought that they were going to North America realized as the ship that they were on pulled into port that they, in fact, were in South America. So that came as quite a surprise to many of them.

Ottoman1885

Of course, they arrived in Brazil with a Turkish passport and Brazilians understood these new people arriving on their shores to be Turcos, or Turkish. It wasn’t until later that the finer distinctions between Lebanese and Syrians became better known. My understanding today is that the largest Lebanese population outside of Lebanon is in Brazil, and significantly so; at least 7 million. Some estimate up to 13 million people of Lebanese descent living in Brazil. The second largest number would be the Lebanese population in the United States. So, those are some of the broad trends, and this was happening at the end of the 19th century and then over the first two or three decades of the 20th century.

B.E.: That’s amazing that some of these immigrants didn’t really know where they were headed. 

R.M.: Well, I think that they knew they were getting a passage to the Americas. But perhaps the distinction between north and south was not fully realized.

B.E.: The joys of travel—especially in those days, right?  But you’ve mentioned to me that there was a particular reason that so many went to Brazil. It has to do with a certain emperor, Don Pedro Segundo.  Tell us about him.

FlagsR.M.: Yes, the emperor of Brazil throughout a good portion of the 19th century was Dom Pedro the Second. He was a constitutional monarch, very enlightened, very interested in the Sciences and the Humanities and international cultures. He visited the United States several times and he visited the Middle East twice; once in 1871 and then in 1876. And the story is that he was very interested in delving into the culture there and speaking to the common man. He came with a large delegation, but there are several instances where he apparently broke away from his group of visitors and would mingle with some of the common people, in fact encouraging them to visit Brazil and perhaps to even make a life there. Of course, this was a time when Brazil was beginning to industrialize and to expand its skilled workforce, and they saw the Europeans, and even people coming from Asia and the Middle East, as an opportunity to do that. Apparently, Don Pedro Segundo was given a throne of cedar wood as a gift while he was there and then he brought this back to Brazil. You can see this throne in his palace that still exists in the city of Petropolis outside of Rio de Janeiro. And, sure enough, within four to five years, some of the first Lebanese immigrants began to arrive in Brazil.

B.E.: Who would those immigrants have been? What kind of people? What do we know about their professional and religious backgrounds of the first people who took that bold journey? 

PortBeirut1903

Port of Beirut, 1903

R.M.: Some were certainly farmers; others were Syrian and Lebanese looking for greater economic opportunity. But there also is reason to believe that many of the earliest immigrants were intellectual exiles who were fleeing from Ottoman oppression, and some of these had already benefited from formal education at the American University of Beirut, for example. Or they had studied at Protestant missionary schools. For the most part, you had a large number of Christians who were settling in Brazil. There were certainly some Muslims. But the larger group of immigrants were Roman Catholic, Malachite, and some Protestants. So it was really the Eastern Orthodox churches that constituted the religious background of most of these immigrants.

B.E.: You mentioned the American University of Beirut. So it already existed. How far back does that go? 

R.M.: The University was founded in the mid-19th century. It was originally called the Syrian Protestant College. But coming back to the immigrants, you really had a couple of different waves of groups coming over. Again, the first group consisted in large part of these intellectuals who were seeking greater freedom. They saw that the distance and autonomy they could experience in a place like Brazil would give them an opportunity to express themselves and to pursue literary and academic activities that they were not able to pursue back in their homeland. And so you had a very interesting flourishing of literary activity in Brazil around the turn of the century.

Photos at the Lebanese Emigration Research Center

Photos at the Lebanese Emigration Research Center

Really, over the first three decades of the 20th century, there was just a plethora of Lebanese newspapers and literary journals, periodicals that were emerging in the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio, and some historians have suggested that as many as 400 of these different literary outlets were produced at this time. That number probably surpassed the full number of literary journals that had been published in all the Arab countries up to that point.

So several literary movements began sprouting up in the diapora. In New York City, you had the Pen League with the leadership of Khalil Gibran, but in Brazil you also had a prolific literary group called the Andalusian League. This was founded in the early 1920s and included some very important Lebanese poets such as Michael Maalouf and Shafiq Maalouf, and it became a very important platform for, not only literary production, poetry, short stories, etcetera, but also research and scientific activity, and it was also a vehicle for political expression. This was a time when there was the beginning of a movement seeking political independence for the Arab states in the Middle East, and these voices in Brazil became some of the leading proponents of Arab independence and a new-found Arab identity.

Khalil Gibran

Khalil Gibran

B.E.: That’s interesting. Somehow, through the experience of being away and of re-establishing a semblance of their Middle Eastern culture in Brazil, these people were able to become leaders in movements back home—movements that would soon bring about Arab independence. Do you think there was something about that experience of having to rebuild their identity in another place that heightened their sense of mission in that way? 

R.M.: I think so. Take, for example, the Andalusian League. The term “Andalusia” represented this golden era of cultural renaissance for Arab intellectuals. It evoked a time during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to the 15th century, and this was, of course, a time of great resurgence in science and in the arts, and what was perceived to be a social and religious toleration between Muslims, Jews and Christians on the Iberian Peninsula, and so I think what you saw in Brazil in the 1920s and 30s was a group of Arab intellectuals who were inspired by this notion, and, in the face of increasing religious conservatism back home, they saw themselves in a position where they could promote these ideas of a more secular or modern society.

They were producing a kind of literature where there was more freedom of expression, and what is very interesting, I think, is that they were doing this in the midst of a people in Brazil who they could argue had the same origins—or at least similar origin—in that the Brazilian population was stemming, at least in part, from Portugal.  And Portugal had been occupied by the Moors for almost five hundred years. So there was this notion that we share similar roots and we share a similar experience, and so it really was a dialogue between Brazilians who felt this affinity towards Arab culture and towards the Lebanese and Syrians, and vice versa.

Al Andaluz Project

B.E.: You know, we began this whole Hip Deep series, which we’re now in the tenth year of, with a three-part program set on the musical legacy of Al- Andalus. That was an encounter between Arab people, who had come through North Africa and were far from home, with Hispanic people in Europe. The encounter ended badly, as we know, and so here, hundreds of years later, we find a different group of Arab people coming from the Mediterranean to yet another dominantly Iberian culture, and trying to recreate some of that lost past. It’s so powerful to think that they would conceptualize their experience in that way. 

R.M.: Yes. I think there’s been this long-held notion within Brazilian mainstream society, as well as in academia and the social sciences, that racial politics in Brazil are different—that there’s been this racial democracy that has been prevalent in Brazilian society, certainly in modern times, but also as far back as colonial times. And a cornerstone of this argument stems from the notion that the Portuguese were inherently different colonizers than some of the other European colonizers—the English, the French, even the Spanish—that they were more malleable, more tolerant, in their interactions with tropical cultures. The argument stems primarily from this coexistence of North Africans in the Iberian Peninsula with Portuguese and Spanish Christians and Jews.

So the Arabs come to represent this kind of missing link in the mythical history of

Siro Libonais Hospital, Sao Paulo

Siro Libanes Hospital, Sao Paulo

Brazilian identity. Of course, the three areas that Brazilians have long identified with are the Portuguese, the African, and the indigenous. And one of the cornerstones of what makes Brazilian racial identity different is this notion of being racially more malleable, more tolerant. The contention is that in Brazil, a racial democracy has pervaded, and social scientists have pointed to the notion of Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula and this five hundred year coexistence of North Africans and Christian Portuguese as a time in which the Portuguese became accustomed to living with people of different religious backgrounds, and darker skin. The idea is that the Brazilians have inherited this trait of being able to adapt more easily to cultures within the tropics, and so it has been argued that this Arab influence over the course of five hundred years, has tremendously influenced the Brazilian sense of identity.

B.E.: OK, let’s talk about some of the creative figures in this Arab-Brazilian milieu. Tell us about Sérgio Ricardo. 

R.M.: Sérgio Ricardo was actually born João Lutfi in 1932. His parents were both Syrian immigrants. We talked a little bit about how the Syrians and the Lebanese were coming over together and, in early times at least, were not always distinguished. But his parents moved to the interior of Sao Paulo, and he became one of the leading voices of bossa nova and the Brazilian genre of MPB, or the Popular Brazilian Music. This was during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Sérgio Ricardo was multi-talented. He composed music; he was a filmmaker; he worked on several important films during the 1960s as part of the Cinema Novo movement, or the New Cinema movement. I can give one example; he wrote the soundtrack to Glauber Rocha’s Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, or Black God, White Devil, as well as another film by Glauber Rocha, Terra em Transe.

SergioRicardoLP

I think that you can tell from his creative works that he is uniquely interested in his Arab background. He was invited by the Syrian government in 1964 to make a film in his father’s village, and this was in Saidnaya, and so he went to Syria and he shot this film. It was entitled O Pássaro da Aldeia, or The Bird of the Village. It was loosely based upon the figure of his father who had lived in the village, came from pretty humble background, and then emigrated to Brazil. So in the story, the lead character is this father figure who wants to leave Syria to finally go to Brazil. Sérgio Ricardo had to leave before seeing the final showing of it. It was distributed but he never got to see a copy of it, and when A. J. Racy and I had a chance to interview him in 2009, he was very eager to find this film. I think the prospects of finding it now in Syria are becoming slimmer, unfortunately. But that would be an amazing opportunity.

Sérgio Ricardo also wrote a memoir entitled Quem Quebrou meu Violão (Who Broke My Guitar). He opens by recounting the importance of Middle Eastern music in his upbringing. He talks about how his mother would sing and his father would play the oud, and they would invite others from the same village to come and join them in these celebrations, including Afro-Brazilians and Japanese immigrants who are also living in the interior of Sao Paulo.

SergioRicardo1

Sergio Ricardo

He recounts one particular moment where he found his father in the backyard building a bonfire to burn the oud that his father had played for years and years. This was his beloved instrument, and what Sérgio understood was that his father was associating the news that he had just received that his own father had died, or Sergio’s grandfather, with the instrument. Sergio’s father began to believe that whenever he played the oud, something bad would happen, and so he took it upon himself to destroy the instrument, which is a very powerful image if you think about it—a father burning his own past. The music becomes kind of the soundtrack of his own longing for his homeland.

B.E.: That is powerful, even cinematic. You mentioned that the Lebanese-Syrian population in Brazil is all over the country. But I would like you to take us up to the northeast, and talk about that one particular piece by Sérgio Ricardo. The music of the Brazilian northeast is of special interest to many of our listeners, you know. So tell us a bit about how this region fits into this story. 

R.M.: Well, of course, there is a wealth of cultural production in the Brazilian northeast. It has a very rich musical history with the sertanejo tradition and the forró tradition. You see examples throughout Brazilian literature and Brazilian cinema of looking at the northeast as in many ways the heart of the country. If Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have experienced influences from outside of Brazil, it is within in the Sertão, the interior of the Brazilian northeast that you get, at least from this sort of Brazilian cultural imagination, really the kernel, the essence of Brazilian identity that traces as far back as colonial times, in films like Central Station, and works by Euclides da Cunha. They promote this idea.

As for the intersection between Arab culture and the Brazilian northeast, I think that there have probably not been enough studies done about this to say much with any certainty. SergioRicard_BoxWhen you talk to ethnomusicologists down in Brazil, for example, or you talk to people that are interested in tracing parallels between Middle Eastern music and Brazilian northeastern music, you hear some suggestions about how that influence might have happened. We talked about the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula over 500 years. Some have pointed to northeastern musical genres such as the baião as having a direct link to Middle Eastern musical traditions. But that connection could be very distant.

It could stem back to the 19th century when, for example, African slaves were brought to Brazil from North African, with Muslim backgrounds. They were bringing some of their musical traditions, and these were eventually taking hold in places like Bahia and other regions of the Brazilian northeast. We have to remember also that over the course of the 18th, 19th, and even 20th century, this is the region in Brazil that is less influenced by modernizing trends, and so you have this preservation of certain cultural phenomena that stem back to colonial times. So, when you talk to musicians that are interested in Middle Eastern music down in Brazil it is not uncommon for them to show the parallels between Middle Eastern percussion and some of the percussion, for example, that is used in Brazilian northeastern genres.

B.E.: Do you have any specifics on that, on the similarities of percussion in that region? 

R.M.: Well, I probably have to defer to A.J. on that one.

B.E.: O.k. I’ll follow up on that with him. Tell me about Sérgio Ricardo’s song “Antonio das Mortes.” Is that from a film? 

R.M.: Yes, it is.  It’s from the film I mentioned, Black God, White Devil. Sergio Ricardo sings about the protagonist of the movie. I think what Sergio Ricardo was trying to do—and he said as much when A.J. Racy and I spoke to him in Rio de Janeiro back in 2009—was this. He didn’t consciously try to evoke Middle Eastern music when he wrote the song. But what he did say is that, retrospectively, even unconsciously, the influence of Middle Eastern lament songs using some of the Arabic microtones filtered through in the way that he imitated patterns of traditional northeastern singing.

B.E.: What does title, “Antonio das Mortes,” refer to?

R.M.: “Antonio das Mortes” can be translated as Anthony of the Deaths, which is a somewhat awkward translation, but Antonio das Mortes is the hired assassin, basically, or jagunço, who is hired to bring down the bandit who is one of the central figures in the film.

B.E.: Aha! It sounds like some kind of morality play. What, at sort of a high level, is the film about?

R.M.: Well, this is during the 1960s when the Cinema Novo movement in Brazil is trying to represent a real stark, stripped-down version of social ills in Brazil. So there is a strong social commentary against the inequalities that exist in Brazil, and Glauber Rocha was famous for his aesthetics of hunger, and this film is a good example of that where rather than trying to produce an aesthetic that is pleasing for audiences and that shows kind of the glittery, wealthy side of Rio de Janeiro, he deliberately chose this social milieu in the dry, barren, poor outback of the northeast of the Sertão, and then kind of lets this morality play unfold.

Father1B.E.: Good. And what can you tell us about another film, one that deals more directly with the Lebanese immigrant experience in northeast Brazil, “To the Left of the Father”?

R.M.: Well, let me start by talking a little bit about the novel that the film is based on. The novel Lavoura Arcaica by Raduan Nassar is one of the most important novels to be written by a Brazilian writer of Lebanese descent. Raduan Nassar was born in 1935. He was the son of Lebanese immigrants. This novel deals with a young man’s rupture with his Lebanese immigrant family in the interior of Sao Paolo. It shows, in a broad sense, this collision between patriarchal authority and the subversion that the son is pursuing and it was written at a time in the 1970s when, of course, Brazil is under the throes of a military dictatorship. So it demonstrates, I think in a very interesting way, Raduan Nassar trying to deal with the oppressive climate that Brazilian society had found itself in since 1964 when the military dictatorship took over, until the mid-1980s. What’s interesting is you have moments during the film when Lebanese folk music emerges at pivotal times in the narrative.

There is a particular scene where the narrator describes the music that his sister—who is also the object of his affection, his desire, so there is an incestuous suggestion here—is dancing to. In the scene, she dances to what is quite clearly the mijwiz—that’s a double-reeded flute that is played with circular breathing and that is used in very festive occasions for weddings and other important celebrations.  In this scene, the mijwiz is accompanying a folkloric line dance that the people in the village are dancing to, called the dabke. It’s a very strong moment in the novel as it is in the film adaptation. The novel was adapted to film in 2001 under the direction of Luiz Fernando Carvalho.

B.E.: I have watched that scene on YouTube, and what you see you definitely can feel the Middle Eastern and the Brazilian musical cultures kind of rubbing up against each other, and I guess that’s sort of symbolic of the action in the film as well, right?

R.M.: Well, the scene unfolds in a rural area. You see family members and guests arrivingFather_dance in kind of a forested glen. People bring instruments with them. There is food being cooked. There is a lot of clapping and then eventually the dabke line forms. And it is interesting; there is a collective feel to it. You have people clasping arms and dancing all together and then there is a distinct moment when the sister breaks away from that and begins to dance on her own. Her movements are being accompanied by these instruments, and particularly the mijwiz, which is this very passionate instrument, almost hyperbolic in a way. And she begins to transgress, I guess you could say, the expected way that you would dance the dabke, and while she is doing that, we have scenes of her brother who is witnessing. He is not participating in the celebrations, but he is paying particular attention to his sister, and you get close-up shots of his feet, for example, moving through the leaves. Clearly the sight of her performing this very seductive dance in this very suggestive way is tempting him, leaving him very uncomfortable and this becomes the beginning of this chasm that forms within the family where he has these feelings but he is unable to act upon them. So it becomes a symbolic moment within the film. Music plays a very important role in that.

B.E.: That brings to mind another kind of seductive dancing: belly dancing, which I gather is big in Brazil. This cultural encounter that we’re dealing with in looking at Lebanon and Brazil brings up very different ideas of social and sexual morality. The culture that the Lebanese and Syrian people are coming from back home is far more reserved, more codified about relationships between the sexes and with a lot of restriction and a lot of attention to sort of controlling things that might inspire sexual desire. Conversely, Brazilian culture seems almost 100% the opposite. It is more open, free-wheeling, and overtly sexual—almost Libertine. Is that something you’ve sort of looked at in your work? 

R.M.: Well, I don’t know that that’s something I’ve looked at directly. What comes to mind is the popular Brazilian telenovela The Clone. There, you have a situation where a young Brazilian girl, of Moroccan ethnicity, grows up in Brazil, but moves with her family back to Morocco, and there she is really forced to adjust to different cultural and religious norms and religious expectations and, as you said, expectations that are much more conservative. And so she is involved in this bicultural negotiation where she knows she’s different and she has to adapt to a new milieu. A lot of the tension that plays out in this Brazilian telenovela stems from this negotiation that has to take place.

Clone1_edit

I can’t say that I’ve actually followed this telenovela. I know that it started in October of 2001 and went through the middle of June of 2002. As many as 220 episodes were released initially, and I think an additional 15 or 20 were made for export. The show has been seen in Mexico and in the United States, and various other places. You know, it’s interesting. There have been other Brazilian telenovelas in which the setting was deliberately chosen to be a place that is perceived to be exotic. There is another one set in India, for example. But in The Clone, you have this back and forth movement between Morocco and Brazil, and some family members move to Morocco and then some return to Brazil. Aside from the cultural negotiation that has to take place and this Brazilian girl having to adapt to a more conservative religious environment, you also have this element of science fiction that is introduced where one family member dies but then they take some of his genes and they are able to use that in order to impregnate a woman using his genes, and so the idea is that they are creating this clone.

How that fits into Arab culture, I don’t know. I think this was just a kind of plot twist, but it was a highly successful one and, I think at least from the point of view of our discussion, what’s interesting about it is the way in which this would resonate with Brazilians. I don’t think that Brazilians think every day about their Arab identity unless they are of Lebanese or Syrian background, but I do think that–perhaps in a way that North Americans are not accustomed to thinking—Brazilians are accustomed to this constant, subtle, but very palpable sense of Middle Eastern culture being interwoven into Brazilian society, whether it’s through the food, this Brazilian television show, or through nightclubs in Sao Paulo or Rio in which there is Middle Eastern music played and belly dancers. You find numerous belly dancing festivals and workshops in various cities in Brazil. I think on an unconscious level Brazilians see this as not something necessarily foreign but something that echoes back into their own past.

B.E.: That’s a very good statement. Let’s touch on Portuguese fado. You mentioned that it has Arabesque elements. Take us through that narrative a bit and tell us a little bit about that connection. 

Mariza_in_white_400R.M.: Well, there are different theories about the origins of fado. Most of them point to a musical genre that really took root in the first part of the 19th century in Lisbon amongst lower class Portuguese. But then there others who suggest that fado’s roots can be traced back much farther to medieval times, the cantigas de amigo or the cantigas de amor, which was the tradition of Galician and Portuguese courtly poetry. I’ve also heard that people have developed parallels between the Moorish presence in Andalusia and through the Iberian Peninsula and how that might have influenced the fado. I am not familiar with research that shows that parallel in a definitive way, but one at least hears the minor keys and the kind of songs of longing and lament that you also find in the Middle Eastern tradition. If you take, for example, Amália Rodrigues who is considered to be the diva of fado, or a more contemporary artist like Mariza, you certainly get a sense of that.

B.E.: Yes. The nostalgia; the theme of nostalgia is obviously a strong point of connection. Is there anything else maybe about the vocal style or something like that? It’s kind of an abstract connection. It’s not like you could point to really precise musical things and say: “Ah, this is an Arabesque element.”

R.M.: Well, some people do see Arabesque elements in fado, although more research has to be done about that in order to say more.

B.E.: Ok.  You mentioned a poem by the immigrant poet Chukri al-Khouri. 

R.M.: Well, remember, the 1920s and 1930s saw this real flourishing of poetry being written by writers of Arab descent in Brazil. And this also coincides with the Brazilian modernist movement. It so happens that both of these movements are centered in Sao Paulo. So most of the leading Brazilian modernists, such as Oswald de Andrade and Mário de Andrade were also living in Sao Paulo, and then you also had the group of writers who formed the Andalusian League who, around the same time. They were producing journals and scholarly work, as well as poetry during the same time. To the extent that these different groups were influencing each other, it remains to be seen. But it certainly is a real renaissance of literary production.

And I think you do have examples of crossing over. One example is the immigrant poet Chukri al-Khouri. In his poem “As Aventuras de Finianos”  he brings a mix of influences and registers and languages together. You have a verse that is written in a blend of Lebanese, Syrian, and other Arabic dialects, together with Portuguese indigenous as well as African terms. This is very consistent with one of the underlying aesthetic and even ideological trends of the Brazilian modernists, which was this notion of antropofagia, or anthropophagy—the notion that Brazilian artists, rather than just receiving passively influences from the outside, are able to take these influences and transform them, to make them their own. Hence the idea of anthropophagy or cannibalism. This notion that film makers and poets and artists were able to be influenced, to be exposed, but at the same time transform that cultural product into something that was a hybrid, a mixture of their own indigenous Brazilian identity, as well as perhaps European vanguard and other outside influences.

B.E.: That gets to the heart of things. In the moments we have left, can you give us a kind of concluding thought on what this kind of story and narrative of Diaspora that you’ve been looking into? Is there sort of larger message or concluding thought that you might have about what this tells us about the way cultures move and change in the world? 

R.M.: Well, I think it’s not unusual at all within North American society to be talking about ethnic identity and multicultural influences.  For a long time, we’ve had this notion of America as a melting pot of different cultures. I think what’s unique about the case in Brazil of the Lebanese diaspora is that this is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. The three parts of Brazilian identity are well established: European/Portuguese, African, and indigenous, coupled with the strong sense of racial democracy. Brazilians have for a long time felt that their identity is primarily a mixture of these three different roots. The other components of ethnic identity in Brazil have somehow been latent, or overshadowed by this. And it’s only been in the last 15 to 20 years that you see this renewed interest in affirming and in researching and embracing these other ethnic identities.

They’ve always existed, but it hasn’t been necessarily part of the broader discussion of national identity, and I think what you’re seeing now in all these different manifestations, whether they be the prevalence of Middle Eastern cuisine in every corner luncheonette in Brazil or in Brazilian soap operas or even in the ways–like the Assad brothers, the classically trained guitarists—are seeking to bring back their Lebanese roots. I think it shows that in Brazil, this is becoming something that is relevant, something that is important to them. And of course, there is the give and take between, not only Brazilians being influenced by the Lebanese heritage, but also Lebanese who have been exposed to Brazilian family members returning to the homeland bringing that side of their experience as well.

B.E.: Thanks so much.  I look forward to continuing this discussion with A.J. Racy. 

R.M.: Thank you.

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro