Why Latin America is on my bucket list

Darah Ghanem | United Arab Emirates | 09.06.2018

It was in my hometown of Amman that I first learned of Latin America. I was enrolled at a summer camp in the city that my mom thought would be a good distraction during the hot summer months. I was probably 9 or 10 at the time and was drawing away in an arts and crafts class when I noticed a girl sitting in front of me. She was a lean, tall, pale brunette with soft, long, dark hair. Her features and complexion weren’t foreign to me, but her demeanor was.


I don’t know how we got to talking exactly but she told me she was from Chile. Chile? I thought. ‘Where’s that?’ I asked her. She told me that Chile was a country in South America and that it was the ‘longest country in the world’. She grabbed a world map from the back of the classroom and brought it over proudly, showing  her home to me. Listening to her talk about Chile, and how she came to Amman for the summer because her father was a Jordanian, intrigued me. Why was it that I had never heard of that country before? How come no one I know goes there? These questions have been in my mind since that day and I’ve never forgotten her.


That was the first time I heard of Latin America. Luckily, I am a child of the Internet generation, which gave me access to all the information I needed to learn of the distant continent. I read everything about it from politics and history, to music and literature. I picked up Gabriel Garcia Marquez at the young age of 14 and promised myself to visit every country in the continent before the age of 30 ( I am very much on my way to fulfilling that promise). Despite all of my intrigue, what connected me most to the continent was my discovery of the unexpected connection it has to my own origins: the Middle East. Latin America and the Arab World have influenced one another for over a century, and it is that connection that brought me to the continent time and time again.


Although my initial research indicated that there was a lot of Arab influence in Latin America (and vice versa), it wasn’t until I visited Colombia for the first time that I took note of it. While on a food tour in Medellin, our host took us to a restaurant that made Arab-inspired delicacies like sambousak and grilled halloumi. He proudly told us of his Lebanese origins and how influential Arab culture was on Colombia’s national cuisine. It was then that I became adamant to collect more stories of Arab-Latino relations.


My research showed me that the first significant connection between the Arab and Latin American worlds were with the visits of Brazilian Emperor Pedro II, who spoke Arabic, and came to the Middle East twice — in 1871 and 1876 — particularly to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Turkey and Egypt. He even visited the American University of Beirut and sat among students in a lecture. Emperor Pedro II’s visit to the region began the first wave of Arab migrants to Latin America.



Arabs — particularly those from the Levant — have been immigrating to South America in droves, especially in times of instability or conflict, for the last 150 years. Although reports vary, most recent reports suggest that there are between 17 to 30 million Latinos of Arab origin in Latin America, making it the largest community of Arabs outside the Middle East. Arabs have left a huge mark on the continent with the former presidents of Argentina (1989–1999), Brazil (2016–present), Colombia (1978–1982), Ecuador (1996–1997; 1998–2000), El Salvador (2004–2009), and Honduras (98–2002) all being of Arab origin.



There has also been a lot of cultural exchange and influence between the two regions. Cuban poet Jose Marti once famously proclaimed, ‘let us be Moors!’ in a 1893 poem referring to his support of the Moroccan uprising against Spain in the late 1800s. In more recent history, the legacy of Muslim leader Salah Eldin Alayoubi seems to have been an influence on Latin American leader Che Guevara, who visited his tomb in Damascus on a trip to the region in 1959. Cuba’s capital, Havana, also has a centre dedicated to Arab culture. This does not come as a surprise to me, as many Latin American capitals also have centres, landmarks and monuments dedicated to the origins of their Arab communities.



This influence, however, is not one-sided. Ever wonder where the famous Syrian drink mateh comes from? Mateh (also called ‘yerba mate’) is a traditional Argentinian drink— also found in Uruguay, Brazil and Chile — made of yerba leaves. Syrians usually drink it from a silver bowl and straw, which Argentinians are also known to use. After some research, I discovered that many Syrian immigrants to Argentina brought mateh back with them and it became a hit! What I always believed to be a traditionally Syrian drink turned out to be an Argentinian concoction.


I can go on and on about the cross-cultural influences. One of Chile’s most prominent football clubs, Club Deportivo Palestino, was founded in Santiago de Chile in 1920 by a Palestinian immigrant. It is now considered the ‘second national club’ of Palestine and continues to don the colours of the flag. Arabs are also leaders in Latin America’s textile industry, and are known for running textile factories in the region.




My adventures in the continent, therefore, come from a place of connection. Travel has always been a form of self-discovery for me and if travelling to South America will bring me closer to my roots, then I will pursue it wholeheartedly. So far, I have befriended a Cuban taxi driver originally from Beirut and met a Palestinian chef in the Nicaraguan city of Grenada. I have found traces of my heritage in various Latin American cities and I will continue to archive and honour the history of our region through the exploration of the Latin continent.





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