Centro Sirio Venezolano - Puerto La Cruz's Illustrious Home for All Arabs
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the mid 1980s, while touring Puerto La Cruz with a friend, we stumbled upon Centro Sirio Venezolano (Syrian Venezuelan Centre) which was still under construction. It appeared to be an impressive project and I promised myself that one day, after it had been completed, I would return.
And return I did. Now as I feasted in the Centre’s restaurant on the tastiest kababs which I had ever eaten, I was happy that I had returned. The cook, who hailed from Aleppo – the home of truly delicious food – had done a superb job. No meal, even in his hometown, could be more satisfying than this dinner in one of Venezuela’s top resorts.
Around me in the outdoor restaurant and encircling the swimming pool were about 1,000 out of the more than 8,000 Arabs who reside in the town of Puerto la Cruz and the adjoining city of Barcelona. They were eating and for entertainment were playing backgammon, bingo, cards or dominos. Others were watching Arabic videos or chatting while all around, masses of children created a noisy atmosphere.
Above this din, the taped voice of Umm Kalthum, singing of a lost love, could barely be heard. It was a vibrant community which had built, for get-togethers, the most magnificent of all the clubs in Puerto la Cruz. Unlike in many other urban centres where the Arabs had immigrated, in this town the Syrian community had founded a home where they could meet, socialize and at the same time keep alive their heritage.
The effort and success in establishing a club which is the top ethnic centre in Venezuela – some say in all of South America – is due, in a large part, to a few dedicated men, mostly from Aleppo, Syria. They were, in the main, part of the huge Syrian immigration that took place to Venezuela during the oil boom in the 1950s. These newcomers scattered throughout the country and became the core of today’s 400,000 to 1 million Syrians in Venezuela – the numbers depending on the sources.
Every Venezuelan town and village, which had missed having an Arab settler from the earlier immigrations, beginning in the late 1800s, now had at least one. They reinforced the approximately 500,000 older immigrants and their descendants, mostly from what is now Lebanon, who had been almost totally assimilated.
In November 1985, two dozen well-known members of the Puerto La Cruz’s Syrian community, originating from Aleppo laid the basis for the establishment of a Syrian centre in the El Morro district – Puerto La Cruz’s choice building area. Work immediately began in earnest. In 1986, when we visited the Centre, it was well on its way to completion. Today, it consists of a huge restaurant, a large swimming pool, an outdoor stage, a well-tended tree garden and six halls – one of which can hold up to 2,400 people.
According to Jibrail Aji Richany, the secretary of the Centre’s Executive Committee at the time of my visit – elected by some 600 shareholding families, each one buying shares it can afford – there are further plans for expansion. At the time of my last visit, a library was shortly to open and, adjoining the centre complex, a non-sectarian church was to be built. All the Christian religions found in the Arab world will be able to use it for their services.
I asked Eli Mora, the chairman of the Centre’s sport clubs, “What about the Muslims? Are you going to build them a mosque?” He replied that there were less than a dozen Muslims in Puerto La Cruz and these included Sunnis, Shias and Druze. He went on to say, “Our house of worship will be the house of God and any religious sect can use its facilities.”
The Centre, even though almost totally built by the Syrian community, accepts membership from all Arabs, irrespective of their country of origin or religious affiliation. Besides Syrians, there are Lebanese, Jordanian, Palestinian and Iraqi members, representing almost all religious denominations. No one asks would-be members or visitors their religion. When I was discussing membership with Richany, he did not want to talk about religion. I had to press him for information. At the end of the evening, I meant my words when bidding him adieu: “This is truly a home for all Arabs.”
Arab students, not only from Puerto La Cruz, but from other parts of the country, are given free membership and, at the time of graduation, this upcoming generation of educated Arab-Venezuelans, are honoured.
The Centre’s doors are open to every Arab who comes to Venezuela. Richany said that a few months before my visit, a dinner was made to honour a visiting Egyptian professor and writer. The scholar was emotionally moved by the warm-hearted reception and he praised again and again the Syrians of Puerto La Cruz for the great hospitality they offered in their splendid Club.
All sorts of activities are sponsored by the Centre. One of the members, Eli Mora said that he oversees 97 members of scout clubs with links to similar Venezuelan organizations, a rifle society, and eleven soccer associations which have ties and compete with others in the country. A youth club fosters Arab culture and national pride, and a women’s organization gathers food, clothing and other necessities for the non-Arab poor of the city.
Above all, the Centre serves as a place to hold weddings, play bingo, entertain visiting dignitaries as well as other social activities. Facilitating the holding of weddings and evenings of entertainment are the two Arab music bands in Puerto La Cruz and another five in other parts of Venezuela which, at times, come to play at the Centre.
During my visit, the President, George Hammal, had developed a very good relationship with the Venezuelan authorities at both city and other governmental levels. From time to time, municipal and other officials were using the Centre for their functions. Even the President of Venezuela had visited the Centre. Unlike in many other parts of the world, new immigrants are not feared, but are made to feel at home in this South American country.
Gone are the days in which, even the educated, disparately called the Arabs in eastern Venezuela ‘Turco’ and in the western part of the country ‘Monsieur’. Today, only in the out of way places are they still labelled with these names – given to Arabs coming from the Syrian province which was once a part of the Ottoman Empire.
In that era, these immigrants arrived very poor and began life peddling clothing and trinkets. When they became slightly more affluent, they opened shops and retailed their goods. In the last few decades, a good number of the descendants of these early immigrants moved into the industrial field and others took up the professions. Like immigrants to most countries, by the third generation, nearly all lost their Arab background. The friendly Venezuelan society, almost free of racial prejudice, made it simple for these newcomers to marry, assimilate and eventually disappear into the larger community.
The Syrians who came in the 1950s, having lived in one of the most Arabized societies in the Arab world, reinforced the few descendants of the early immigrants who had held on to their heritage. In some urban centres like Caracas, the capital, which has the largest concentration of Syrians and other Arabs, they usually became affluent. Like the majority of other ethnic groups, in the main, they were not too interested in their former homeland.
It was different in Puerto La Cruz. The Centre, which the Syrians built in that resort city is a testimony of their decision to hold on to their legacy. However, it is only for a time, perhaps, for just a few decades. In the words of Richany, “I know that in the future, like the early immigrants, our sons and daughters will disappear into the inviting Venezuelan society. But before our descendants melt away, they will know that we enjoyed our lives as Arabs and, at the same time, gave them pride in their rich culture.”
In Venezuela, unlike in North America, the mass media does not stereotype the Arabs as belly dancers, rich sheiks with countless wives and lurking terrorists. The Arab immigrants feel they are neither different nor alienated and, therefore, readily assimilate into the country’s society. The magnificent Centro Sirio Venezolano is but a pleasant interlude on the way of the Syrians integrating into the Venezuelan populace.