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The Arabs Who Left Their Mark on Colombia

posted on: Dec 30, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Nashara al-Islam bi-khawafiq al-aclam (Islam spread under waving banners).”

I could not believe my eyes as I read these words etched in Arabic on a church bell preserved in the Palacio de la Inquisición in Cartagena – Colombia’s foremost resort.  It was dated 1317 A.D. and presumably brought to this once Spanish colony by the early settlers from the Iberian Peninsula who thought the inscription was only a decoration.  Little did they know that this remnant of the Spanish Moors, who had been forcibly converted to Christianity then shipped to the Spanish colonies in South America was a statement of pride by a defeated people.

El Palacio de la Inquisición en Cartagena

I was thinking of this bell as I walked with my daughter down Avenue Saint Martin the main street of Bocagrande, Cartagena’s tourist section when the sign, ‘Heladeria y Repositeria Arabe’ caught my eye.  Excited, I entered the tidy looking ice cream parlor.  “Are you an Arab?  Do you have Arab ice cream?”  I asked, first in Arabic then in English, the attractive girl behind the cash register.  She shrugged her shoulders, apparently not understanding a word. 

Over the following days, after I had traveled through a number of Colombian coastal cities I found that the bell with its Arabic inscription and the sign ‘Heladeria Arabe’ truly reflected the remains of the converted Moors, exiled to the colonies, and the Arab immigrants who had come in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – both passing on but leaving their traces behind.

During the first years when the Spaniards landed in South America, a fair number of the settlers were former Muslims of Spain who had been compelled to become Christians.  Even after a hundred years of conversion, they were still not fully accepted as true Christians and many of them were sent to the new Spanish colonies.  Still yearning for the life of their ancestors, they preserved a good number of traditions inherited from their Arab forefathers.  Hence, when the first immigrants from the Greater Syria area came they found a people with which they had much in common.

At the turn of the century, the Syrian newcomers, mostly from a peasant or working-class background, landed on the shores of land still living in the medieval world.  With hardly any roads or the other amenities of our modern age to survive, these first immigrants used the coastal rivers as pathways to trade with the inhabitants of the primitive and isolated villages.

With great determination, hard work, and the mercantile traits which they had inherited from their forefathers, they prospered and eventually opened their own businesses in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal towns.  Due to their resourcefulness, those who settled in the villages of the countryside were admired and respected by the local inhabitants.  However, those who made the cities their homes were derogatorily called Turcos and looked down upon, chiefly due to the envy of their success.  

When they made some money, most brought brides from Syria.  Only a minority wed Colombian women – a few from the Guajira Indian tribe.  Trying to improve their lives in a land beset by feuding, revolutions and poverty, they had little time for their offspring.  In the subsequent years, due to their work-filled lives, the Arabic tongue was almost lost to the Colombian born generations.

Mexico Lebanese–Tampico-Centro Libanes-Enrique and Habeeb

We noted this when talking to some of the second generation Arab Colombians who still spoke a few words in Arabic.  They had lost the ability to pronounce the Arabic letters ‘ayn, ḥa, ṣad, ṭa’ and ẓa‘.

Of course, the society to which the Arabs came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also helped in the almost total loss of the language.  The church was all-powerful and every inhabitant had to fit into the narrow view of the Spanish-Catholic world of that time.

When I asked George Baladi, a long time immigrant living in Cartagena, if there were any Muslims among the early Arabs in Colombia, he replied, “I am told that five Muslim families from Tripoli, in present-day Lebanon, had come with the early immigrants, but they all had to become Christian.”

Baladi, one of the few who had preserved his heritage and is the Federacion des Entidades Arabes en Las Americas’  representative in Colombia,  went on to say that in earlier times to work and become a Colombian, one had to be baptized.  Hence, Muslims had to hide their identity.  It was only later that laws were enacted to give freedom and equality to all creeds.  Today, there is no problem for people wishing to live under the religion of their choice.

The earliest known Syrian immigrant to Colombia is believed to be the Damascene Salim Abu Chaar who arrived by ship in 1885.  Soon there followed a good number of others.  From among these were the first members of the following families: Faddul who landed in 1896; Murad, 1896; and Rumiya, 1904.  The second wave came in the 1920s and from among these was the first Char who arrived in 1926 – his offspring were later to become prominent in the world of trade and commerce.

The descendants of these first two waves of Syrian immigrants are now involved in every facet of Colombian life.  A good number are well-educated and are members of all professions.  A few hold high positions in the armed forces while others are pillars in the business community.

The most successful of today’s Arab entrepreneurs are the members of the Char family who own over 25 supermarkets called Olimpica – a fast expanding food chain noted for its reasonable prices.  Other success stories include Khalil, a descendant of the Rumiya family who even though he died poor, was once known as the ‘silver king’, and there is also Juan Bitar, owner of one of the largest emerald mines in Colombia.

In the political field, the Arab immigrants have also left an impressive mark.  Gabriel Turbay ran for president in 1946 and Julio César Turbay Ayallah, born to an Arab father and Colombian mother, served as president of the country from 1978 to 1982.  When first elected he is reported to have stood up in parliament and declared that he was proud to be of Arab descent.

At any one time, there are from 20 to 30 members of Arab origin who are members of parliament and the senate.  It is estimated that there are over a quarter of a million Colombians of Arab descent – almost all tracing their origins to Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.  The vast majority live along the Caribbean coastline with Barranquilla having the largest number of Arabs in the country.  Being a large mercantile center, it drew many Arab immigrants who have built a huge community center which is the envy of the other communities.

One of the oldest of these communities is in Cartagena, 136 km to the west of Barranquilla.  In this city, once known as the ‘Gateway to El Dorado’, there are only about 2,000 Arab Colombians, but they are very influential.  Even though they are a small minority in a city of 900,000, a good number of these émigrés and their descendants are prominent in all its avenues of life.

From among these are the Farah brothers who are manufacturers of Arab frozen foods.  Alfredo Farah is also the owner of Restaurante Arabe and along with Elias Daffach, owner of Restaurante La Olla Cartagenera, run two of the top eating places in Cartagena.  The Ya’aman family operates a huge steel warehousing firm (Ghisays, and Romero) owns a large engineering and construction company while the Gideon family holds the Renault and Toyota dealerships.

The Arabs in this city have built a fine center, called Club Union – representing the unity of the Syrians and Lebanese in Cartagena.  With its restaurants and numerous recreation facilities, it offers a home away from home for the residents of Arab origin.  The Arabs are the only organized ethnic community in the city and, according to Daffach, they are well respected by the other Colombians.

Colombian drug lords and drug wars, which one hears so much about, have little connection with the Arabs in the country.  Only a minuscule number have ever had any involvement with drugs.  According to Baladi, there has been only one reported incident: Philip al-Haji and his wife were murdered in Miami, Florida in a drug-related event.

In spite of their small number and almost total assimilation, the Arabs have left a significant mark on Colombian society.  In every city where they reside, there are eating-places proudly displaying the name ‘Restaurante Arabe’ or ‘Comida Arabe’.  The Arab dishes, kubbah, shish kabab, taboula, tahini, and all types of pies stuffed with cheese, meat, sweets, and vegetables are well known among the Colombians.  Many Colombians have come to think of these delicacies as their own foods and a good number of these dishes are sold frozen in almost all food outlets.  

Strange as it may seem, even though the Arab immigrants’ descendants have lost the language and most of the traditions of their ancestors, they still form social clubs and about 25% marry each other.  A fair number remain highly supportive of their Arab heritage and are enthusiastic propagandists for the Arab world.

On the other hand, there are complaints that the Colombian Arabs are unknown or forgotten in the Arab lands.  Only a few Arab countries maintain embassies in Colombia and films and other information that should be available from these embassies or from the Arab countries are hard to obtain.

Yet, this virtual cut off from the land of their forefathers has not diminished their yearning for the countries from whence they came.  The majority remain proud of their culture and people.  In the words of Baladi, “Why should our descendants not be proud of their roots?  They are heirs to cultures which have laid the bases of world civilizations.”