The Fading Away of Cuba's Arab Community
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
It is said that of all the people who came seeking a new life in the Americas, few can match the success achieved by the Arab immigrants. This is especially true when one considers their achievements in the Latin-speaking lands of the New World. From technicians and engineers to industrialists and presidents, they have become prominent in all facets of life. Much more than in the non-Latin-speaking lands of the Americas, these immigrants and their descendants have become truly accepted in their adopted countries.
How this came about has a historical connection. When the Arab newcomers coming mostly from the Greater Syria area, began to arrive in the late 19th century, they found in the Americas kindred societies which had been established by the Spaniards and Portuguese. The 900 years the Arab stayed in the Iberian Peninsula, first as conquerors then as conquered had impregnated the daily life of the inhabitants in that part of Europe. These historic Arab embellishments had been brought by the conquistadors to the new world. In addition, a great number of the very first settlers were newly converted Christians from the Muslim faith and, hence, were not trusted as being true followers of Christ. A convenient method to rid the land of these former Moors was to ship them off to the Americas.
In these former Spanish and Portuguese colonies whose inhabitants still carried in their architecture, food, language, dance, music and song influences of the Moors, the Syrian Arab found hospitable societies. They easily identified with the people of every Latin American country and, thus, were able to thrive and prosper.
Beginning their new lives, in many cases, as peddlers, these newcomers in a few years usually became prominent in the fields of commerce and industry. In one generation a good number of their sons and daughters had left their mark in the professional and political arenas. Unlike their forefathers who had established a great civilization in the Iberian Peninsula and after the Reconquista had been forced to become Spanish, they needed no coercion to lose their identity. In no more than two generations they had lost all connections with their former homelands – only, perhaps, retaining a few Syrian foods. Rare are the descendants of the Arab immigrants who after one generation preserve any of the Arabic language or a trace of the ways of their fathers.
This total loss of identity was vividly demonstrated to us when we visited Cuba – the destination of many Syrian immigrants early in this century. We had been told that there was an Arab club in Havana and when we traveled to that city, we went searching for this abode of our countrymen. We found it on the Prado – old Havana’s main thoroughfare – one of the few buildings neatly kept in a city badly in need of paint. In both Spanish and Arabic, the sign in front told us we had reached our goal.
Excited, we moved quickly up the stairs to what we believed was the reception area. At the top, an old gentleman sat on a chair barring the way. “Is this the Arab club?”, I asked in Classical Arabic. The man stared at me and my daughter, uncomprehendingly. My daughter tried her luck. “We are Canadian-Arabs, and we want to meet someone who can speak Arabic.” Seeing that he did not understand, we asked him in our poor Spanish if there was anyone inside who could converse in Arabic. He left and, in a few minutes, returned with a young Arab. After greetings, he informed us that he was a visitor and had come as a delegate to a conference in Cuba. He did not know anything about the Arabs in Havana since he only came to the club to eat. Like a great number of westernized Arabs throughout the Arab world, he had forgotten the virtue of hospitality. He did not even invite us for a cup of coffee – an insult to a stranger in the traditional Arab way of life. We left confused – our excitement had evaporated.
The next time we journeyed to Havana, we tried our luck again, but still we could not find a person who knew the Arabic tongue. However, my daughter who could speak Spanish in a limited way but had a command of the pronunciation made a reservation for us to dine the next evening at the club. It was strange, in Havana’s Arab headquarters we could not find one who spoke the language of their fathers.
The following evening, we were ushered into a packed dining room. Every seat was taken, and all the customers had an eastern Arab appearance. Yet, our ears could not detect one Arabic word.
On the menu, most of the entries were well known Syrian and Lebanese dishes. Now, we thought, some of the waiters must be able to speak Arabic. Again, we were disappointed. Not one could utter a word in that tongue. Our few Spanish phrases were our only salvation.
While enjoying the toothsome food made even tastier by the Cuban method of cooking, I looked up to see an old man of perhaps 80 smiling. “I heard that you are looking for someone who is able to speak Arabic”, he said in the perfect classical language. I was shocked. here at last we have found a person who knew his mother tongue. It was like finding a treasure after an agonizing search.
The distinguished gentleman whose family name was Najm hailed from the Chouf region of Lebanon and had been in Cuba for 65 years. He informed us that after the revolution in Cuba, many of the well-off immigrants had left and the ones remaining were now Cubans and had little connection with their land of origin. They were well integrated into the mainstream of life and considered themselves as Cuban as anyone on the island. As Arabs they were no more, but as Cubans they were a strong element in the building of a new equitable Cuban society.
Unlike the young Arab we had met a few days before, Mr. Najm was gracious and had preserved all the Arab virtues. Nevertheless, he was one of the last in a disappearing breed. From him we learned that there remained only four old men in Havana from the mostly Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who still new the ways and language of their forefathers.
The following day we told our story to a Cuban, fluent in English, whom we had met on the beach. He did not find it strange that the Arabs had lost their language. Talking about the great advances Cuba had made since Castro took power, he said now that the people were all equal, why should a segment of the population want to be different. He went on to say that he had a friend of Lebanese origin named Ramsy Sarraf to whom he would like to introduce us and, who he believed still spoke Arabic.
True to his word, a number of days later we were sipping coffee in his friend’s home, but alas, he did not know a word of Arabic. To me it was an incomprehensible how he had forgotten his mother tongue since he was born in Al-Kura – a well-known village in Lebanon, noted for the patriotism of its sons. On the other hand, Ramsy had preserved the virtue of hospitality. He treated us royally in true Arab fashion.
Without doubt, it was due to the fact that he was a first-generation immigrant that Ramsey preserved some of the Arab traditions. To the second and third generations of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in Cuba, Arab ways are a thing of the past.
A fine example of this withering away of Arab culture and traditions was brought to life during a tour we made through the enchanting Cuban countryside. I started a conversation with our guide and found out that his family’s name was Essa. Surprised, I blurted out, “You have an Arabic name!” He seemed unconcerned. “They say my grandparents came from Syria, but I know nothing about Arabs. To us, he was a symbol of the total integration of the Arab immigrants into Latin American societies.
No matter how much the Arabs in the Arab world rhapsodize about their sons abroad, the complete assimilation of these immigrants is only a matter of time. Today, where there are new arrivals, the connection with the country of origin is still kept alive. Tomorrow, as has already happened in Cuba, their homelands will fade into the mist of history.