UNIÓN ÁRABE DE CUBA

La comunidad cubano-árabe
mantiene sus vínculos filiales e históricos
con la patria de origen de sus antepasados

 

  

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Beginning Début بداية
Unión Árabe de Cuba

 Presencia Árabe en Cuba / Arab presence in Cuba

Rigoberto Menéndez

Castellano

Para hablar de la multicentenaria presencia de los árabes en Cuba y su irradiación en el espectro variado de nuestra cultura debe hacerse siempre en un sentido policromático y contextual.

Presencia Árabe en Cuba

Aunque se conjetura sobre la presencia de tripulantes moriscos en las expediciones transoceánicas de Cristóbal Colón, el primer indicio de presuntas huellas demográficas lo aportan curiosamente las prohibiciones de la Corona Hispánica, que a través de sistemáticas Reales Cédulas emitidas durante todo el siglo XVI, advertían a las autoridades coloniales sobre la presencia ilegal en el Nuevo Mundo de personas "nuevamente convertidos de moros", denominación dada a los antiguos musulmanes españoles: los moriscos.

La prohibición monárquica se extendía además a los esclavos de diversos grupos étnicos africanos como los beréberes y los yolofes, practicantes de la religión islámica.

La evidente presencia de moriscos en América tuvo su reflejo en Cuba; en 1593 fue bautizado en la Parroquial Mayor de La Habana un morisco oriundo de Berberíe, quien tomó el nombre de Juan de la Cruz. Esta ceremonia y las similares practicadas a la moreria hispánica o africana fueron realizadas por altos signatarios coloniales de la Isla. Según hallazgos del Dr. Cesar García del Pino en 1596 Regresarron a La Habana algunas decenas de esclavos musulmanes, entre ellos un grupo de naturales de los antiguos reinos de Marruecos, Fez, Túnez y Tremecén y además dos moriscos.

Estos vestigios documentales permiten catalogar la primera etapa de impronta árabe en Cuba como hispano-morisca y morisco-norafricana, compuesta por esclavos y personas libres convertidas al catolicismo. Como una influencia relacionada de alguna manera con esta presencia se observa la huella arquitectónica, pues durante el siglo XVII y principios del XVIII predominó en La Habana, Remedios, Santiago de Cuba y otras ciudades el estilo mudéjar, herencia importante de la escuela de construcción morisca de Sevilla.

El estilo mudéjar es apreciable en edificios religiosos y civiles del Centro Histórico de la ciudad de La Habana (iglesia del Espíritu Santo, Casa de Oficios # 12 y Casa de Tacón # 4) y de Remedios (iglesia Parroquial de la Ciudad).

La colonización española dejó en Cuba otras huellas de impronta árabe, como el legado lingüístico en varios miles de vocablos de procedencia árabe en la lengua castellana y aun en nuestros cubanismos, la conservación de importantes especies moriscas en la culinaria criolla y de plantas aromáticas en nuestra jardinería.

Algunas influencias indirectas de la cultura árabe islámica llegaron además a través de los esclavos de diferentes denominaciones y grupos étnicos islamizados del África Occidental; ellos fueron portadores de saludos rituales como as salamu aleikum, que significa la paz sea con usted, la vestimenta blanca, el pañuelo turbante usado por las mujeres y otras costumbres íslamitas asumidas en la actualidad por diferentes sistemas religiosos populares cubanos.

El gran momento histórico de presencia árabe en suelo cubano se produce a partir de la segunda mitad del siglo XIX, y hasta la primera del XX, con la entrada de libanases, pálestinos, sirios y en menor escala de egipcios, libios, argelinos y yemenitas. Parece que el primer representante de esta oleada fue José Yabor, llegado a Cuba en 1870. Las estadísticas migratorias prueban que entre 1906 y 1913 un 30% de los árabes que llegan a Cuba venían directamente de la denominada Turquía Asiática, y otros grupos de paises europeos y de toda América.

El mayor porcentaje de esta inmigración corriaspondió a los libaneses, salidos de sus territorios debido a la profunda crisis económica que asoló a los-productores nativos y a las contradicciones con el Imperio Otomano que generaron el descontento de las comunidades cristianas, en particular los maronitas. Los palestinos emigraron fundamentalmente en la etapa posterior a la Primera Guerra Mundial. Sólo entre 1920 y 1931 los censos recogen la entrada a Cuba de 9337 árabes del Mediterráneo Oriental.

Desde el inicio de su entrada al país se presentó el problema de la denominación genérica del inmigrante árabe, registrado primero como turco independientemente de su etnónimo real. Después de la derrota turca primó la clasificación de sirios.

Los lugares preferidos para el asentamiento fueron las regiones urbanas de la Isla, las zonas comerciales, y los pueblos con desarrollo de la industria azucarera y la actividad ganadera. Las áreas urbanas de residencia más importantes fueron las ciudades de La Habana y Santiago de Cuba, principales puertos de arribo de los arabohablantes. Además del centro de la ciudad de La Habana (hoy Centro Habana) y del Centro Histórico, los árabes residieron en Marianao, Santa Amalia, reparto Juanelo, Regla y pueblos de la actual provincia de La Habana (Güines, Bejucal, Quivicán y Bauta). En las provincias orientales además de Santiago las áreas preferidas fueron Guantánamo, Cueto, Manzanillo, Holguín, y Las Tunas. En Camagüey se agruparon en Guáimaro, Minas, Morón, Sola, Esmeralda, Santa Cruz del Sur y Ciego de Ávila. En el resto del país se comprobaron asentamientos en Santa Clara, Cabaiguán, Sagua la Grande, Matanzas, Cárdenas y Pinar del Río.

La venta ambulante – con el clásico refrán de compro y vendo oro viejo – el comercio textil minorista especializado en confecciones de ropa y quincalierías, joyerías, tiendas de tejidos y los almacenes de importación constituyeron los renglones ocupacionales principales de los árabes en Cuba. De gran importancia fueron también las sastrerías y los restaurantes que ofrecían platos típicos de la culinaria levantina. La primera generación de descendientes se destacó y destaca en las ciencias médicas, y otros perfiles profesionales.

El bloque de inmigrados árabes se distinguió por la diversidad confesional propia de la región de origen: cristianos maronitas, ortodoxos, melkitas, asirios caldeos y asirios nestorianos, latinos, musulmanes sunitas, chiitas y drusos. Los más activos en su práctica litúrgica fueron los maronitas quienes contaron con cuatro párrocos de su rito en La Habana, que realizaban las misas en lengua árabe en las Parroquias capitalinas de San Judas y San Nicolás, Jesús, Maria y José, y Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje. También los maronitas oficiaron en bodas, bautizos y defunciones de los miembros de la comunidad cristiano árabe de Cuba.

La agrupación social de los inmigrantes fue en algunos casos a nivel de nacionalidad, con tendencia histórica hacia la unión de las tres nacionalidades más numerosas. La mayoría de las asociaciones étnicas árabes – que sumaron diacrónicamente más de treinta – eran de tipo benéfico y recreativo, teniendo algunas por excepción finalidades políticas. Gran parte de ellas se concentraron en el denominado Barrio Árabe de La Habana, que abarcó las calles de Monte, como arteria central y otras como San Nicolás, Corrales, Antón Recio y Figuras. También ocurrió un asentamiento sólido en el poblado santiaguero del Tivoli.

En las no pocas décadas de su asentamiento en Cuba los árabes dejaron su presencia en las lás diversas esferas de la vida socio-política y cultural de la ínsula: más de una docena de ellos participaron activamente en las luchas independentistas alcanzando distintos grados militares; igualmente en las luchas insurreccionales de la época neocolonial, los nombres de muchos descendientes se inscriben en el martirologio patrio. Los científicos arabohablantes y sus sucesores legaron imperecederos logros en diferentes disciplinas médicas, y en el campo artístico se aprecian sus éxitos en la música, la plástica, y la poesía sin perder de vista aquellos que sobresalieron en la abogacía y la enseñanza filosófica y que ganaron gran prestigio a nivel internacional.

El cubano descendiente de árabe es el resultado etnogenético de dos formas de uniones: las endógenas, o sea de madre y padre árabe, y las interétnicas, donde sólo el padre o la madre eran miembros del etnos árabe, y tuvo un peso importante la parte cubana. Su tierra natal, su educación, autoconciencia, forma de identificarse, y su desenvolvimiento psico-social le hacen sentir cubano, pero numerosas costumbres y tradiciones de la nación de sus ancestros, transmitidos de generación en generación han quedado en ellos como práctica permanente. Mantienen en sus casas algunos de los platos típicos mesorientales y llevan en si mismo dos huellas imborrables de su etnicidad pasada: los rasgos físicos y los apellidos que simbolizan grupos patronímicos de sus sociedades agnaticias.

Los inmigrantes levantinos y sus descendientes residentes en la Isla se agrupan actualmente en la Unión Árabe de Cuba, asociación no gubernamental constituida oficialmente el 4 de abril de 1979, como resultado de la unificación de la Sociedad Libanesa de la Habana, la Sociedad Centro Árabe y la Sociedad Palestina Árabe de Cuba. Dicha fusión significó el cumplimiento de un viejo anhelo de los directivos de dichas entidades: unificar la familia árabe en Cuba y desarrollar una mejor labor en la promoción y divulgación de la identidad, tradiciones y cultura árabes.

La Unión Árabe de Cuba es miembro destacado y activo de la Federación de Entidades Árabes de América Latina (FEARAB-América) y desarrolla tratemos intercambios con las asociaciones árabes de los países que la integran.

La comunidad cubano-árabe mantiene sus vínculos filiales e históricos con la patria de origen de sus antepasados a través de las relaciones bilaterales y de la FEARAB-América.

Otra importante institución que trabaja en pro de la divulgación del patrimonio cultural árabe en nuestra patria es la Casa de los Árabes de la Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana; fundada en 1983, contiene en sus espacios un museo etnográfico, y dentro de sus salas, la más novedosa es la exposición memorial de la inmigración árabe en Cuba.

Otros elementos se suman al acervo cultural de lo árabe en Cuba, que no escapó en los dos últimos siglos a la arabofilia en la arquitectura, como lo demuestran palacios y hoteles de renombre, o la costumbre de comprar tapices con escenas de beduinos, y mercadeo, e incluso la importación de objetos y estatuas alusivos a la cultura del Islam. Estos indicios se unen a aquellos recuerdos conservados por los propios descendientes, que incluyen desde biblias y coranes en lengua árabe, hasta el laúd, instrumento oriundo del mundo árabe que se ha incorporado a nuestra música popular.

Toda la impronta cultural arábica en nuestra Isla se complementa con la solidaridad histórica y creciente que Cuba ha practicado con diversos pueblos árabes en sus luchas por la independencia y la justicia. El cubano actual ha heredado del pensamiento martiano la admiración de una civilización milenario cuyos componentes étnicos fueron al decir del Apóstol, "las criaturas más ágiles y encantadoras de la tierra".

English

In order to talk about the multi-centenary presence of arabs in Cuba as well as their radiation in the different spectrum of our culture, a polychromatical and contextual direction should be taken into consideration.

Though it is conjectured concerning to the presence of moors crew in the transoceanic expeditions of Christopher Columbus, the first clue about apparent demographic tracks is carefully contributed by prohibitions of the Hispanic Crown, which warned the colonial authorities through systematic Royal Letters emitted during the whole 16th century, about the illegal presence of people in the New World "newly converted into moors" denomination given to the ancient Spanish Muslims: the moorish.

The monarchical prohibition was also extended to slaves from different ethnical african groups that used to practise the Islamic religion such as the berbers and the yolofes.

Fiesta tradicional de la comunidad Arabe en La Habana – Imagen y Escudo de San Maron, Patron de los maronitas (cristiano) del Libano – Iglesia de San Judas Tadeo y San Nicolas de Bari

The evident presence of the moors in America had its reflect in Cuba; in 1593, a moor coming from Berberia was baptized in the principal church in Havana. That moor got the name of Juan de la Cruz. This ceremony and the similar ones practiced to the african or spanish moorish, were performed by important colonial dignitaries of the Island. According to Dr. Cesar Garcia del Pino's discoveries, in 1596 several tenth of muslims slaves arrived to Havana, among them a group from the ancient kingdoms of Morocco, Fez, Tunis and Tremecen, as well as two moorish.

These documentary records allow to catalogue the first stage of Arabic cast in Cuba not only as spanish-moorish but also as moorish-north-african, formed by either slaves and free people converted to Catholicism. As an influence related in some way to this presence the "mudejar" architectonic style prevailed during the 17th century and beginning ofthe 18th in Havana, Remedios, Santiago de Cuba and some other cities, as important inheritance of the moorish construction school of Sevilla.

The "mudejar" style is appreciated in religious and civil buildings of the Havana City Historical Centre (Iglesia del Espiritu Santo, Casa de Oficios # 12 y Casa de Tacón # 4) and that of Remedios (Iglesia Parroquial de la Ciudad).

The spanish colonization left in Cuba some other tracks of arab cast, for instance the linguistic legate in several thousand of terms from arabic origin in the castilian language and still in our cubanisms; the conservation of important moorish species in our cooking tradition and also aromatic plants in our gardening.

Some indirect influences from the arabic-islamic culture came through slaves of different denominations and islamized ethnical groups from the Western Africa; they brought ritual greetings as as salamu aleikum, which means peace be with you, the white dressing, the turban worn by women and some other Islamic customs assimilated nowadays by different cuban religious systems.

The great historical moment of arabic presence in Cuba soil breaks out from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th, with the arrival of people from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and in a lower rate people from Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Yemen. It seems to be that the first representative of this wave was José Yabor, who arrived to Cuba in 1870. The migratory statistics prove that between 1906 and 1913, a 30% of the arabs who arrived to Cuba came directly from the so-called Asian Turkey, and other groups from european countries and from all America.

The greatest percentage of this immigration corresponded to people from Lebanon, the ones who left their territory due to the great economical crisis which devastated the native production workers, and also the contradictions with the Ottoman Empire, which contributed to the upset of the Christian communities, particularly the maronites. The Palestinian emigrated mainly after the First World War. Just between 1920 and 1931 the census already show that 9337 Arabs had arrived from Eastern Mediterranean.

Since the beginning of their arrival to the country, there was the issue of the generic denomination of the arab immigrants, controlled first as turkish, independently of his real ethnic denomination. After the turkish had been defeated, the classification of sirius prevailed.

The favourits places for the setting were the urban regions of the Island, the commercial zones and the towns which had development in sugar industry and also cattle activity. The most important urban areas of residence were Havana city and Santiago de Cuba, main ports for the arrival of the arab speakers. The arabs not only lived in the center of the city (at present called Centro Habana) and in the Historical Core, but also in Marianao, Santa Amalia, Reparto Juanelo, Regla and towns of today's Havana Province (Güines, Bejucal, Quivicán and Bauta). In the eastern provinces, apart from Santiago, their favourite areas were Guantanamo, Cueto, Manzanillo, Holguín and Las Tunas.

In Camagüey they also gathered in Guáimaro, Minas, Morón, Sola, Esmeralda, Santa Cruz del Sur and Ciego de Ávila. In the rest of the country were also confirmed some other settlements in Santa Clara, Cabaiguán, Sagua la Grande, Matanzas, Cardenas and Pinar del Río.

The hawker in the streets – using crying wares, among them, the typical saying: "I buy and sell old gold" –, the specialized minor textile trade mark for clothes and hardware stores, jeweller's shop, textile stores and importation store shops constituted the main occupational areas for the arabs in Cuba. The tailor's shops were of great importance for them; and there were restaurants which offered typical dishes from their countries. The first generation of descendants was distinguished and still it is in the medical science and other professional profiles.

The block of arabic immigrants was distinguished forthe confessional diversities, typical from its place of origin: maronite Christians, orthodoxies, melkites, chaldaic asirians and nestorian asirians, latins, sunnite muslims, shiites and druses. The most active in their liturgical practice were the maronites who had four parsons of their ritual in Havana, who used the arabic language when celebrating the masses in the city Parochial Churches of San Judas y San Nicolás, Jesús, Maria y José, and Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje. The maronites also officiated in weddings, baptisms and funeral ceremonies of members of the arab Christian community of Cuba.

The social gathering of the immigrants was in some cases at national level, having a historical tendency towards the gathering of the three most populous nationalities. Most of the arab ethnic associations – which were over 3O – had welfare and recreational nature, having some of them for exception political purposes. Many of these institutions were concentrated in the so-called Barrio Árabe de La Habana (Arab Neighbourhood of Havana), including Monte street, as the central main highway and some others such as: San Nicolás, Corrales, Antón Recio and Figures. Also a solid settlement took place at Tivoli at own in Santiago de Cuba.

During the arab settlement (which were not of few decades) it can be observed how they left their presence in the most different are as of the socio-political and cultural life of the Island: more than a dozen of them participated actively in the independence wars and obtained different military degrees; in the insurrectional fights of the neocolonial period, the name sofmany descendants are booked in the native martyrology. The arab-speaking scientists and their successors legated remarkable achievements in different medical disciplines, and also successes can be appreciated in the artistic field such as music, plastic, and poetry, as well as those who were outstanding figures in law and philosophical teaching, getting a great prestige in the international field.

The cuban descendant from arabs is the ethno-genetic outcome of two ways of joining: the endogenous, that is both parents being arabs, and the inter ethnical where only one of the parents being arab and the cuban part play an important role. Their native country, education, self consciousness, way of identifying and their psychosocial development make them feel like cubans, but several customs and traditions from their ancestors' nation, transmitted from generation to generation, are still kept by them as a permanent practice. They even keep some of the typical middle east dishes at home, carrying out as well two indelible tracks of their last ethnology: the physical features and iast names that symbolize patronymic groups of their agnatical societies.

The middle east immigrants and their descendants who live in the Island are grouped at present at the Arab Union of Cuba (Union Árabe de Cuba [UACI]), a non-governmental association officially constituted on April 4, 1979, as a result of the unification of the Lebanon Society of Havana, the Center Arab Society and the Palestinian Arab Society of Cuba. This union meant the fulfilling of an old wish that the managers of such entities had: to unify the arabic family in Cuba and to develop a better task in the promotion and diffusion of identity, traditions and Arab culture.

The Arab Union of Cuba is an active and out standing member of the Arab Entities Federation of Latin America (Federación de Entidades Arabes de América Latina (FEARAB-America), developing fraternal exchanges with the Arab associations from the countries which arecomposed in it.

The cuban arab community keeps its filial and historical links with the native homeland of their ancestors throughout the bilateral relations and the FEARAB-America.

The Arab's House (Museo Casa de los Árabes) from the Havana City Historian Office is another institution which works towards the diffusion of the arabic cultural patrimony in our country. This institution was founded in 1983 and it has an ethnographic museum and inside its rooms, the most beautiful one is the memorial exposition of the arab immigration in Cuba.

Some other elements are also added to the cultural arab heritage in Cuba; it had not escaped since the last two centuries to the arab influence in architecture, as it is reflected in palaces and well renown hotels, or the custom of buying tapestries containing bedouins scenes and trade, as well as the importation of objects and statues denoting the culture of the Islam. These clues come together to the preserved remembrances by the descendants themselves, who include not only Bible sand Korans in arabic language, but also the lute, a native instrument of the arabic world which has been brought to our popular music.

All the cultural arab cast in our Island is accomplished to the historical and increasing solidarity that Cuba has already practiced with different arabic peoples in their fights for independence and justice. The cuban of nowadays has inherited from Marti's thought the admiration of a millenary civilization whose ethnical components were as the Apostle said: "The most charming and agile creatures on earth".

Detalle escultórico del Patio Andaluz en el Hotel Inglaterra – Salón interior del restaurante Al Medina en La Habana Vieja

(http://freeweb.supereva.com)

 "What I learned from my father" Cuban-Arabs: another rich legacy of Cuba

By SUSAN HURLICH*
Special to Shunpiking Online*


(HAVANA) -- "What I learned from my father was to love Palestine, the land of his birth", says Maria Deriche, born in Camaguey and raised in the town of Ciego de Avila (both in the eastern part of central Cuba) and today head of the Cultural Commission of the Arab Union of Cuba.

With these words, 66-year-old Maria begins to talk about the Cuban Arab community, today numbering some 50,000 people of whom about one-quarter are affiliated with the Arab Union of Cuba.

"My father came to Cuba in 1912", continues Maria, "and like many Arabs at the time, he came to make a better life. He was single when he arrived, he knew how to read and write Arabic, and he quickly found a job."

The story of Maria's father is typical. Between 1860 and 1930, some 600,000 Arabs -- mainly from Lebanon (the largest group), Syria and Palestine -- left their home countries because of economic crisis, hunger and lack of jobs to seek their fortunes overseas. Over 80 per cent went to the Americas, at that time considered the "Continent of Hope", and ended up mainly in Argentina and Brazil, followed by Cuba, Uruguay and Mexico.

From 1860 to 1898, Cuba was mainly a transit point for Arab immigrants going to the U.S. (over 60 per cent), with the remainder staying on the Caribbean island. By the latter 1930s, the total Arab population in Cuba numbered almost 34,000, after which Arab immigration into Cuba decreased. Although most new arrivals settled in Havana, especially near the port area where they worked in commerce and trade, there were also smaller Arab settlements in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo, Granma, Holguin, Las Tunas, Ciego de Avila, Matanzas, Pinar del Rio, etc.

Arab immigrants in Cuba worked as day labourers, farmers and merchants. Many were also involved in mercantile trade, as silk and fabric traders, some had hardware, jewelry and furniture stores or even importing and warehousing firms.

"My father was a travelling salesman selling textiles and other goods," explains Maria, "and sometimes he would be gone for an entire week. But when he was home, he would become nostalgic for his birth country and would sing songs to us and do dances from Palestine. He also taught me to say, from the time I was a little girl, that I'm a Cuban-Palestinian."

"Most important, we never felt rejected by Cuban society. My father used to say to each of his six children that an immigrant is always an immigrant, but that Cuba was good at accepting them."

Like the majority of Arab immigrants in Cuba, Maria's father easily learned Spanish and married a Cuban, thus becoming quickly assimilated into the larger society. "But Cubans of Arab origin always celebrated their important days and were aware of their ancestry," says Maria.

"My father was a Muslim all his life and kept very strict dietary habits," she continues, "and although I'm not Muslim, my granddaughter is. She does Arabic dancing and is in love with the Islamic world."

As part of their efforts to maintain their identity and culture in their adopted country, Arab immigrants eventually founded some thirty different societies around the country. Based mainly on country of origin, the first societies were founded in Havana and included the Syrian Advancement Society (1918), the Palestinian Arab Society (1919) and the Lebanese Society (1920). In Santiago de Cuba there was the Society of Arabs. Ciego de Avila had a Lebanese Society, one of the few that had a Womens' Committee, and other societies existed elsewhere. Mainly welfare and recreational groups, some offered classes teaching members to read and write in Arabic, or had libraries or even radio programs about Arab culture. There were also several Arab newspapers, the first being Al Etehad (1918) published in Havana.

"Because there was no Palestinian organization in Ciego de Avila", elaborates Maria, "our family, especially my father, closely associated with the Havana group and met with them whenever he went there."

And then, in April 1979, there was a change which was to have a profound impact on the Cuban-Arab community: the unification of the different groupings into a single national organization. Called the Arab Union of Cuba (UAC), it began with the merging of the Palestinian and Lebanese Societies in Havana, the Arab Centre Society in Havana and the Lebanese Society in Ciego de Avila.

"Although initially there was a certain reticence within the Cuban-Arab community to unite," explains Maria, "once the groups united in Havana, many of the provincial associations also united. For example, in Ciego de Avila, the Lebanese Society immediately opened its doors to Cuban-Arabs from other countries."

Representing all citizens of Arab origin and their families in Cuba, the UAC promotes and disseminates Arab identity, traditions and culture.

"Unity of the Arab community in Cuba is very important", says 61-year-old Alfredo Deriche Gutiérrez, president of the Arab Union of Cuba, adding that "belief, nationality or race of a person is not a consideration for membership".

Nation-wide, the UAC has almost 10,000 members, about half of whom live in Havana and the rest in Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Santiago de Cuba, Sancti Spiritus and Holguin. UAC activities include weekly "Dialogues about Arab Culture" (organized by Maria), a yearly literature competition, a bi-annual art competition, courses in Arabic, traditional dance groups, and much more. The UAC also organizes a bi-annual International Symposium on "Arab and Islamic Presence in the Americas", with participants from around the world, and has its own radio program and magazine. At its headquarters in Old Havana, the UAC receives regular visits from the Arab diplomatic corps, visiting delegations from Arab countries and celebrates important dates and events in the Arab world.

There is also a small Muslim community in Cuba. Although the number of Muslims was never great -- most of the early Arab immigrants being Maronite Christians or members of other religious sects -- it's only been during the past decade that there has been a small movement in the country to convert to Islam. Today, Cuba's Islamic community numbers about 550 individuals, of whom 380 live in Havana and the rest in different provinces; many are also active in the UAC. There are no mosques in Cuba, nor were there ever, so Muslims meet in the private homes (prayer houses) of members for their rituals and orations.

Through the UAC, the Cuban-Arab community maintains active relationships with other Arab associations throughout Latin America. Since 1981, the UAC has been a member of the Arab Entities Federation of the Americas (FEARAB-America) which, since its foundation in 1973, has brought together some twenty National Federations representing 18 million Arabs and their descendants throughout the region. (In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are some 500,000 Muslims.)

At its October 2001 meeting, FEARAB-America participants agreed to the "Vina del Mar Declaration", which condemns the terrorist acts of 11 September 2001 as well as Israeli state terrorism in the Golan Heights and Lebanon, calling for the recognition of an independent Palestinian state alongside an Israel within its 1967 boundaries.

"For over 46 years, I've worked within the Cuban-Arab community," says Alfredo Deriche, vice-president of FEARAB-America, "and I am passionately committed to and love the Palestinian cause."

Maria -- a co-founder of both the Cuban Womens' Federation and the Committee in Defense of the Revolution in Ciego de Avila, and later director of the provincial library after Fidel Castro's movement came to power in 1959 -- echoes her brother's sentiments. In a quiet voice, she tells the story of how she once applied for a visa to visit the tiny village of Misraa Charavia (north of Jerusalem, part of the West Bank) where her father was born, but was refused a visa by the Israeli government. Reflecting on the Middle East, she says, "I feel a tremendous obligation to the Palestinian people, who are also my people. My father never forgot the land of his birth, and I can't either.

"When I see reports on TV and in the newspapers of how Palestinian children and women and elders are dying, of children without their fathers and mothers, I want to call on the conscience of the world. I've always loved the book by Anne Frank for how it helped people understand what was happening to the Jews. But what about all the untold stories of Palestinian children? They're also dying and we must work to remind the world of them."

-- -- -- -- --

*SUSAN HURLICH is a Canadian anthropologist and freelance writer who has been living and working in Cuba since November 1992. She is an occasional contributor to Shunpiking Magazine.

A version of this article was originally published in the November/December 2003 edition of http://www.vcn.bc.ca/outlook/current_issue/current_issue.htm, Vancouver, BC, Canada


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 The Arabs of Havana

Written by Bill Strubbe and Karen Wald

Havana is best in the morning, as it first stumbles into gear. A woman in white stands at the edge of the sea, roosters crow from laundry-laced balconies, crammed buses jostle over pot-holed streets, and a symphony of bicycle bells resounds from faded pastel walls that smolder golden in the early light. Along the tree-lined Prado, where American-made cars from the 1950's nose to the curb and uniformed children make their way to school, there appears a blue building with a simple neon sign that reads "Union Arabe de Cuba" in Spanish and Arabic. The UAC, as it is called, is the focal point of social and cultural life for Havana's thousands of Cuban Arabs.

Inside, historian Euridice Charon explained that, because most Cuban Arabs are third- or fourth-generation descendants of immigrants, counting them is an imprecise art; the best estimates top 20,000 people. However, the Arab and Muslim presence in the Caribbean (See Aramco World, November-December 1987) and in Cuba can be traced much further than a few generations. As Christopher Columbus voyaged across the Atlantic in 1492, the last stronghold of the Andalusian Muslims in Spain fell to Christians in Granada (See Aramco World, January-February 1993).

In subsequent years, the Spanish crown enacted progressively harsher laws restricting Muslim religious freedom and customs. Many sought haven elsewhere, from North Africa to the New World. But the conversion to Christianity of the native peoples was an important justification of the Spanish conquest of the New World, and the crown thus forbade non-Christians from boarding transatlantic ships.

The sheer number of laws, some threatening the death penalty, that forbade passage to the New World—not only to Muslims but also to Gypsies, Jews and Protestants—is evidence that many members of those groups did in fact slip through (See Aramco World, May-June 1992). Among the Muslims who succeeded are Beatriz la Morisca—whose surname means "Moor," or a Muslim of Spanish origin—and Isabel Rodriguez, both of whom aided Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. Later in Peru, Captain Giorgio Zapata, after amassing a fortune in the silver mines, sailed home not to Spain but to Istanbul: His real name was Amir Cighala. Also in Lima, in the 16th and early 17th centuries, several people were brought before the Inquisition on charges of being secret Muslims.

The travel restrictions against Muslims lasted nearly 400 years, until 1900—roughly 20 years after many Arabs began arriving from Lebanon, explained Charon. "But during those centuries the Spaniards overlooked another source of Muslim infiltration—the Muslim West Africans who arrived in the holds of the slave ships."

"Ever since my student days, I thought that Arab history was important in Cuba, but it was not very well known or well explained," said Charon, who credits her father with kindling her interest in Arab culture by sending postcards while he worked as a doctor in Algeria. Later, she received a five-year scholarship to study Arab history in the Soviet Union. In 1990 she began research on Arab immigration into Cuba, scouring immigration, baptismal and wedding documents, as well as trying to trace Cuban family names of Arabic origin, such as Chediak, Trabranes, Bauek, Rachid, Bez and Rassi.

Of these names, the Rassi clan is today one of the largest, with more than 80 family members spanning four generations. Among them, the older folks still greet each other in Arabic and enjoy Arab cooking, making kibbe, cabbage rolls and shishkebab.

"Food is a culture's most enduring custom," said 54-year-old Reynold Rassi Suarez, editor-in-chief of correspondence at Granma, the newspaper of the Cuban Communist party. He delicately explained that, although the Arab Union offers an Arab cooking class once a month, the current international political and economic situations limit availability of the necessary ingredients.

Suarez's grandparents left northern Lebanon at the turn of the century, and both his parents were born in Cuba's Matanzas Province. The family moved to Havana in the 1930's. "My grandfather was proud to be Arab and he spoke both Spanish and Arabic, but my grandmother knew only Arabic, so we spoke that with her at home," he recalled. "My grandmother liked to go out a lot, but because of the language problem, it wasn't easy for her. Sometimes she would sneak out of the house and get lost, but everyone in the barrio knew her and someone would always bring her back home."

Arabs in Cuba were often nicknamed "Morro," but Suarez contends that, while in Europe the word was an epithet, close to a racial slur, in Cuba it connoted someone who took initiative and was strong—maybe even a warrior: The formidable old fortress guarding Havana's harbor is called "El Morro." "The Arab immigrants identified with the Cuban character, Cuban idiosyncracies, and Cuba's struggles for independence," he said, "and that made it easier for them to assimilate."

Cuban history counts several Arabs among its heroes. In the last century, Commandant Elias Tuma, from Bicharre, Lebanon, fought in the War of Independence against Spain. In the 1930's and 1940's, Arabs were active in the struggles against the Machado and Batista dictatorships, and some were among the famous guerilla forces in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. After the 1959 revolution, Alfredo Yabur became Minister of Justice; Levi Farah became the Minster of Construction; and today, Dr. Gustave Kouri directs the Tropical Medicine Institute named after his father, Dr. Pedro Kouri. Fayad Jamis, born in 1930 and known as "the poet of Playa Giron," is one of Cuba's greatest poets. Nola Sahig, who died in 1988, was a brilliant scholar of Arab music and culture, an accomplished pianist and a founder of numerous Cuban-Arab organizations.

In Havana, Arabs settled mainly in Barrio Monte, where many established textile, clothing and watch and jewelry businesses along Monte Street. But the abolition of private enterprise after the 1959 revolution fragmented the trade-oriented Arab community. Many left for the United States, others departed for Mexico and South America, and little was left behind to distinguish the Arab barrio.

Gradually, the Union Arabe de Cuba became the repository of post-revolutionary identity among the remaining Cuban Arabs. The first Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese societies were formed in Havana in 1918,1919, and 1920 respectively, with auxiliary chapters in other cities. Lacking their own organizations, immigrants from Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia and even Turkey also joined those groups. In 1938, the first united Arab association was established, but it folded in 1971. It was not until eight years later that the UAC reopened, with assistance from Arab embassies.

"The former [Arab] unions were based on nationality and religion. We wanted the new union to be based on diversity," explained Alfredo Deriche Gutierrez, now president of the UAC. "In 1979 there were a lot of difficulties in the Middle East, and we achieved here in Cuba what has not been achieved there. It wasn't easy, and there were many misunderstandings, but eventually we were able to bring about enough enlightenment."

The UAC's library, salon, restaurant and meeting hall create a focus for cultural activities and provide something like a home and family life for Arab students from overseas studying in Cuba. The UAC hosts receptions for visiting Arab dignitaries, offers a Saturday-morning lecture series on Middle Eastern culture or politics, and publishes a magazine, El Arabe, which covers events in the Middle East as well as local activities.

The UAC also sponsors Arabic language classes. The advanced class's teacher, Gisela Odio Zamora, was among the first Cubans to study Arabic abroad: She lived in Syria from 1974 to 1979. She is president of the Arabic Speakers of Cuba social group, and also translates for Cuban enterprises doing business in the Arab world. Most of her students at the UAC are Cubans not of Arab descent, she said: There are several women engaged to men from North Africa, a Middle East history student, a doctor who served two years in Libya and wants to return someday, and a man of Lebanese descent who goes home from class and teaches everything he learns to his young son.

A short walk east from the Arab Union, the streets of Old Havana are lined with aging architectural treasures; some of them have conspicuously Moorish detailing. In this quarter stands the Arab Cultural Museum, open since 1983. While the building is in a typical Spanish Colonial style dating from the late 1600's, it contains design elements that are legacies of Muslim Spain centuries earlier: Open verandas surround a two-story central courtyard, in the middle of which stands a cistern to collect rainwater from the tiled roof.

Inside, the furniture displays show Andalusian influence, too. One tall cabinet is modeled after a building in the Alhambra, the 13th-century citadel and palace of the ruling Umayyads in Granada (See Aramco World, September-October 1992). Lavishly inlaid with bone, ivory and shell are three 19th-century barqueños, or chests that open into writing desks, also from Granada. One, constructed of a multitude of precious woods, bronze, copper and pigmented paste, is inlaid with Arabic script, executed in mother-of-pearl, that reads "There is no god but God."

Displays from the Western Sahara include a camel-hair burnous, or cape, from Algeria, Berber ceramics, and a collection of carpets largely donated by Arab delegations and embassies.

"We'd like to improve the museum with money raised by the admission fees and the Arab restaurant upstairs," explained museum guide Rigoberto Menendez. Air conditioning, he added, would help regulate temperature and humidity to better preserve the exhibits.

Outside, the grape arbor dapples a tapestry of light and shadow across the courtyard to the entrance to one of the city's two mosques. The other one, Menendez pointed out, is being renovated, and "should be ready soon."

Although most Arab immigrants to Cuba in the last century have been Christians, a significant minority have been Muslim. Both church and mosque watched their congregations dwindle as the 1959 revolution brought dialectical materialism to Cuba, but in recent years there has been a gradual but widespread return to spiritual roots. As a result, an increasing number of Cuban converts to Islam now attend Friday prayers at the mosque, alongside Arab diplomats and students from abroad.

Yahya Pedron, a 38-year-old, non-Arab Cuban, said that he "found the Qur'an on the street." He laughed and explained, "No, really, when I was about 20 years old, I was walking down the street and I found a book about the Qur'an. I read it, and after that, the Qur'an became my guide." Born in Pinar del Rio, Yahya works as a mechanic in a power plant. "I always believed in God and had general religious beliefs, but each person has his own way to worship, and Islam suited my needs."

He and other Muslim friends and families now observe Islamic rituals such as fasting during the month of Ramadan, and celebrate the 'Id al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, that links Muslims around the world. They often study the Qur'an and pray together. Pedron estimated the Muslim Cuban population in Havana at about 100.

Others in the mosque had experimented earlier with a variety of faiths. "I had a lot of misconceptions about Islam, as information is not well disseminated in this part of the world," explained a 52-year-old man who asked to be called Hasan. He converted after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "I saw how corrupt his life had been and how adopting Islam changed him. In Makkah, Malcolm saw that there was no difference between men, that—slave or king—all were the same before God."

The youngest of the group in the mosque, when asked his Spanish name, replied, "My name is Ibrahim. I no longer use my Spanish name." Several years ago, he said, a Muslim befriended him, and Ibrahim was influenced by their conversations. "At first my family thought [my conversion] was strange. My friends even thought it was a bit laughable, but now they see it is something good."

Outside the mosque, the men of Havana's small Muslim community have taken it upon themselves to visit and help families in need. "I now think about how I can serve people and always give a part of what I have to the poor," one said. "I used to drink, I was dishonest in business, and didn't care about my neighbor. Now I am more tolerant, and respect nature. For me and others like myself, we have grown as men."

Boston-based free-lance writer Bill Strubbe specializes in international cultural issues.

Karen Wald is a us journalist who has lived in Havana for 25 years.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the March/April 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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