Unión Árabe de Cuba|
Presencia Árabe en Cuba / Arab presence in Cuba
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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".
"What I learned from my father"
Cuban-Arabs: another rich legacy of Cuba
By SUSAN HURLICH*
Special to Shunpiking Online*
-- "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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
Boston-based free-lance writer
Bill Strubbe specializes in international cultural
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.