by Paola C. Messina

Brazil is for millions of people with roots in Lebanon and Syria home, after their ancestors immigrated there generations ago. Today, while the Arabic language has survived as a spoken language in some families, it is mainly through food that it finds its way into the daily lives of the Arab-Brazilian community.

An expression, a lullaby, a recipe, a secret code – flashes of Arabic run constantly through the Lebanese-Syrian diaspora of Brazil. Portuguese remains the primary language even for most first-generation immigrants, but certain Arabic words and meanings remain on the tips of their tongues.

The desire to integrate into a new society often invites its language to supersede one’s native speech, but it is impossible to deny that this mother tongue continues to constitute a crucial part of the way the members of a diaspora communicate within one another and celebrate their identity. As time passes, the grammatical rules may come to appear foreign to brains long-habituated to speaking another language, but with a renewed fervour they remain capable of reaching back to grasp at words from long ago.

Throughout the 1800s, people, mostly Christians, fled their homes in Lebanon and Syria, seeking peace, religious freedom, and escape from conscription and work opportunities abroad. The war that broke out between Maronites and Druze in Mount Lebanon in 1860 led to the death of thousands of people, as detailed in Leila Tarazi Fawaz’s An Occasion for War: Civil Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860. Christian communities were outmatched and their young male members faced conscription into the Ottoman armies. Economic conditions in the Levant also suffered when the price of silk – one of the most common exports of the region – dropped as a consequence of the increased interest in Chinese and East Asian markets. Between 1860 and 1914 the first wave of emigrants left their homes, comprising nearly half of the population of Mount Lebanon. Their destination was the other side of the Atlantic – somewhere called amreeka.

Travelling with family in tow, the most priceless possession Ibrahim Kosremelli and my great-great-grandmother carried on their tongues were stories of their birthplace preserved in the language of their ancestors. Before the conflict and violence escalated in Greater Syria, my great-great-grandfather left Damascus, crossed the border into Lebanon and, upon reaching the Temple of Baalbek, etched his name and the year, 1884, onto a stone. The voyage was long and generally carried out in chain migrations, but improved transportation systems and the development of steam navigation facilitated the passage from Beirut to the port city of Santos on the southeastern seaboard of Brazil. Ibrahim’s family and his son, Elias (my great-grandfather), then travelled by train to Cruzeiro, a small town in the state of Rio de Janeiro, in search of fellow Kosremellis who had made the journey before them. I never heard the end of my great-great-grandparents’ story, but because of their perseverance, Elias arrived in his new home.

A few years prior, in both the northern town of Bsharri and the prosperous Zahleh, nestled in the Beqaa valley, my grandmother’s ancestors prepared for a similar journey. It was the spring of 1860 and anarchy abounded, as Fawaz details in the chapter “Civil War in the Mountain.” After victories in Hasbaya and Rashaya in particular, the Druze seemed unbeatable. An attack on Zahleh, the most important town in Mount Lebanon and the last remaining Christian stronghold, seemed imminent. The little I know is that my grandmother’s ancestors, the Choueiris and Malufs, made it out just as the war was reaching its pinnacle, intent on starting anew in another country.

More than 150 years have passed since these events. For my family members to settle into a new land and become accustomed to new habits was not easy. Elias married Jamile Khoudari, born in Aleppo in 1897, who had also emigrated to Brazil with her family. The couple eventually relocated to the bustling, industrial city of São Paulo, where they opened a relatively successful shoe store, but a revolt by members of the Brazilian military in 1924 forced them out of their new home.

Unrest seemed to follow them wherever they went. The family and their three sons – Wilson (my grandfather), Guilherme and Jorge – were forced to relocate to the small, provincial Sorocaba, on the outskirts of São Paulo. Getúlio Vargas established a dictatorship in Brazil in 1930 and outlawed all languages other than Portuguese. Professor John Tofik Karam, author of Another Arabesque: Syrian-Lebanese Ethnicity in Neoliberal Brazil, concludes: “Arabic became the language of the home, the private sphere, for churches, mosques, or synagogues, too.” Yet despite this linguistic separation between public and private spheres, Arab diasporic intellectuals such as Philip Hitti called for the language to be taught to younger generations. Others, such as Sa‘id Abu Jamra, a doctor and founder of the publication “Al-Afkar,” who emigrated to Brazil in 1899, thought it was more important to translate Arabic works into Portuguese, not vice-versa. “With different intellectual tendencies, and state pressures to linguistically conform, Arabic did not become institutionalised within the diasporic collective itself,” explains Karam.

My great-grandparents brought Arabic to Brazilian shores, but what they strove for above anything else was integration. Even Arab immigrants’ different ways of pronouncing certain Portuguese words subjected them to mockery from nationals who, for example, associated Middle Eastern peddlers’ articulation of Arabic numbers such as arbatache (“fourteen”) with rouba o tacho (“steal the pot”) in Portuguese. Language was a marker of the marginal status of Arab immigrants in Brazil. For that to change, all traces of the Arabic language had to fade away.

Though Portuguese quickly became the first language of Lebanese and Syrian families in Brazil, Arabic managed to maintain a place in their daily lives. “It is much easier to make a sweeping statement, such as ‘no one speaks Arabic in Brazil anymore,’ when one has very little understanding of Brazil,” affirms Karam. The degree to which the Arabic language continues to be used and understood differs among families (most Muslims speak Arabic during sermons and services at local mosques) and generations. In fact, sometimes Arabic was spoken by immigrant elders simply to leave younger members of their families in the dark. As my grandfather, Wilson Cossermelli (the name was altered from Kosremelli to Cossermelli upon the family’s arrival in South America), grew older, however, his mother eventually let him in, sharing stories and thoughts reserved for her native tongue. This is how the language lived on and how my grandfather came to know his father, Elias, who passed away in his early 50s from throat cancer. His sons and widowed wife were forced to fend for themselves in an environment that was still relatively new. My grandfather studied medicine and quickly became absorbed in his work and providing for his family. Unfortunately, Arabic was not a factor in achieving either of these things.

Yet it is through language, in all of its forms, that we make connections – through a lullaby, for example.

My grandmother, Waldionice Cossermelli (born Choueiri Maluf), the granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants, sung in Arabic as she paced around the dining room table, cradling me in her arms. Most lullabies were in Portuguese, but one in particular, which she claims is particularly effective, was in Arabic. “Let’s start with music, because music always brings joy,” she says, before singing (and laughing a little, too):

She begins to hum the melody to another tune, but she can’t recall the words. “I’ll remember and sing it later,” she promises. Below are the lyrics to the song “Kibbe Kebeibe,” addressed to me:

Kibbe kebeibe hal addi li Paola la titghada.
Kibbe kebeibe kebbiha li Paola tanghadiha.
Kibbe kebeibe khabiha li Paola lan aachiha.

The lyrics to the lullaby, except for the word kibbe, are unintelligible to me, but the meaning isn’t lost. My grandmother explains that this song, along with the hand motions that accompany it, mimic the offering of kibbe to a baby. I asked my cousins in Beirut whether they knew this song and unintentionally started a hunt for someone that had any information on its origin. It took a few days, but we found someone. In Brazil, the search didn’t last long. Over lunch, I mentioned it to Vera Jereissati Haddad, the youngest daughter of Lebanese immigrants born in Brazil. She and her mother were quick to imitate the hand motions, just as my grandmother did, and sing the words that had lulled me to sleep many years ago. The exact origin of the lullaby is difficult to pinpoint, but even Karam recognised the lyrics: “I think my grandmother used to sing it, too. It is very old […] Not common today among younger generations.”

Parallels like this abound between the Lebanese and Syrian diaspora families, even if the Jereissatis arrived many years later in the 1950s. “My parents spoke Arabic when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying,” Vera confirms, though since she vacationed in Beirut yearly with her brothers, she eventually developed a flawless comprehension of Arabic. She recalls there also being an exchange of languages. Family members that visited Brazil learned Portuguese too and, in Lebanon, used it so others wouldn’t understand them.

For my family, there was no journey back and very sporadic communication with our relatives in the Middle East. Whether it was for financial reasons, fear, unwanted memories or something else entirely, I cannot say. My grandfather shows some reluctance to speak about his family’s past and the stories he heard from his mother. I ask him to say something in Arabic. “I don’t know,” he retorts almost automatically, before adding, “La habibti” (no darling).

“Many Brazilian children or grandchildren of Lebanese, Syrian or Palestinian migrants also spoke mostly Portuguese with a mix of Arabic, just enough to mark their own self-understandings of where they come from,” says Professor Karam. While my grandfather learned Arabic from his mother, my grandmother wasn’t as exposed to the language. By the mid-1940s, immigrant men were no longer travelling back to Syria or Lebanon to search for wives. Still, Arab-Brazilian families remained devoted to marrying only other Arabs, as a matter of cultural preservation. As such, my great-grandmother Jamile set my grandfather up with my grandmother, Waldionice Maluf, a second-generation Lebanese woman also living in the small town of Sorocaba, on the outskirts of São Paulo.

Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother is always eager to share these glimpses of our origins with me. It is in the kitchen (with a shower cap on her head, to keep her thick mountain of hair in check) and around the dining room table that she is most comfortable doing so, in the same place where her mother and Levantine grandparents let their Arabic be heard too.

It is undoubtedly through food that Arabic finds its way into the daily lives of the Lebanese and Syrian diasporas in Brazil. On these occasions, the language is shared between older and younger generations. Instead of serving as a boundary to separate adult conversation, it unifies. Here, words like hubz (khubz, Arabic for "bread"), torn by hand and distributed equally, are exchanged.

I was speaking Arabic before I even knew what it was. Words like sfihah, shishbarak, labneh and za‘atar were simply a part of my vocabulary growing up. From recipe books and Sunday lunches, I learned words such as immo (from the dish laban immo, which means “mother’s yoghurt”).

The Arabic language itself was also subject to transformations by immigrant speakers. My mother and her sister took some of what they learned in Arabic, combined it with Portuguese and created their own secret language. One amusing example was when they took the word for one’s behind, tiz, adding the Portuguese diminutive ending -inho to come up with a new and indecipherable (until now) way of referring to that part of their anatomy.

Ibrahim Kosremelli carved his name into the wall of an ancient temple to document his departure from his home. Though my Levantine ancestors struggled to start fresh in a new country and learn a different language, they transmitted their strength and resolve to their children. My grandparents and millions of other Brazilians of Lebanese and Syrian origin, after all these years, still identify strongly with their heritage. “Brazilian nationalism, though as exclusionary as other nationalisms around the world, opened a space for Lebanese and Syrians to assert and build a public identity in ways that is unmatched in any other country,” affirms Karam.

In fact, Karam sees renewed interest in Arabic within Brazilian academia: “It seems that the language is only gaining more ground within the diaspora and Brazilian communities as a whole.” The first Arabic programme in the country was established by Helmi Nasr at the Universidade of São Paulo in the 1960s, and since the 1990s other universities across Brazil have begun to offer similar programmes.

It could be that recent events in the Middle East have fueled this interest even more. To learn a language is to be active, even in the smallest way. The same can be said for writing an article about one’s ties to a place and to a people, hoping that these links will soon become evident once again.

Paola C. Messina is a freelance journalist, sound designer and researcher currently based in New York. While pursuing her Master’s in Media Studies, she continues to explore themes relating to sound, culture and politics in the Middle East and beyond, and she tweets at @icanhearpaola.