Arabia in Brazil

Another Arabesque by John Tofik Karam is an important contribution to understanding about the identity of Brazil’s Middle Eastern immigrants


Another Arabesque: Syrian-Lebanese Ethnicity in Neoliberal Brazil
John Tofik Karam
2007, Temple University Press
214 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

OUR VIEW of Brazil my never be the same after John Tofik Karam’s ethnographic investigation into the country’s “Turcos” or people of Middle Eastern origin, which examines the shifting position of Arabness in the Brazilian nation.

Every so often a book comes along that changes the way we think about certain countries and themes, and Another Arabesque is undoubtedly one of these. While ethnicity or race may be topics in the study of Brazil that have been badly neglected – with even the better contemporary introductions to the country sometimes devoting little or no space to these pressing themes (see Brazil Since 1980 by Francisco Vidal Luna and Herbert S. Klein) – where these issues have been examined, it has often been in terms of a straightforward division between whites and blacks or pardos.

Karam’s work demonstrates both that themes of ethnicity must not remain ignored in mainstream scholarship, but that a far more nuanced understanding of ethnicity and immigration within contemporary Brazil is long overdue.

What is more, this study provides valuable insights into the role open markets – and in particular neoliberal economic reforms – can, in some circumstances, play in empowering marginalised ethnicities, both fuelling pride in their identity yet also providing opportunities for their distinct cultural heritage to be recognised that may not have previously existed.

Unprecedented kind of privilege

Karam focuses upon the “unprecedented kind of privilege” attained by Middle Eastern immigrants in contemporary Brazil to explore the greater recognition of Brazilians of Syrian-Lebansese decent during the country’s neoliberal transition. Neoliberal initiatives have further intertwined the Brazilian and world economies, and as a result second and third-generation Syrian-Lebanese have ethnically projected themselves as exporters, industrialists and powerbrokers. One outcome of this, he argues, is that Arab Brazilians have begun to articulate an “ethnic project” in their own right – an arabesque – and this has gained real momentum from economic liberalisation.

From a theoretical point of view, Karam moves from early scholarship on nationalism that drew attention to the “imagined” quality of communities to more contemporary work that has taken this idea and employed it in the context of the global, consumer-driven economy. His objective is to explore the many changing links between the idea of the nation and the profile and prominence of ethnicity within it.

Karam points out that terms referring to descendence are favoured over such labels as “étnico” in modern Brazil. His study, however, builds upon the work of Jeffrey Lesser arguing that ethnicity remains prominent yet unacknowledged in the country. Karam suggests ethnicity has gained increasing acknowledgement during and because of the neolioberal experience, with a once devalued Arab identity gaining greater public power through the novel significance of exportation and ethical accountability in the globalising economy.

The importance of this phenomenon becomes evident when we learn that there are an estimated six to 10 million Syrian and Lebanese descendants in present-day Brazil – up to 5 per cent of the national population – compared with an estimated 2.5 million in the US.

It is also thrown into stark relief by the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, when US newspapers began to report on alleged terrorist transnational connections among Middle Easterners in the Brazilian city of Foz do Iguaçu in the so-called triple-frontier region near Paraguay and Argentina. While Brazilian Arabs began to fear reprisals, it would seem that these events nurtured a new and often positive recognition for the country’s large Arab population, again attesting to the very different experience of Brazilian Arabs living in a “racial democracy” to their US cousins. As Karam writes: “In a world of violent acts and retaliations, the Brazilian notion of racial democracy has taken on a novel ideological, and potentially progressive, purpose.”

Another Arabesque is a valuable and interesting exploration of the evolution of Brazil’s successful Middle Eastern community in a variety of contexts – from the powerful industrialists behind the Câmara de Comércio Árabe Brasileira (Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce, or CCAB) to the Middle Eastern restaurateurs and country club directors who have created forms of leisure and consumption that have helped to fashion non-Arab elite Brazilian tastes.

The book provides an intriguing insight into the formerly concealed extent to which Arab culture has influenced this Latin American powerhouse. Perhaps most encouragingly, it examines how efforts to globalise the notion of the Arab terrorist threat led by the US have simply failed to take hold in Brazil, and that Washington has had only limited success in its efforts to convince Brazil and other South American countries that questions of security and surveillance of the Arab community are a hemispheric concern and not merely a US preoccupation.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books