Cuban-Arabs: Another Rich Legacy of Cuba
"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% 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%), with the remainder staying on the Caribbean island. By the latter 1930's, 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.
Working initially as day labourers, merchants and farmers, Arab immigrants in Cuba quickly began to establish more substantial businesses as silk and fabric traders, and some had hardware, jewelry and furniture stores or even importing and warehousing firms. By the 1950's, Arab merchants in Havana owned 10% of the fabric stores, constituting the second largest group represented in this sphere after Cuban Jews.
"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 30 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 Women's 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 Gutierrez, 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 20 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 September 11, 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, who after Fidel came to power in 1959 was a co-founder of both the Cuban Women's Federation and the Committee in Defense of the Revolution in Ciego de Avila, and later director of the provincial library, echoes his 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-American anthropologist who has been living and working in Cuba since November 1992. She is a frequent contributor to Outlook.