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Lebanese influence in Brazil

Though the exact number is disputed, it is clear that there are at least 6 million Brazilians of Lebanese origin. In business, economics, culture and many other fields, Lebanese people sit at the top of Brazilian society. Despite making up less than 5 percent of the population, 10 percent of parliamentarians have Lebanese origins.

Yet these migrants were not always so successful. Arriving in the late 1800s, much of the first generation brought with them nothing but the clothes on their backs. The story of how they came to make up the Brazilian elite is one of free markets, risky decisions, stigma, and above all, hard work It is widely known that there are more people of Lebanese descent in Brazil than there are citizens of Lebanon itself. Yet how many more is a matter for ongoing debate in both countries.

Some estimates have put the number as high as 12 million, while others are as low as four or five. That puts the Lebanese–Brazilian population somewhere between 3 and 6 percent of the country’s total population of 200 million. Trying to get a reliable estimate is a lot harder than it may initially appear. One of the most obvious examples of these entanglements is the large number of Brazilian politicians of Lebanese descent. Among them are former president Michel Temer, former São Paulo governador Paulo Maluf, and former São Paulo mayor Fernando Haddad—whose parents migrated, respectively, from Btaaboura, Hadath Baalbek, and Ain Atta.

During some periods, the percentage of representatives of Lebanese descent in Brazil’s Congress has reached ten percent. As I heard from Lebanese people during my research over the past years, it is ironic that Lebanon has spent long periods without a president while people of Lebanese descent have often ruled Brazil.

The history of Lebanese descendants in Brazil goes beyond politics, however. For example, Lebanese migrants and their descendants published a trove of Arabic-language newspapers in Brazil, contributing to the nahda (a cultural movement around the turn of the twentieth century, often translated as “Arab Renaissance”). Between 1880 and 1929, there were 82 Arabic newspapers and magazines published in Palestine, whereas the number reached 95 in Brazil. By 1944, Arabs in Brazil and their descendants—mostly Lebanese—had published at least 156 books in Arabic. The existence of a vibrant Arabic press was directly related to a rich literary scene, organised around a group of writers who called themselves the Andalusian League.

Lebanese migrants also impacted Brazilian foodways, a term for the ways food is produced and consumed. Since the late nineteenth century, Lebanese migrants and their descendants have been cooking their dishes in cities like São Paulo and Rio. Kibbeh—which later became one of Lebanon’s national dishes—is so widespread in parts of Brazil that it is eaten side by side with local staples like pão de queijo (cheese bread) and coxinha (fried dough filled with shredded chicken). Evidence of the reach of Lebanese cuisine in Brazil can be found at one of the country’s largest fast-food chains: a restaurant called Habib’s, which has a genie as its mascot and sells 600 million units of sfiha meat pies a year. The fact that Habib’s owner is a man of Portuguese descent, not Lebanese, speaks to the rooted presence of Lebanese food in Brazil.

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