‘Little Brazil’ in the heart of the Middle East
Villagers dance to the samba beat in Lebanon
At the eastern edge of the rural Bekaa Valley, where the rocky hillsides are stippled with cherry trees, a generations-old kinship with Brazil has imbued two Lebanese villages with a Latino spirit.
Lusi and Sultan Yaacoub are home to more than 1,000 Brazilian nationals, many of whom speak Portuguese as fluently as they do Arabic.
The villages are deeply influenced by Brazilian culture, but this is not apparent at first glance. The call to prayer reverberates through the zigzag alleys five times a day and the pale stone houses resemble any others in the Bekaa Valley.
But residents mix Portuguese and Arabic in nearly every conversation and the local cuisine is unmistakably Brazilian. Though there are no official statistics, one municipal council representative said “99 per cent” of the community are Brazilian nationals. Almost everyone said they had lived in South America at some point.
Christina Hindi’s Portuguese bakery - or pastelaria - sells savoury pastries such as pao de queijo, as well as sweet treats like churros. Tropical drinks, such as guarana soda are local refreshments.
When Brazil’s national football team plays, “everyone raises the Brazilian flag”, said Ahmad Jaroush, the mayor of Sultan Yaacoub.
“You feel here as if you are living in Brazil,” said
Fatima Wehbe, a Brazilian-born member of the Sultan Yaacoub municipal council, proudly.
Since the late 19th century, people have been driven out of Lebanon - and especially its mountainous heartlands - by economic hardship, famine, conscription or war. Some travelled to the Americas, settling in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba - and, of course, Brazil.
The Brazilian Foreign Ministry estimates that between seven and 10 million Brazilians are of Lebanese descent. Brazil’s acting president, Michel Temer, is the son of Lebanese immigrants, though his family is from the north, not the Bekaa.
Many of these emigrants have maintained strong ties with their homeland, including through marriage. Lusi residents said an average of 20 weddings take place each summer between a man or woman from the village and a suitor from Brazil. Many of these couples choose to stay, or at least to maintain a home, in the Bekaa Valley.
Hindi, the pastelaria owner, was born in the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo in 1970, and moved to Lusi with her parents in 1985.
A year later, she married a young man from the village, before returning with him to her country of birth.
They moved to Brazil because her husband is a farmer, and in Lebanon “the crop was weak”, she said. A decade or so later they returned to Lebanon with their daughter, for many of the same reasons they had left.
“The Brazilian economy is weak, and there’s no security,” said Hindi.
Residents also cite their attachment to their Lebanese heritage and, sometimes, loneliness as reasons for returning to Bekaa.
Still, many in the community who moved to Brazil have stayed. Jaroush, the mayor, estimates some 4,000 to 5,000 locals from the village and their descendants live in Brazil.
FLYING THE FLAG: Brazilian-Lebanese women Fatima Wehbi, Lilwah Smidi and Maysoun Hindi in the Lebanese village of Sultan Yaacoub, nine kilometres from the Syrian border