‘Lit­tle Brazil’ in the heart of the Mid­dle East

Vil­lagers dance to the samba beat in Le­banon

7 Days in Dubai - - SPECIAL REPORT -

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

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