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Volume 46, Number 2March/April 1995

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The Arabs of Havana

Written by Bill Strubbe and Karen Wald

Havana is best in the morning, as it first stumbles into gear. A woman in white stands at the edge of the sea, roosters crow from laundry-laced balconies, crammed buses jostle over pot-holed streets, and a symphony of bicycle bells resounds from faded pastel walls that smolder golden in the early light. Along the tree-lined Prado, where American-made cars from the 1950's nose to the curb and uniformed children make their way to school, there appears a blue building with a simple neon sign that reads "Union Arabe de Cuba" in Spanish and Arabic. The UAC, as it is called, is the focal point of social and cultural life for Havana's thousands of Cuban Arabs.

Inside, historian Euridice Charon explained that, because most Cuban Arabs are third- or fourth-generation descendants of immigrants, counting them is an imprecise art; the best estimates top 20,000 people. However, the Arab and Muslim presence in the Caribbean (See Aramco World, November-December 1987) and in Cuba can be traced much further than a few generations. As Christopher Columbus voyaged across the Atlantic in 1492, the last stronghold of the Andalusian Muslims in Spain fell to Christians in Granada (See Aramco World, January-February 1993).

In subsequent years, the Spanish crown enacted progressively harsher laws restricting Muslim religious freedom and customs. Many sought haven elsewhere, from North Africa to the New World. But the conversion to Christianity of the native peoples was an important justification of the Spanish conquest of the New World, and the crown thus forbade non-Christians from boarding transatlantic ships.

The sheer number of laws, some threatening the death penalty, that forbade passage to the New World—not only to Muslims but also to Gypsies, Jews and Protestants—is evidence that many members of those groups did in fact slip through (See Aramco World, May-June 1992). Among the Muslims who succeeded are Beatriz la Morisca—whose surname means "Moor," or a Muslim of Spanish origin—and Isabel Rodriguez, both of whom aided Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. Later in Peru, Captain Giorgio Zapata, after amassing a fortune in the silver mines, sailed home not to Spain but to Istanbul: His real name was Amir Cighala. Also in Lima, in the 16th and early 17th centuries, several people were brought before the Inquisition on charges of being secret Muslims.

The travel restrictions against Muslims lasted nearly 400 years, until 1900—roughly 20 years after many Arabs began arriving from Lebanon, explained Charon. "But during those centuries the Spaniards overlooked another source of Muslim infiltration—the Muslim West Africans who arrived in the holds of the slave ships."

"Ever since my student days, I thought that Arab history was important in Cuba, but it was not very well known or well explained," said Charon, who credits her father with kindling her interest in Arab culture by sending postcards while he worked as a doctor in Algeria. Later, she received a five-year scholarship to study Arab history in the Soviet Union. In 1990 she began research on Arab immigration into Cuba, scouring immigration, baptismal and wedding documents, as well as trying to trace Cuban family names of Arabic origin, such as Chediak, Trabranes, Bauek, Rachid, Bez and Rassi.

Of these names, the Rassi clan is today one of the largest, with more than 80 family members spanning four generations. Among them, the older folks still greet each other in Arabic and enjoy Arab cooking, making kibbe, cabbage rolls and shishkebab.

"Food is a culture's most enduring custom," said 54-year-old Reynold Rassi Suarez, editor-in-chief of correspondence at Granma, the newspaper of the Cuban Communist party. He delicately explained that, although the Arab Union offers an Arab cooking class once a month, the current international political and economic situations limit availability of the necessary ingredients.

Suarez's grandparents left northern Lebanon at the turn of the century, and both his parents were born in Cuba's Matanzas Province. The family moved to Havana in the 1930's. "My grandfather was proud to be Arab and he spoke both Spanish and Arabic, but my grandmother knew only Arabic, so we spoke that with her at home," he recalled. "My grandmother liked to go out a lot, but because of the language problem, it wasn't easy for her. Sometimes she would sneak out of the house and get lost, but everyone in the barrio knew her and someone would always bring her back home."

Arabs in Cuba were often nicknamed "Morro," but Suarez contends that, while in Europe the word was an epithet, close to a racial slur, in Cuba it connoted someone who took initiative and was strong—maybe even a warrior: The formidable old fortress guarding Havana's harbor is called "El Morro." "The Arab immigrants identified with the Cuban character, Cuban idiosyncracies, and Cuba's struggles for independence," he said, "and that made it easier for them to assimilate."

Cuban history counts several Arabs among its heroes. In the last century, Commandant Elias Tuma, from Bicharre, Lebanon, fought in the War of Independence against Spain. In the 1930's and 1940's, Arabs were active in the struggles against the Machado and Batista dictatorships, and some were among the famous guerilla forces in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. After the 1959 revolution, Alfredo Yabur became Minister of Justice; Levi Farah became the Minster of Construction; and today, Dr. Gustave Kouri directs the Tropical Medicine Institute named after his father, Dr. Pedro Kouri. Fayad Jamis, born in 1930 and known as "the poet of Playa Giron," is one of Cuba's greatest poets. Nola Sahig, who died in 1988, was a brilliant scholar of Arab music and culture, an accomplished pianist and a founder of numerous Cuban-Arab organizations.

In Havana, Arabs settled mainly in Barrio Monte, where many established textile, clothing and watch and jewelry businesses along Monte Street. But the abolition of private enterprise after the 1959 revolution fragmented the trade-oriented Arab community. Many left for the United States, others departed for Mexico and South America, and little was left behind to distinguish the Arab barrio.

Gradually, the Union Arabe de Cuba became the repository of post-revolutionary identity among the remaining Cuban Arabs. The first Syrian, Palestinian, and Lebanese societies were formed in Havana in 1918,1919, and 1920 respectively, with auxiliary chapters in other cities. Lacking their own organizations, immigrants from Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia and even Turkey also joined those groups. In 1938, the first united Arab association was established, but it folded in 1971. It was not until eight years later that the UAC reopened, with assistance from Arab embassies.

"The former [Arab] unions were based on nationality and religion. We wanted the new union to be based on diversity," explained Alfredo Deriche Gutierrez, now president of the UAC. "In 1979 there were a lot of difficulties in the Middle East, and we achieved here in Cuba what has not been achieved there. It wasn't easy, and there were many misunderstandings, but eventually we were able to bring about enough enlightenment."

The UAC's library, salon, restaurant and meeting hall create a focus for cultural activities and provide something like a home and family life for Arab students from overseas studying in Cuba. The UAC hosts receptions for visiting Arab dignitaries, offers a Saturday-morning lecture series on Middle Eastern culture or politics, and publishes a magazine, El Arabe, which covers events in the Middle East as well as local activities.

The UAC also sponsors Arabic language classes. The advanced class's teacher, Gisela Odio Zamora, was among the first Cubans to study Arabic abroad: She lived in Syria from 1974 to 1979. She is president of the Arabic Speakers of Cuba social group, and also translates for Cuban enterprises doing business in the Arab world. Most of her students at the UAC are Cubans not of Arab descent, she said: There are several women engaged to men from North Africa, a Middle East history student, a doctor who served two years in Libya and wants to return someday, and a man of Lebanese descent who goes home from class and teaches everything he learns to his young son.

A short walk east from the Arab Union, the streets of Old Havana are lined with aging architectural treasures; some of them have conspicuously Moorish detailing. In this quarter stands the Arab Cultural Museum, open since 1983. While the building is in a typical Spanish Colonial style dating from the late 1600's, it contains design elements that are legacies of Muslim Spain centuries earlier: Open verandas surround a two-story central courtyard, in the middle of which stands a cistern to collect rainwater from the tiled roof.

Inside, the furniture displays show Andalusian influence, too. One tall cabinet is modeled after a building in the Alhambra, the 13th-century citadel and palace of the ruling Umayyads in Granada (See Aramco World, September-October 1992). Lavishly inlaid with bone, ivory and shell are three 19th-century barqueños, or chests that open into writing desks, also from Granada. One, constructed of a multitude of precious woods, bronze, copper and pigmented paste, is inlaid with Arabic script, executed in mother-of-pearl, that reads "There is no god but God."

Displays from the Western Sahara include a camel-hair burnous, or cape, from Algeria, Berber ceramics, and a collection of carpets largely donated by Arab delegations and embassies.

"We'd like to improve the museum with money raised by the admission fees and the Arab restaurant upstairs," explained museum guide Rigoberto Menendez. Air conditioning, he added, would help regulate temperature and humidity to better preserve the exhibits.

Outside, the grape arbor dapples a tapestry of light and shadow across the courtyard to the entrance to one of the city's two mosques. The other one, Menendez pointed out, is being renovated, and "should be ready soon."

Although most Arab immigrants to Cuba in the last century have been Christians, a significant minority have been Muslim. Both church and mosque watched their congregations dwindle as the 1959 revolution brought dialectical materialism to Cuba, but in recent years there has been a gradual but widespread return to spiritual roots. As a result, an increasing number of Cuban converts to Islam now attend Friday prayers at the mosque, alongside Arab diplomats and students from abroad.

Yahya Pedron, a 38-year-old, non-Arab Cuban, said that he "found the Qur'an on the street." He laughed and explained, "No, really, when I was about 20 years old, I was walking down the street and I found a book about the Qur'an. I read it, and after that, the Qur'an became my guide." Born in Pinar del Rio, Yahya works as a mechanic in a power plant. "I always believed in God and had general religious beliefs, but each person has his own way to worship, and Islam suited my needs."

He and other Muslim friends and families now observe Islamic rituals such as fasting during the month of Ramadan, and celebrate the 'Id al-Adha, or Feast of the Sacrifice, that links Muslims around the world. They often study the Qur'an and pray together. Pedron estimated the Muslim Cuban population in Havana at about 100.

Others in the mosque had experimented earlier with a variety of faiths. "I had a lot of misconceptions about Islam, as information is not well disseminated in this part of the world," explained a 52-year-old man who asked to be called Hasan. He converted after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. "I saw how corrupt his life had been and how adopting Islam changed him. In Makkah, Malcolm saw that there was no difference between men, that—slave or king—all were the same before God."

The youngest of the group in the mosque, when asked his Spanish name, replied, "My name is Ibrahim. I no longer use my Spanish name." Several years ago, he said, a Muslim befriended him, and Ibrahim was influenced by their conversations. "At first my family thought [my conversion] was strange. My friends even thought it was a bit laughable, but now they see it is something good."

Outside the mosque, the men of Havana's small Muslim community have taken it upon themselves to visit and help families in need. "I now think about how I can serve people and always give a part of what I have to the poor," one said. "I used to drink, I was dishonest in business, and didn't care about my neighbor. Now I am more tolerant, and respect nature. For me and others like myself, we have grown as men."

Boston-based free-lance writer Bill Strubbe specializes in international cultural issues.

Karen Wald is a us journalist who has lived in Havana for 25 years.

This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the March/April 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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