Arabs in Brazil | Three Creative Paulistanos
From the sunny shores of Salvador to the skyscrapers of São Paulo, Brazil is home to an 11 million strong Arab community. Here, Brownbook meets three creative Paulistanos – a musician, an artist and a literary translator – to find out the ways in which Arab culture has its roots planted in everyday Brazilian life.
Badi Assad Born to a musical family of Lebanese descent, Badi Assad’s own sound blends Moorish influences with those closer to home You come from a very musical family. Yes – my parents were self-taught and very musically intuitive. They always supported my brothers and I. When I was born, my brothers [Sérgio and Odair Assad of Duo Assad] were already playing the guitar and by the time I started to play, they were already touring abroad. How did you follow that? I found myself reaching for a place that would be my own. I began mixing my love for guitar, voice, percussion and writing simultaneously. I love to deliver my music with the emotions it asks for. My approach to music is more like that of an actress than a musician. Your family is also of Lebanese descent. Has this heritage influenced your music? My grandfather came from Lebanon, but he never taught my father much about his background or culture, so my father never taught us either. I remember helping my mother to make kibbeh on Sundays, though, which she had learned how to make to please my father, and I became fond of the words of Khalil Gibran, too. How do you capture the rhythms of Brazil in your music? Brazil breathes all kinds of rhythms – each region has many different ones. When I was a child, the cultural interaction was difficult because of the large distances, but as I grew up this distance became closer, with the Internet, etc. I started to incorporate all that diversity into my music, in a very intuitive way. What first drew you to incorporate flamenco into your music? Maybe my silent heritage connected me to its Arabian influences. I was interested in the way they perform, as if it were the last time. All of the intensity, drama, passion and technique carries a sort of magnetism. I can’t say that I play flamenco style, or use the guitar technique, but I absorbed some of it and introduced it into my own music, style and rhythm. Are you unique in doing so or is there a similar local equivalent? There is a traditional Brazilian style called chorinho, in which musicians gather and play for the love of music. It’s totally different from flamenco as it doesn’t carry its emotional profoundness, but the way people are connected by music and guitar are similar.
Gui Mohallem 'Every foreigner holds a secret: the life they left behind.’ These subtitled words introduce a video in the Brazilian artist Gui Mohallem’s gripping audiovisual series, ‘Tcharafna’ (meaning ‘nice to meet you’), which documents his six-week, life-changing pilgrimage to Lebanon in 2012. The foreigner he refers to, though, is not himself – it’s his Lebanese-born father, who fled the war-torn country in 1952, and has yet to return. ‘I lived with him for all my life,’ says Mohallem, ‘but I only met him truly when I went to Lebanon.’ Mohallem’s series helped him to understand and appreciate his dad’s unsettling ‘secret’, and his cameras helped him bring a better understanding of his own heritage and culture into focus. Born and raised in a town of around 100,000 in Minas Gerais state, Mohallem’s migration was a lot closer to home than his dad’s, as he moved just three hours away to monstrous São Paulo to attend film school at the age of 19. Now 35, Mohallem has settled into his new home, a metropolis he admits can be harsh but one where he enjoys simple pleasures like cooking vegetarian fare, riding his bike, slowing down and something he calls ‘the exchange of different.’ The latter is especially present at the artistic house, Casa Tomada, where he rents a space as he prepares for his July exhibition in Rio de Janeiro. He still visits his parents often in Minas – albeit with a new set of eyes – and he can’t fathom the idea of ever leaving his family or Brazil, but he’s also set a goal of returning to Lebanon once a year to see his extended family. His first such return, in 2013, proved just as fruitful as his original trip, but in a way he hadn’t expected. ‘I realised I was more Lebanese than I ever imagined. Things that I thought were a part of me, they were actually part of a culture. It’s very freeing and very disturbing at the same time,’ says Mohallem, who now finds it difficult to differentiate between his two cultures, and considers himself a third-culture child. ‘It’s completely life-changing, it’s like no way back. But the shape of my work is changing, the medium is changing. I’m expanding ways of expressing all the time, and that I think is the main thing.’
Safa Jubran In 1982, a young Safa Jubran left Lebanon for a three-month vacation in Brazil. Thirty years and a PhD from the University of São Paulo later, she’s still there, teaching her native tongue and translating the literature of her homeland. Why did you choose to stay? It wasn’t really a choice. I was visiting my older sister. A month after I arrived I met my husband. Because of that, and the ongoing war in Lebanon, I decided to stay. Are there places you visit when you’re feeling nostalgic for Lebanon? I visit my memory. There, on its walls, I hung Lebanon as a painting, to go to it every time I feel nostalgic. How did your interest in translation develop? The first text I translated was not a literary one, but a 10th century Arabic manuscript about alchemy. A professor from another university asked me to teach her Arabic so she could translate it. After realising it would take her a lifetime, she asked me to translate it for her. That’s how it all started – it was never planned. What are some of the challenges of translating Arabic to Portuguese? The verbs are the most difficult to translate, since in Arabic only two conjugations exist whereas in Portuguese you have many tenses. There are also the cultural, historical and religious specificities. Sometimes you need to add notes to explain what, for an Arabic reader, would be obvious. Publishers don’t like notes in novels. The other challenge is to recreate or rewrite the book without losing its cultural features, at the same time being careful not to make it sound like a translation. It’s not easy to achieve. Is Arabic literature popular in Brazil? I don’t know how to define ‘popular’ in a continental country like Brazil. If it means that you’ll see someone reading an Arabic novel on a bus, the answer is no. If it means ‘bestseller’, the answer is also no. But, the novels that have been translated have received very good reviews and sell well as foreign literature. Brazilian readers can identify with Arabic literature, especially in its modern form, because it touches on themes like identity, exile, war, tragedy and life in suffocating societies. These aspects of the literature move Brazilians.
This article appears in the issue46Buy Now