24 Hours in Havana
Arabic radio shows, saffron from Shiraz and a miniature mosque: Havana is home to unexpected Middle Eastern charms
Discreet memorials in quiet parks, kitschy museums with Bedouin mannequins and Arabic spoken on the airwaves are a few of the last handprints of early Arab and North African immigrants that are still etched throughout Ciudad de las Columnas. Not simply limited to a few run-of-the-mill restaurants, Havana’s Arab legacy has woven itself inconspicuously into the fabric of every day Cuban life.One such establishment is the Unión Árabe de Cuba. Originally founded in 1938 on the tree-lined Prado Avenue, the sky-blue painted union welcomes all of Havana’s Arab immigrants and their descendants, as well as those who wish to use the union’s library – which houses a number of books, each adding to the historical narrative behind the community.
In one such historical account, ‘Arabs in Cuba’, researcher Rigoberto Menéndez Paredes names 1,800 Arab families who settled in Cuba starting in the late 19th century onwards. While the first few were recorded in official documents with generic labels like Arab, Turk, Syrian or Egyptian, they all shared a common struggle. As the Ottoman Empire began to crumble, many were escaping a mandatory military draft by hopping on boats bound for the Americas, disembarking at random. Havana was one of those ports.
Though their numbers started off sparse, it’s worth noting that archival documents count some two-dozen Arab Cubans who fought for Cuba’s independence in the wars of 1868 to 1878, as well as 1895 to 1898 – evidence of early integration into a nation that welcomed them.
It wasn’t until the first half of the 20th century that the Arab presence in Cuba began to leave a substantial mark on Cuban society. Coming mainly from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Yemen, thousands of men and women from the Middle East and the surrounding region settled on the Caribbean island and began building their community, starting their businesses and sending their children to local schools.
Roughly 11,000 kilometres lies between Cuba and the Middle East. But, similar to Arab communities living in other Latin American countries like Venezuela and Chile, Cuba’s Arab and North African populations have seemlessly blended into the rough cobbled streets, colonial mansions and new paladares.
9:00am – The Only Mosque in Cuba
Casa de los Árabes, located in Old Havana’s Calle Obispo neighbourhood, is an Arab arts and culture museum founded in 1983, and continues to serve as the island’s only mosque. The cosy prayer hall, which is part-exhibit, sits in the back upstairs corner on the third floor of the museum. During the week, the mini masjid is for viewing purposes only, but come Friday and Havana’s Muslim community is welcome to worship there for Jumm’ah prayers.
‘The main objective of the museum is to promote and show the culture and architecture of the Middle East,’ says museum director Rigoberto Menéndez Paredes. ‘The prayer hall was opened to respond primarily to the demand of the Muslims living here in Cuba.’
Located near Bedouin mannequins, a Kuwaiti jaima (tent) and an ‘Arabic-Spanish room’ housed in an eighteenth century colonial building, the prayer hall boasts a long and narrow space. The floor is covered in a light jade carpet, which leads visitors and prayers to the mosque’s minbar, the pulpit from which the imam delivers his sermons. Following tradition, an emerald green mihrab is positioned next to the minbar, and an adjacent room has been converted to an ablution hall.
Recent estimations place Cuba’s Muslim community in the thousands. Earlier this year, there was an ongoing public discussion regarding the possibility of opening a mosque for the Cuban Muslim community – a move that was officially supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. So far, the Cuban government has, in principle, agreed to look at possible location sites.
11:00am – Memorial to Arab Immigrants
Nestled between the bustling boroughs of Jesus Maria and Los Sitios along the chaotic Monte Street, sits Barrio Monte: the neighbourhood where many who came during the first wave of Arab immigration chose to settle in the early 1900s. Here, the first Arab merchants opened their brick and mortar establishments and made a name for ‘Little Arabia’.
Fitting, then, that the Unión Árabe de Cuba commissioned a poignant memorial dedicated to those first comers, on a little green patch situated in the heart of the Arab borough. In the park, located at the crossing of the Aguila, Maloja and Monte streets, three short terracotta-paved paths lead to a statue of a man and a woman, holding hands and walking.
The spices aren’t so difficult to find here, but distance comes with sacrifices
At the foot of the round platform, a bronze tablet tells visitors that the monument was commissioned by the Unión Árabe de Cuba as a tribute to the Arab migrants who ‘joined the Cuban people in the fight to build a free, sovereign and independent motherland for their descendants’. Today, the memorial stands as a reminder of the past and a symbol of gratitude for the country that welcomed and accepted a new community more than a century ago.
3:00pm – Radio Havana Cuba
‘We broadcast in Arabic for 45 minutes a day. We dedicate special attention to cultural and social events related to the Arab presence here in Cuba and Latin America,’ says Abdulraqib Kassem, director of the Arabic Department of Radio Havana Cuba. Born in Yemen, Kassem was one of the thousands of students who benefited from Fidel Castro’s solidarity policies with like-minded governments. At the age of 15, he studied in Isla de la Juventud during the 1980s and, after obtaining a degree in journalism and a master’s in philosophy, he decided to settle in Havana. He joined Radio Havana Cuba in 2000 and has been the director of the department ever since.
Kassem works alongside a Lebanese colleague and the two report stories for the daily programme, while simultaneously acting as radio announcers and translating articles passed on by the radio’s Spanish department into Arabic. After the regular news programme and a rundown on regional current affairs, the show normally signs off with a touch of Cuban music. These days, though, Kassem has dedicated a portion of the news to Yemen’s political conflict.
‘Part of the programme is also analysing the changes that are happening in Cuba after the announcement, last December, by the Cuban president Raul Castro and president Barack Obama,’ Kassem adds, referring to the renewing of diplomatic ties between the island nation and the United States.
In addition to Arabic and Spanish, Radio Havana Cuba, which is a descendent of Radio Rebelde, a radio station founded by revolutionary Che Guevara, also broadcasts in seven other languages, including: English, French, Portuguese, Quechua, Guarani, Creole and Esperanto. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can tune into the station’s airwaves, and catch Kassem’s live show and sign off.
5:00pm – The General Union of Palestinian Students
Palestine and Cuba share a few qualities: both are economically isolated from the rest of the world, and while the two countries may be thousands of kilometres apart, there’s a sense of solidarity and spirit shared between them. In Havana, one such example is of the remaining branches of the General Union of Palestinian Students – more commonly referred to as GUPS.
Founded in the early 1920s and officially launched in Egypt in 1959, GUPS brought together Palestinian students across the world, as well as writers, journalists and politicians. At one point the union’s membership reached 100,000, with 100 branches worldwide; however, the union was curtailed in the mid-1990s as a direct effect of the Oslo Accords.
One GUPS branch that has resolutely stayed afloat – among a few other Latin American chapters – is Cuba’s. Born in the Aida Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem, Mohammed Abu Srour currently runs the group, which is quite active in terms of its programming, organising efforts and outreach.
‘At GUPS, we organise plenty of activities throughout the year,’ Abu Srour says. ‘Alongside politically-related activities, there are also sports and cultural events.’
The Palestinian Embassy staff in Havana say that there are around 150 students from Palestine currently studying in Cuba on full scholarships, many of whom are working to obtain medical degrees. Medical exchanges aren’t new between Cuba and Palestine, with the former having a track record of sending trained medical staff to the later during times such support was most needed.
‘My best friend is from Brazil, and my other best friend is Ethiopian,’ explains Abu Srour. ‘In the five years I have been here, I’ve come to know the stories of many students, and I’ve also been able to share my experience in Palestine with them.’ Last summer, Abu Srour recalls, the unity with Gaza was palpable throughout the city. While not known for its rallies, Havana hosted several large marches in solidarity.
‘That isn’t something you forget,’ Abu Srour explains. ‘There was so much support.’
7:00pm – Topoly
It was nearly 10 months ago that the Shiraz-native Farokh Nourbakht opened Topoly, a restaurant at the corner of 23rd and D Street, in the central borough of Vedado. The long, slim porch of the house – a sign of early-1920s Republican-style homes – is adorned with several nargileh, Iranian teapots and trinkets.
‘I’d like to offer at least a little of the old culinary cultures belonging to the 12 nations living and sharing the territory of modern-day Iran,’ says Nourbakht, who lives between Paris and Havana.
Nourbakht originally hoped to open a Cuban- Iranian cultural centre, rather than a restaurant, but a web of legal barriers prompted him to take advantage of the new possibilities offered by the country’s internal loosening of economic policies.
The restaurant itself is not a strong business, admits Farokh. Revenues barely cover the cost of supplies and the employment of about 40 employees. But his initial vision is still alive, and Nourbakh hopes Topoly will eventually become an organisation that focues on Cuban- Iranian heritage. Topoly’s long-standing patrons are a mix of locals and members of the Arab and Persian diplomatic missions, as well as student groups like GUPS. Many come by to have a cup of tea or enjoy a homecooked spiced meal, both of which evoke a sense of home.
‘The spices aren’t so difficult to find here, but distance comes with sacrifices,’ he says. ‘In our case, it’s saffron – our jewel. You have to transport it with care from the other side of the world.’
This article appears in the issue52Buy Now