São Paulo: Half Syrian/Lebanese and Half Italian

When I landed at São Paulo Airport I had only two connections confirmed and an abundance of strong leads (and it was not for lack of trying). I called, emailed, Facebook-stalked many people. I bothered the 30+ Brazilian Sloanies (alum of MIT’s Sloan School of Management). And then… I heard nothing back. Repeatedly I was told, “Lebanese and Syrians are everywhere. There are soo many Muslims in Brazil. But… I don’t know any.”

The population of Muslims in Brazil is either 37,000 or over a million. While the number is not really clear, what is clear is that Islam is not new to Brazil. Enslaved African Muslims arrived in Brazil in the 16th century. By the early 19th century, the Male Revolt had taken place when slaves had united under their shared religion, Islam. Following the revolt, the established powers of Brazil recognized the threat that Islam posed as a source of social unity among servantile population, and it became both passively and actively prosecuted.

A century later, Arab Muslims started arriving in Brazil. Who arrived first amongst the Arabs, however, is not clear. Highlighting this ambiguous history is a joke often told that São Paulo is half Italian, half Syrian, and half Lebanese.

And so, I arrived at the Blue House Hostel – a highly rated hostel that provides beds for $10 a night. I was greeted by Rashid. It was an un-orchestrated coincidence.

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Rashid’s heartfelt smile and scruffy beard

Rashid, the owner and daily manager of the hostel, is Syrian. Upon recognition of our mutual Arab heritage, our conversation quickly transformed into a mixture of English and Arabic for ease of communication. Although he’s never been to Syria, Rashid’s parents made sure that he spoke Arabic at home growing up since immigrating to Brazil over 27 years ago. When I later met his mother, she explained that Hassan, the father, had been a tourist visiting Brazil when he decided simply to stay. Rashid’s family lives next door to the hostel. As I explained my project, he became excited. As a fellow photographer, he immediately understood the importance of sharing stories through photos. “My family lives next door! You will see them. They are wearing the hijab and all!” he enthusiastically exclaimed.

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Rashid, like many young Brazilians, works full-time while pursuing his bachelor’s degrees. I say degrees because he’s working on a degree in Photography and a degree in Business Administration. When we sat down together later, we initially talked about our passion for photography until I decided to jump into what I most wanted to know.

“How does it feel to be Muslim and Brazilian?” I asked.

“Well. I am Brazilian. My parents are more religious. I am not that religious,” he replied.

“…but if someone asked you if you are Muslim – you would say yes, right?” I tried to affirm.

“Ummm. Not really. I believe in God, but as long as I am a good person it does not matter what religion I ascribe to,” he explained. His parents didn’t force him to pray or fast. They respect his choice, and he respects their practices. That being said, his father takes exception to Rashid’s interest in non-Arab women. Rashid’s father insists that, when the time comes, Rashid should marry an Arab woman. Rashid, however, is not very interested in that.

I went next door to visit his family and drink tea, and what promptly greeted by a little fellow who introduced himself as Mohammad, who was 3 years-old. He instantly reminded me of my nephew because he was watching the same Arab children’s channel that my nephew living in Jordan loves as well. Mohammad’s father, Iyad, is a second cousin of Rashid. He, like many thousands of other Syrians, recently fled Syria due to its current civil war.

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As the evening progressed, Iyad returned with us to the hostel and casually joined Rashid and me in casual games of XBox’s FIFA. Soon enough, we found ourselves in the midst of deep and sincerely revealing conversations. We talked about Muslims in Brazil, Iyad’s transition to life in Brazil, the current state of Syria, ISIS, and much more. Iyad was deeply concerned about how he would be able to teach his children Islamic values in Brazil. He was also concerned about how he could ensure that they would never forget the Arabic language. He wished that Brazil had neighborhoods of Arab communities that he could live in to more easily maintain the language and cultural traditions.

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And, quite understandably, Iyad wished that he had never left Syria. He thought aloud over the night that perhaps if everyone who had fled the violence had remained, the civil war might have already achieved a peaceful resolution. But, he acknowledges, it was impossible for him to remain. Had he stayed in Syria longer, he would have faced being forcefully drafted into the army of Bashar Al-Asad; service that he would have adamantly refused. But as he finished his explanation, he added almost as an afterthought how much he missed hearing the adhan.

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Towards the end of the night, Iyad brought us cups of coffee and started telling me stories of the atrocities he had witnessed in Syria’s civil war. He told me about the night when chemical weapons were first used, and as he spoke calmly of the events I felt a mixture of sadness, shock, and speechless repulsion.

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Ammar is on a journey to explore Islam in different countries around the world. He wants to show that Islam is a faith not exclusive to a single ethnicity. He hopes that these stories become part of the conversation about tolerance and acceptance in America.

For more information, visit our page about this journey.