For all of their original home country’s great history and culture, and the beauty of its landscapes, Lebanon remains a destiny of desire for emigrants, but no more.
- There are one and a half million Lebanese-Argentines in Argentina. After Spain and Italy, they constitute the largest immigrant community in the country.
- The Lebanese are exemplary citizens when they emigrate, and adapt easily to their new country. But they never lose contact with their home country.
- The contribution of many artists, doctors, writers, architects and merchants of Lebanese origin has played an important role in their adopted countries.
- For all of their original home country’s great history and culture, and the beauty of its landscapes, Lebanon remains a destiny of desire for emigrants, but no more.
My father, César Assad Chelala, emigrated from Lebanon to Argentina in 1928 and made his permanent home there. He came to live in Tucumán, a city in the North of Argentina, where he already had some relatives.
As appreciative as he was of his new home, the love for his home country remained unaltered. For the rest of his life, he dreamt of going back. Although his wish went unfulfilled, he transmitted to us, his children, the love for his new country.
Among the earliest memories I have of my father were his permanent comments on how everything was more beautiful in Lebanon. The apples were bigger, the oranges tastier, the tomatoes the richest in the world. The love for his native country was present at every moment.
I also remember when I sometimes accompanied him to breakfast with his friends and saw how they enjoyed eating exotic culinary combinations, such as fresh fruits with different types of cheeses. During those breakfasts, it was impossible for me to understand their conversations as they always discussed the latest political events in their home country, which they followed closely.
Today, I myself live in New York City, thousands of miles from Argentina. And I keep up his example, following closely the political events of Argentina, my native country.
When they emigrate, the Lebanese are exemplary citizens and adapt easily to their new country. However, they never lose contact with the country where they were born.
That adaptation was emphasized during the Lebanese President Camille Chamoun’s visit to Argentina in 1954. He met Argentina’s then-President, Juan Domingo Perón, who proudly told him how Lebanese dressed as gauchos could be found in the farthest corners of the country.
The Lebanese in Africa
Of course, Lebanese emigrated to many different countries. During a UN mission that I carried out in Equatorial Guinea in the 1990s, a colleague there learned that I was of Lebanese origin and told me: “This Sunday I will give you a surprise, get ready for a trip to the interior.”
That day we left in her car towards a small village located three hours from the capital of Malabo, the country’s capital city, through a winding — and dangerous — mountain road.
We arrived at a small town and headed to a small restaurant that was almost empty. We were welcomed by a middle-aged man with obvious Middle Eastern features. “Nabil,” she told him, “here I bring you something you can’t imagine. This man is an Argentine doctor who is here on a mission for the United Nations and is the son of a Lebanese.”
Nabil, who was born in Lebanon, looked at me with huge eyes and we hugged each other. “Since I arrived here five years ago I have not seen any Lebanese coming to this place,” he said excitedly. “What’s your name?”
When I told him my name he got excited. “Are you related to the Beit Chelala village family?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied, “we are the same family.”
“What a coincidence,” he told me, “I used to go through that town frequently when I lived in Lebanon.” Immediately, a strong bond was established between us. “Wait,” he told us, “I’ll bring you something to snack on,” and disappeared behind a curtain.
A long time passed, and Nabil did not return. We were very hungry after the trip and were already beginning to get restless and wondering what happened. Then, we saw Nabil coming out of the kitchen with a huge tray. It had Arab bread and typical Lebanese dishes such as hummus, babaganoush, mujadara, and turnip pickles.
I was in the seventh heaven of contentment since I had been in Equatorial Guinea for several weeks and had not eaten any of those foods that are part of my daily diet in New York. When we finished, we exchanged more memories and I joined him in a bear hug before returning to Malabo, the capital city.
The Lebanese in NYC
Another curious incident happened to me a few years ago in New York. I was visiting the art gallery of my friend Sundaram Tagore, great-grandson of the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.
I was joking with him about the origin of our families when I mentioned that my family came from a town in Lebanon called Beit Chelala. A man in his 60s who was in the gallery asked me: “Excuse me, did you say Beit Chelala?” “Yes” I replied, “Why?”
He looked into my eyes with a smile and said, “Because my name is Edward Shalala (as our name is often spelled in English) and my whole family comes from that town.” We started talking and discovered that our grandparents were first cousins. A friendship was born that moment which still endures.
Lebanon and Argentina
As far as Argentina is concerned, today there are approximately one and a half million Lebanese-Argentines in Argentina. After Spain and Italy, they constitute the third-largest immigrant community in the country. In addition, Argentina today has the second-largest Lebanese community in Latin America, second only to Brazil.
Of course, there is a certain sadness to all the Lebanese living abroad. For all of their original home country’s great history and culture, its ancient history, the beauty of its landscapes, today’s Lebanon remains a destiny of desire, but no more.
The contribution of many artists, doctors, writers, architects and merchants of Lebanese origin has played an important role in their adopted home countries. The country where our forefathers were born is still a source of pride and enchantment for me.