From ONE Magazine

Middle Eastern, Central American Style

The Centro Social Hondureño árabe is Honduras’s largest and most opulent country club, boasting tennis courts, a fitness center, sushi bar, disco and other luxuries rare in this country that is one of the poorest in the hemisphere. But for all its glitter, the club’s chief distinction, suggested by its name, is that it was founded by and primarily for the country’s small but prosperous Arab-Honduran community.

“The community has always looked for forums to socialize, to maintain our bond, and this club is a consummation of that feeling,” said Lidia Abouid, the club’s supervisor.

On a recent summer day, only a couple of miles from the urban din of San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s city of industry, scores of children could be found paddling in an Olympic-sized pool, cooling off after a morning of tennis and racquetball. The voice of the Lebanese chanteuse Fayrouz wafted over the grounds as the staff tidied the club’s three banquet halls: the Palestine, the Jerusalem and the Bethlehem.

Today, there are as many as 220,000 Arab-Hondurans. While they represent only 3 percent of the total population of 7.3 million people, they have had an outsized influence on the nation. They are most visible in business and only slightly less so in politics. Centro Social’s president, Juan Canahuati, a textile magnate with numerous other entrepreneurial activities, is considered the country’s top businessman. Coffee exporter and former Industry and Commerce Minister Oscar Kafati’s ancestors immigrated to Honduras in the late 19th century from Beit Jala, a Christian town adjacent to Bethlehem. Former President Carlos Flores Facusse’s mother came from Bethlehem.

Arab immigration to Latin America is not unique to Honduras nor are such success stories. To take just two prominent examples: former Argentine President Carlos Ménem (1989-1999) traces his roots to Syria; Mexico’s telecommunications titan, Carlos Slim Helu, the world’s third richest man, is of Lebanese descent.

Nearly all Arab-Hondurans claim Christian Palestinian origins, making the Arab-Honduran experience unique. Proportionally, there are more people of Palestinian descent in Honduras than any other Latin American country.

Arab Palestinians first came to Honduras in the 19th century, but the largest waves arrived after 1896, the year the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which then controlled Palestine, first allowed emigration. Numerous factors motivated the early emigrants. In 1909, the Ottomans included in the military draft Christians and Jews, who were once forbidden to serve, but required to pay tribute instead. Economic incentives also drove Arabs abroad. Tourism and commerce, areas in which many Christians worked, declined during World War I. And increasingly Palestine’s Arab Christians found themselves competing with the growing Jewish population, largely secular Zionist immigrants from Europe, in their entrepreneurial activities. Just as today, there seemed to be more opportunities for enterprising Arabs abroad.

But why Honduras?

Some researchers have suggested the earliest emigrants boarded ships without knowing their final destination. The choice of Honduras was not a choice at all; it was happenstance. But after conducting interviews in 1979 with many Arab-Hondurans, geographer William Crowley concluded that “many, and maybe the majority, of the early immigrants headed intentionally for Honduras.”

More recently, in Dollar, Dove and Eagle: One Hundred Years of Palestinian Migration to Honduras, Nancie González argues that, in the late 19th century, “word of mouth through networks of kin and neighbors had commended the Central American republics, and Honduras in particular, as future boom areas where an entrepreneur with only a small amount of capital might make a ‘fortune.’ ” This is the pattern of immigration that many Arabs took to the Americas (for example, the large Lebanese-American community in Michigan).

Many of the Arabs who landed in Honduras made a living with small-time entrepreneurship.

“My grandfather, who left Palestine for Cuba and then Honduras, started out selling medallions and other small goods from his horse,” Mrs. Abouid said.

It is a common story.

“My great-grandfather sold trinkets on a donkey, made some money and then went back to live in Palestine,” said Nasim Farach Kirry, who works for a health communications firm in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’s capital.

It was a fortuitous time to be a salesman. Honduras’s primitive economy had been based on the barter system. But as U.S. banana companies set up shop in Central America, the Honduran farm workers were paid wages and, for the first time, had a small amount of disposable income. From modest beginnings – selling trinkets on horseback – the country’s Arab-Hondurans would become a vital part of the country’s developing economic life.

Most of the Arabs from Palestine who immigrated to Honduras were Orthodox. But until 1963, Honduras’s Orthodox community lacked a church, and by then many immigrants had joined the Catholic Church, the predominant Christian community in the country.

Today, the country’s only Orthodox parish, the Iglesia Ortodoxa de Antioquena San Juan Bautista in San Pedro Sula, serves more than 200 families. It is pastored by Father Jorge Faraj, a married priest whose grandparents came to Honduras from Beit Sahour, another Christian town near Bethlehem.

Father Jorge estimated that about 45 percent of Arab-Hondurans remain Orthodox, including a small number of Hondurans from Lebanon. “But I’m the only Orthodox priest, so it is difficult for me to serve the entire country,” he said.

While most Arab-Hondurans live in San Pedro Sula, there are also large numbers in Tegucigalpa and other cities. “These cities don’t have their own Orthodox parishes, and I can visit them only so often,” said the priest. “So, these people tend to attend Catholic churches. But then, they’ll come to San Pedro Sula for a visit, and they’ll always come to an Orthodox service here.”

Until recently, Father Jorge celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Arabic, with only a sprinkling of Spanish. The idea, he said, was to preserve the Arabic language and culture of the community. However, since most Arab-Hondurans who were born in Honduras do not speak Arabic, Father Jorge found the church was losing its hold on the younger generation.

“They didn’t understand the services, so they’d go to the Catholic churches, where Spanish is used,” he said. “Therefore, we changed our services. Now, we primarily use Spanish. It’s not only to try and hold onto Arab-Hondurans who no longer speak Arabic, but also to make the church accessible to Hondurans of non-Arab descent.”

Typically, only the most recent arrivals from Palestine speak Arabic. “I speak a little bit, but that’s because my mom is first generation – she’s from Palestine,” said Mr. Farach Kirry. “But I am unique among my Arab-Honduran friends in that regard. Most of them are the grandchildren of native Palestinians, and the language has been lost.”

Mr. Farach Kirry, who is 28, recently returned from a postgraduate Fulbright scholarship at Ohio University, where he studied Latin American politics. While he has never visited Palestine, he says he follows events in his ancestral homeland. But most of his Arab-Honduran friends do not.

“First generation Arabs keep up with news from the Middle East, but the average Arab-Honduran is not too involved. And while I’d like to visit, absolutely none of us plans on going back and living in Palestine.”

In other words, Arab-Hondurans’ perceptions of Palestine and Honduras have switched over the past century. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, “most Palestinians considered Honduras a backwater in comparison with what they had left behind,” wrote Mrs. González. “Now, however, those born in Honduras – and also some of the newcomers – think of Palestine as being far more ‘primitive.’ ”

Also, the earliest Arab immigrants faced discrimination, which barely exists today. The first immigrants were derisively called “Turcos,” because of the Turkish passports they bore, and were denied entry in the country’s most glamorous restaurants and nightclubs.

But discrimination has subsided, mostly because of the Arab-Hondurans’ assimilation into Honduran society. Spanish quickly became their primary language, and they did not segregate themselves residentially or socially. Intermarriage is commonplace. Arab-Hondurans name their children according to Honduran tradition, with two Christian names, followed by their father’s and mother’s names, Mrs. González observed.

“Today, I would say there is very little, if any, anti-Arab sentiment in Honduras,” said Jorge Flefil, a businessman and former ambassador to Japan, who is not of Arab descent. “In business circles, you find Arabs and non-Arabs working together all the time. It really isn’t an issue.”

Over time, Arab-Hondurans have also taken on the more relaxed social mores of Latin America. “It’s funny,” said Mr. Farach Kirry. “When I was studying in the United States, I visited a few of my distant relatives who had moved there from Palestine a couple of generations ago. They were much more traditional than we are in Honduras, as if they were still living in Palestine.”

To the casual observer, the assimilation of Arabs into Honduran society seems complete. There are no discernible physical differences and Arabic is rarely ever seen or heard in cafes or restaurants. Even at the Centro Social Hondureño árabe, Spanish is the lingua franca. (About 30 percent of the club’s 2,000 members are not of Arab descent.)

Perhaps the most lingering Arab influence is culinary. Most Arab-Hondurans still enjoy the home-cooked meals of their ancestral lands, some of which have caught on with the general population. “I think our biggest contribution has been couscous,” joked Mr. Farach Kirry. “You can find it on the shelves of any supermarket in Honduras.”

More seriously, Mr. Farach Kirry said that Arab-Hondurans’ sense of Arab identity would only dissipate further. “I speak some Arabic, which is rare. But I’m marrying a Guatemalan, so I doubt our children are going to speak any Arabic.”

Against this tide of assimilation, there are a few Arab-Hondurans who stand out, particularly those who attend the Orthodox church.

While touring the facilities of the Centro Social Hondureño árabe, Mrs. Abouid ran into her son Hector, who was lifting weights. Only a few days earlier, he had returned for a vacation from his theological studies at Balamand University, located just outside Tripoli, in northern Lebanon. He hopes to work alongside Father Jorge at the parish.

“It’s been a great experience going to Lebanon and studying Arabic and absorbing the culture,” Hector said. “I think it’s important for Arab-Hondurans to remember where they came from.”

Increasingly, the church has also sought to introduce Arab culture to Hondurans of non-Arab descent. This was the logic behind changing the primary language used to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

The parish also runs a school next door. It is the only trilingual school in the country, with instruction in Spanish, English and Arabic. Of the 150 students, most are not of Arab descent, Father Jorge said. And two years ago, the church bought a nearby building that will be turned into an orphanage for the country’s neediest children.

It remains to be seen if such relatively small efforts can interest Hondurans of non-Arab descent in Arab culture or the Orthodox faith. And it is also far from certain that such efforts will rekindle Arab-Hondurans’ interest in their Arab roots.

Mr. Farach Kirry predicted that Arab-Hondurans’ sense of their Arab identity would only dissipate further in the coming years. But, he added, assimilation is not such a bad thing. Discrimination is almost unheard of now, he said. And though Arab-Hondurans generally have lost the Arabic language, they will continue to be aware of their Arab roots, albeit in a watered-down way.

“Essentially, we’re just like the hyphenated Americans in the United States,” he said. “Sure, Italian-Americans may eat more pasta and Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but they’re no longer speaking Italian or Gaelic. And while something is lost perhaps, our experience in Honduras has been a story of immigrant success.”

Assistant Editor Paul Wachter traveled to Honduras this summer.