VALENCIA, Venezuela: “One chai please,” a young man tells the cafe waiter, using the Arabic word for tea as he smokes shisha with his friends. “Shukran (thank you),” he says as he receives his tea.

At first glance, one would think this was taking place in Beirut, Cairo or Damascus, not over 10,000 km away in Valencia, a Venezuelan city where Arab communities feel at home.

Waves of Arabs migrated to Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many escaped conflict or political instability, and some hoped to find better economic conditions across the Atlantic.

Many of them made the Americas their home, with some estimates of up to 30 million Arab descendants living throughout Latin America.

Arab communities across Venezuela came together by founding social clubs, some of which were created by nationality such as Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian.

In these clubs, families and friends play card games such as tarneeb (trumps) and board games such as backgammon, with Arabic the dominant language amid the smell of black Arabic coffee. Children can play football, swim or meet others their age.

The role of these clubs is to “promote, maintain and care for our culture from generation to generation — a vision our ancestors have had for 60-70 years,” Abelardo Kasabdji, president of the Arab Syrian Club, founded in the eastern Venezuelan city of Cumana in 1969, told Arab News.

The close connection between these clubs allows Arabs to engage and meet across regions and states.

Jorge Khebbe, president of Valencia’s Syrian Club, founded in 1977, maintains relations with several Arab clubs throughout Venezuela.

“Every activity that they do — be it festivals, football games or tournaments between clubs — they call us and invite us,” he told Arab News.

Over the years, these clubs have become venues for weddings, for families to eat Arabic food together, and for friends to reminisce about their lives in their motherland.

Cross-cultural bridges

Sharing and explaining Arab culture to others is another role that these clubs play. “We held an event with Spanish, Italian and Portuguese clubs in Venezuela, where we performed Arab dances so others can experience them,” said Kasabdji.

“Our role isn’t just within the Arab clubs but beyond. We host these interclub events to show and promote our culture.”

Khebbe said: “The Syrian Club in Valencia is open to anyone who wants to come and enjoy, smoke shisha or enjoy food at our restaurant — any person from any religion or nationality.” He added with a smile: “It’s practically as if they were in Syria but here in Venezuela.”

This is especially important for Venezuelan-born Arabs who can experience a piece of the Arab world, and learn and practice their ancestors’ language despite being thousands of kilometers away.

Pandemic’s impact

Clubs had to shut their doors due to COVID-19, impacting the communities that socialized in them. During the pandemic, engagement decreased “at a national level,” said Khebbe.

Reviving the social aspect of these clubs has been part of a strategy to reunite Arab communities, with live music from Venezuelan-Arab singers playing a significant role.

“At all the parties that the Arab Syrian Club organizes — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas — live artists make sure to brighten up these events,” said Kasabdji “We make our music the environment of our joy.”

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