This Other America: Part IV, Migrations

During the last day of my stay in Santiago de Cuba, I had the chance to meet third generation Cubans whose grand' parents came from different parts of the late 19th century declining Ottoman empire, in pursuit of the American dream.

We met Y. in the morning over a breakfast that lasted three hours. She came with family pictures and a drawing of the family tree. She is a third generation half Lebanese. Her grand' father came to Cuba, or to 'America', during the second wave of immigration from lebanon after WWI and the fall of the Ottoman empire. In his book 'Origins' Amin Maalouf writes that, contrary to common beliefs, the great famine of the beginning of the 20th century in Lebanon, brought by clouds of locusts that ravaged the cultures and the fields, was not the major cause of Lebanese immigration. Although, it might have played a role later and prompted a second wave of immigration, the majority of Lebanese had left before, at the end of the 19th century. He attributes the massive Lebanese immigration of late 19th century to the political instability in the Ottoman empire prompted by the revolt of the young turks against Sultan Abdul-Hamid and the subsequent religious persecutions against Christians in the Ottoman empire.

Interestingly, the same day, my husband's Canadian colleague, who is a Jew, and who got to know the local Jewish community during his many trips to Cuba, invited us to celebrate Hannukah with them. We went. It was a fine evening. The community is small, some 65 people, and they all come from the former Ottoman empire. Jews prospered for 500 years in the Ottoman empire fleeing persecutions in Europe. At the end of the 19th century, they were 500000 jews in the empire. It was the Jews of Thessaloniki, in what is now Greece, that inspired the revolt of the young turks against the Sultan at the end of the 19th century. One Jew was even a member of the three committee party of younf turks that annouced the dethronement of Sultan Abdul-Hamid. It is widely known that Turkisk governments inspired by the ideologies of young turks, and not the sultanat per se, conducted actually most of the religious persecutions against Christians in the empire. There was probably resentment from Greek Christian communities against Jews, afterward. This might have led Jewish to leave Turkey because on one hand, there are no known persecutions of Jews by Muslims in the ottoman empire*, and on the other hand, most of the Jews lived in multiethnic, and not purely Islamic areas**, close to Christians. The example that is often given is Thessaloniki.

Maalouf mentions Thessaloniki as a melting pot where jews, Chritians and Muslims lived together and as the place of birth of the new eastern enlightenment. The young turks, as well as Ataturk, were inspired by the spirit of Thessaloniki. One may ask how the reformists of the Ottoman empire, inspired by the enlightenment, could have been held responsible for the ethnic massacres attributed to the Ottoman empire ? One explanation Maalouf gives, and I think it is worth taking into consideration, is attributed to the nationalism of the secularists. He makes a difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is the love of the country as a land made for all its people. Nationalism is the love of a certain ideal of the country, which is, most of the time, an ethnic ideal. The nationalism of Turkish secularists was prompted by the faltering of the Ottoman empire from threats coming mainly from Europe, the land of Christianity. The more Europe became threatening to the central authority of the empire and the more Chritians living in the center of the empire felt unwelcome. Turkish nationalism was born and its project was ethnical and it was one of withdrawal and reassembly around an ethnic identity within a certain territory defining the nation. And this is how the ethnic persecutions of the late 19th century came to exist in a empire rather historically tolerant toward its ethnic minorities. Many Christian communities resented then Jews because of their prominent role in the young turks movement which was later responsible for their persecutions.
At the same time, tensions between religious communities rose in the empire. There were massacres against Chritians in Lebanon, and many lebanese felt unsecure in the political instability. That was one reason for them to leave, and they left, preferably, for countries where their religion was accepted. this is why most of the immigration of that period was to Latin America and Cuba where Catholicism is dominant. Maalouf, while searching the history of his family in Cuba, was helped by a recently published book (1999) on Arab components in Cuban culture (Componentes Arabes en la cultura Cubana). There is not one province in Cuba that does not have citizens originating from the near eastern part of Ottoman empire. My own grand'parents lived, had children, prospered, and made a small fortune in Cardenas in the province of Matanzas, for 14 years before returning to Lebanon.
Maalouf's evaluation of the most intense period of Lebanese immigration to 'America' derives from his analysis of the correspondance between his grand'father with his brother in Cuba at the end of the 19th century, and from other family documents. It is however a scholarly informed evaluation.

Y's grand father left Lebanon for Cuba just after the first world war, as did his brothers for other destinations in 'America', except one who stayed in Lebanon. At the end of WWI, Lebanese have already witnessed the faltering of the Ottoman empire, ethnic massacres, a famine, and the crash of a 500 years Ottoman rule and social order. This is when my own grand'parents left also. Apart her family name, Y. does not seem to hold in her any trace of Lebanon and Lebanese identity. She does not speak the language, does not know the history and did not seem to be much interested in what happened to the country since her grand'father left. Y. descends from the second marriage of her grand'father to a Cuban woman, her grand'father had a son from his first marriage to a Lebanese woman who died, and this branch of the family lives in Havana. She, her siblings, and her mother, keep also in touch with a cousin who live in Colombia. Her grand'father died in 1990 and they still keep his original passport, the one with which he left Lebanon for Cuba, but she could not show it to me, it is with her mother who lives in the province of Las Tunas. In 1995, the only brother of her grand'father, who stayed in Lebanon, died (they were 7 siblings in the family) , and the colombian cousin traveled to Lebanon to collect the inheritance. It might have been a relatively large one because the grand'children received something like 1500 dollars each.

Y's family history could have been mine except that my grand' parents left Cuba with all their children in 1934, returned to Lebanon with a small fortune and bought the land of other members of the family who stayed in 'America', a land we still keep until today and a land that my father does not want to sell. It is for this land, to administer it and to keep a careful eye on it, that my grand'mother, the real business manager of the family, even when the family was in Cuba, removed her oldest son, my father, who was a young man at the time, from school. He loved school and excelled in it. I know this very well because I did my high school years in Lebanon under the watch of the man who was my father's teacher, and I was always reminded of the excellence of my father. My father never forgave his mother for this but developped, against his own dislike for the whole enterprise, an infinite love for the land. He used to tell me that when he was young, he would very often enter into bitter arguments with his mother and take refuge in a book under the shade of an olive tree in the fields, sometimes sleeping there for the night.

When I was a child I felt all this. Children have the ability to feel hidden and well repressed emotions because they focuse only on this, their survival and well being depend on this; on their ability to make themselves objects of love and affection and to detect both within the people who surround them. I felt the bitterness in my father toward his mother and, contrary to my grand'father, who was a sweet dreamer, and with whom I remember many tender moments, I never remember such a moment with my grand'mother. I remember however opposing my grand'mother on everything with force to an extent beyond any Lebanese family standards for polite children, having to incur the reprobation of my mother but with the implicit agreement of my father. As long as my father was approving, I could be against the whole world, and even against my grand'mother, his own mother.

Siblings to my grand'parents are a bit everywhere in the 'Americas'. My father kept contact with many of them, especially in Argentina and Mexico, through letters written in Spanish. We never learned Spanish, my father did not want us to learn it. It was his secret garden and he would never allow anybody to enter his secret garden, not even me. The civil war in Lebanon, the now advanced age of my father, and our inability to read and write Spanish, all contributed to a loss of contact with my father's cousins in the 'Americas'. It is only very recently and at the prospect of my travel to Cuba that I made an effort to learn Spanish.

I looked at Y. Tomorrow we will be leaving Santiago to spend a week in Havana. I just loved Cuba and its people. I imagined this country in my dreams when I was a child. I constructed it from my father's stories, songs, and memories and made it my own. And now I am in this imaginary country meeting people whose grand'parents might have immigrated on the same boat as mine. I wished my grand'parents could have left some family in this country. I wished I could walk to a house, knock on the door, and bridging the seventy years that separated the family, announce to the person who would open the door for me that I am her family, her Lebanese family. We would embrace and she would tell me the history of the family in Cuba through wars, liberations, and the revolution, and I would tell her the history of my grand'parents and my father in Lebanon, and what happened to them after they returned to Lebanon, and what became of Lebanon since, and how we are immigrants again...

*A source to read about the link between the young turks movement and the roots of Zionism.
**I am stil looking for serious sources about the recent history of Jews in Turkey because most history accounts do not provide information about the turn of the century (19th-20th) history, the period of the rapid fall of the empire and of religious persecutions.

Links to: Part III, Part II, Part I

Note on other places we visited in the area of Santiago:
I recommend the visit of the Granpiedra in the Sierra Maestra with an altitude of 1226 meters over the Caribbean with old coffee plantations and a beautiful botanical garden that you can visit under the guidance of one of the gardeners. We visited also the city of Cobre, from the name of the old copper mine nearby, where the church of the Madonna of the Charity, most commonly called the Madonna of Cuba, is located and where Jean-Paul visited in 1998. It was the day of the liberation of El Cobre by Fidel and there was a danse procession in the streets progressing over the rythms of Conga...It is said that Hemingway donated his Nobel prize in litterature to the shrine but it is not on display because of attempts of theft.

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Since March 29th 2006