Football World Cup matches in Qatar find Arab diaspora in Latin America torn by split loyalties

Special Football World Cup matches in Qatar find Arab diaspora in Latin America torn by split loyalties
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Updated 04 December 2022

Football World Cup matches in Qatar find Arab diaspora in Latin America torn by split loyalties

Football World Cup matches in Qatar find Arab diaspora in Latin America torn by split loyalties
  • Descendants of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese immigrants look with pride at the national squads of the Arab world
  • Although many support their home side, fans have keenly followed matches of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco and Qatar

SAO PAULO: The World Cup is a big deal in Latin America, with cities across Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere brought to a standstill whenever their respective national teams are on the pitch. But for one segment of society in particular, the 2022 tournament hosted by Qatar is particularly significant.

Arab Latin Americans are thought to number about 23 million people. There are large communities in Brazil and Argentina, and significant populations in Mexico, Chile, Venezuela and Colombia, made up of descendants of Arab emigrants who came over from the Middle East and North Africa, voluntarily or as refugees. And, like everybody else in these countries, Arabs love football.

The fact the 2022 World Cup is taking place in an Arab country for the first time provides an even greater incentive for the Arab diaspora in Latin America to tune in from distant time zones. The only question is whether to support the Arab side that reflects their ethnic origins, or the teams of their adopted countries.

Qatar’s hosting of the competition “certainly generates sympathy among Arab communities; people have been waiting for that World Cup for a long time,” Agustin Dib, director of the Arab Culture Club in Buenos Aires, told Arab News.

According to him, however, most Arab Latin Americans tend to root for the team that represents their adopted home.

“In Argentina, the first Lebanese and Syrian immigrants began to arrive at the end of the 19th century,” said Dib. “The same happened in Brazil. So, we are fully Argentinian, Brazilian, and so on — and love our national teams.”

At the same time, though, Arab Latin Americans watch with pride national squads from the Arab world and eagerly follow the fortunes of the likes of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Qatar. The Saudi team’s historic 2-1 victory against Argentina in their opening match in Qatar no doubt captured the imagination of many.

There are large Arab communities in the border zones between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. In these areas, a World Cup campaign can temporarily divide Arab groups.




Saleh Al-Shehri celebrates with Saudi Arabia's forward #09 Firas Al-Buraikan after scoring his team's first goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium. (AFP)

This is certainly the case in the bisected Brazilian city of Chui and its Uruguayan counterpart, Chuy, where several thousand Palestinians have settled. Most of the time, this community pays little heed to the geographical boundary separating them. But a World Cup can change this.

“In general, we cheer for both Uruguay and Brazil,” Jaber Nassar, a 43-year-old shop owner who lives on the Brazilian side of the city, told Arab News. “But if there is a match between both teams, each side will root for its national squad.”

The rest of the time, though, there has traditionally been a historic bond between both communities when it comes to football. In 1987, they founded the Central Palestino Futbol Club. Active for a little more than a decade before folding as a result of lack of funds, Central Palestino was part of the Uruguayan league and made waves in the 1990s when it reached the finals of a national championship.

“I used to see many matches with my mother when I was a boy. Central Palestino was a local champion and we would travel throughout Uruguay to see them play,” said Nassar, whose brother-in-law was part of the squad for several years.

The Palestinian community routinely turns out in force to watch as many matches as possible during a World Cup, said Nassar. A few of his friends even traveled to Qatar for the tournament.

“Of course, we will focus on the Arab teams,” he added.

Nassar said the Palestinians love of South American football is not only a byproduct of immigration. Even in Palestine, he said, many people cheer for Brazil during international tournaments.

FASTFACTS

* The Arab diaspora in Central and South America is thought to number about 23 million people.

* The biggest Arab communities are in Brazil and Argentina, followed by Mexico, Chile, Venezuela and Colombia.

According to Dib, this is common in many Arab nations and reflects a recognition of, and appreciation for, the prowess of top South American players.

“In countries like Syria and Lebanon, people love Argentinian and Brazilian football,” he said. “I lived for a few months in Tunisia and people would always ask me about Maradona and Messi.”

Zuka Khouri, who left Syria as a refugee and settled in the Brazilian city of Curitiba nine years ago, said her family cheers for the Brazilian national team during every World Cup.

“We also liked to see Italy play,” she told Arab News. “This year Italy is not in the competition so we are rooting for Brazil.”

Anas Obaid, a 34-year-old Syrian refugee, was captured and held hostage by an armed group in Syria until his family paid a ransom. After his release, he fled to Lebanon where he worked in a refugee camp in Zahle. He has lived in Brazil since 2015 and is now a journalist and human rights activist. He loves football and said he used to cheer for Argentina when he was a child.

“I was there during the 2014 World Cup, which took place in Brazil,” Obaid told Arab News. “I rooted for Germany, because the country was welcoming many Syrian refugees. But some in the camp rooted for Brazil.”

Since arriving in Sao Paulo, he said has become an ardent supporter of the Brazilian national team. “Brazilians have a passion for football and it is an honor to root for their squad,” he said.

Although football is unequivocally a national obsession in Brazil, and the World Cup a major event for the people there, the number of Brazilian fans who bought tickets for matches in Qatar, 39,546, is significantly lower than the numbers of Argentines (61,083) and Mexicans (91,173).

Mexico regularly sends a large contingent of fans to World Cups. Most Arab Mexicans are of Lebanese origin, according to Hector Chamlati, a member of the consulting board of Centro Libanes, a community association in Mexico City. The number of Lebanese Mexicans is estimated at about 500,000, most of whom are Christians.




FIFA President Gianni Infantino gives thumbs-up during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group G football match between Brazil and Switzerland at Stadium 974 in Doha. (AFP)

“We have a very strong connection with the Mexican national team,” Chamlati told Arab News. “But it pleases many of us to see Arab teams play. I was glad to see that Tunisia managed to draw with Denmark (on Nov. 22).”

The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, he said the Mexican community feels an intense connection to Lebanon and if the country’s national team was competing in Qatar, many of them would certainly root for them.

“But I think it is special to see the potential success of any Arab squad,” he added.

Jose Alejandro Serio Haddad, a 25-year old Lebanese Mexican, traveled to Qatar with his friends to watch Mexico play. It was his first visit to an Arab country and proved to be something of a culture shock.

“I think Qatari and Lebanese culture are very different,” he told Arab News. “Besides, the number of Arabs here is not very high. Most of the time we meet with South Asians. We feel like foreigners all the time.”

Serio Haddad was not confident about the chances of any Arab teams progressing from the group phase to the final stages of the tournament “but we certainly feel more empathy with them than with Latin American teams, like Argentina, for instance.”

As for the fact that the World Cup is being hosted by a Muslim country for the first time, Obaid said that this was certainly noteworthy but he was unhappy with the amount of criticism that has been leveled against Qatar.

“I am concerned by the international community’s reaction,” he said. “It can be a way of fighting prejudices over Muslims and Arabs. But at the same time people are paying much more attention to Qatar’s social contradictions than they did when the (competition) happened in non-Muslim countries.”

Dib said he has been organizing talks to discuss the common distortions in the way Western countries perceive the World Cup in Qatar.

“Since the first World Cup, in Uruguay in 1930, there have been corruption scandals, for instance,” he said. “But the media now focuses almost exclusively on Qatar’s problems. It is a matter of prejudice.”

In any other context, Dib said, the global press would have talked about the construction marvels achieved by the hosting country “but given that it is an Arab nation, it only talks about the deaths that occurred during construction.”

He added: “I am not saying those problems are not important but the exclusive focus on them is a problem. It has to do with Orientalism as defined by Edward Said.”

In his 1978 book, “Orientalism,” Said established the term as a critical concept to describe the often contemptuous Western depiction of the East.

Dib said that many Arab Latin Americans are not comfortable with what many perceive as biased coverage of Qatar — which has been echoed in the Latin American media as well — because they feel that “there is an ongoing attack on Arab culture as a whole.”


Parliamentarians agree on need to digitize OIC work ahead of annual conference

Parliamentarians agree on need to digitize OIC work ahead of annual conference
Updated 29 January 2023

Parliamentarians agree on need to digitize OIC work ahead of annual conference

Parliamentarians agree on need to digitize OIC work ahead of annual conference

ALGIERS: Parliamentary committees of member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation on Saturday agreed on the need to digitize the OIC’s work and organize periodic virtual sessions and meetings to enhance its work.

General secretaries unanimously agreed during preparatory meetings for the 17th session of the Parliamentary Union of the OIC Member States, which is set to be held in the Algerian capital, Algiers, on Sunday.

PUIC Secretary-General Mouhamed Khouraichi Niass renewed his call for setting up a cooperation mechanism between Islamic and international parliaments to strengthen relations in all fields.

Niass expressed his hope to develop a work program to achieve the objectives of the PUIC’s General Assembly and to exchange scientific and practical expertise to upgrade the performance of the General Secretariat.

On Friday, the ninth meeting of the standing committee specialized in cultural and legal affairs and the dialogue of civilizations and religions was held, where members reviewed a number of draft resolutions related to Islamic sanctities in Muslim and non-Islamic countries, especially the protection of the Al-Aqsa Mosque from threats. 

The committee also dealt with combating religious intolerance and supporting dialogue among civilizations, as well as combating the dangers of xenophobia and Islamophobia around the world.


Challenge for Tunisian democracy: Getting voters to show up

Tunisian prominent activist, Ayachi Hammami, speaks outside a court in Tunis, Tunisia January 10, 2023. (REUTERS)
Tunisian prominent activist, Ayachi Hammami, speaks outside a court in Tunis, Tunisia January 10, 2023. (REUTERS)
Updated 29 January 2023

Challenge for Tunisian democracy: Getting voters to show up

Tunisian prominent activist, Ayachi Hammami, speaks outside a court in Tunis, Tunisia January 10, 2023. (REUTERS)
  • Analysts note a growing crisis of confidence between citizens and the political class since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution unleashed uprisings across the region, and led Tunisians to create a new democratic political system celebrated with a Nobel Peace Prize

TUNIS: Tunisia was once the Arab world’s hope for a new era of democracy. Now it’s in the midst of an election that’s more of an embarrassment than a model.
Barely 11 percent of voters turned out in the first round of parliamentary elections last month, boycotted by opposition groups and ignored by many Tunisians disillusioned with their leaders.
Ten candidates secured seats in the legislature even though not a single voter cast a ballot for them, simply because they ran unopposed.
In seven constituencies, not even one candidate bothered to run.
President Kais Saied is pinning his hopes on Sunday’s second round of voting, which will wrap up his sweeping redesign of Tunisian politics that began when he suspended the previous parliament in 2021.
The new body will have fewer powers than its predecessor and risks being little more than a rubber stamp for Saied.
The president and many Tunisians blamed the previous parliament, led by the Ennahdha party, for political deadlock seen as worsening the country’s protracted economic and social crises.
Some Ennahdha officials have been jailed and the party is refusing to take part in the parliamentary elections, and has held repeated protests.
In last month’s first-round voting, 23 candidates secured seats outright in the 161-seat parliament: 10 of them because they ran unopposed and 13 because they won more than 50 percent of the vote, according to election officials.
In Sunday’s second round, voters are choosing among 262 candidates seeking to fill the 131 remaining seats.
In the seven constituencies with no candidate, special elections will be held later to fill the seats, likely in March. Since Saied was elected president in 2019 with 72 percent of the vote, his support among Tunisians has dulled.
Analysts note a growing crisis of confidence between citizens and the political class since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution unleashed uprisings across the region, and led Tunisians to create a new democratic political system celebrated with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
Daily life for Tunisians seems to keep getting worse.
At a Tunis food market, vendors struggled to sell strings of dates, fish heaped on ice, piles of eggplants and herbs as shoppers lamented rising prices.
Few seemed to think Sunday’s vote would solve their problems.
Successive elections “have brought me nothing,” sighed Mohammed Ben Moussa, an employee of a private company.
The economy is meanwhile teetering.
According to the latest figures from the National Institute of Statistics, unemployment has reached more than 18 percent and exceeds 25 percent in the poor regions of the interior of the country, while inflation rate is 10.1 percent.
Tunisia has been suffering for several years from record budget deficits that affect its ability to pay its suppliers of medicines, food and fuel, causing shortages of milk, sugar, vegetable oil and other staples.
The Tunisian government is currently negotiating a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, which was frozen in December.

 


Strong quake in northwest Iran kills at least three people

Strong quake in northwest Iran kills at least three people
Updated 29 January 2023

Strong quake in northwest Iran kills at least three people

Strong quake in northwest Iran kills at least three people

DUBAI: An earthquake with a magnitude of 5.9 struck northwest Iran near the border with Turkiye on Saturday, killing at least three people and injuring more than 300, state media reported.
The official news agency IRNA reported the toll citing the head of emergency services at the university in the city of Khoy, near the quake’s epicenter.
An emergency official told state TV that it was snowing in some of the affected areas, with freezing temperatures and some power cuts reported.
Major geological faultlines crisscross Iran, which has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years.


UN agency warns of record rates of hunger in Syria

Trucks from the World Food Programme drive through the Syrian city of Idlib. (AFP)
Trucks from the World Food Programme drive through the Syrian city of Idlib. (AFP)
Updated 29 January 2023

UN agency warns of record rates of hunger in Syria

Trucks from the World Food Programme drive through the Syrian city of Idlib. (AFP)
  • Child and maternal malnutrition ‘increasing at a speed never seen before,’ World Food Programme says

BEIRUT: The World Food Programme has warned that hunger rates in Syria have soared to record highs after more than a decade of devastating conflict.

A brutal war that triggered years of economic crisis and damaged vital infrastructure has put 2.9 million at risk of sliding into hunger, while another 12 million do not know where their next meal is coming from, the UN agency said.
“Hunger soars to 12-year high in Syria,” as 70 percent of the population might soon be “unable to put food on the table for their families,” the statement said.
“Syria now has the sixth highest number of food insecure people in the world,” the WFP added, with food prices increasing nearly 12-fold in three years.
Child and maternal malnutrition are also “increasing at a speed never seen before,” in more than a decade of war.
If the international community does not step up to help Syrians, it risks facing “another wave of mass migration,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley during a visit to Syria this week.
“Is that what the international community wants?” he asked, urging donor countries to redouble efforts to “avert this looming catastrophe.”
The UN estimates 90 percent of the 18 million people in Syria are living in poverty, with the economy hit by conflict, drought, cholera and the Covid pandemic as well as the fallout from the financial crash in neighbouring Lebanon.
The conflict in Syria started with the brutal repression of peaceful protests.
About half a million people have been killed, and the conflict has forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday that a report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that found the regime was responsible for a chemical weapon attack on the city of Douma in 2018 lacked any evidence, and denied the allegations.
The global chemical weapons watchdog said on Friday a nearly two-year investigation had found that at least one Syrian military helicopter had dropped gas cylinders onto residential buildings in Douma, killing 43 people.
Investigators said there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that at least one Syrian air force helicopter had dropped two cylinders of the toxic gas on the rebel-held town of Douma during Syria’s civil war.
“The world now knows the facts,” said Fernando Arias, chief of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or OPCW.
“It is up to the international community to take action,” Arias said in a statement.
Damascus and its ally Moscow claimed the April 7, 2018 attack was staged by rescue workers at the behest of the US which afterwards launched airstrikes on Syria along with Britain and France.
The Douma case also caused controversy after leaks from two former employees accused the Hague-based watchdog of altering its original findings to make them sound more convincing.
But the OPCW said its investigators had “considered a range of possible scenarios” and concluded that “the Syrian Arab Air Forces are the perpetrators of this attack.”
Western powers together called on Syria to be held accountable over the “horrific” attack.
“We call on the Russian Federation to stop shielding Syria from accountability for its use of chemical weapons,” said a joint statement by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany.
“No amount of disinformation from the Kremlin can hide its hand in abetting the Assad regime.”

 


Loud blast heard at military plant in Iran’s central city of Isfahan, official says no casualties

Loud blast heard at military plant in Iran’s central city of Isfahan, official says no casualties
Updated 29 January 2023

Loud blast heard at military plant in Iran’s central city of Isfahan, official says no casualties

Loud blast heard at military plant in Iran’s central city of Isfahan, official says no casualties
  • There have been a number of explosions and fires around Iranian military, nuclear and industrial facilities in the past few years

TEHRAN: A loud blast was heard at a military plant in Iran’s central city of Isfahan, but a security official said there were no casualties, Iranian state broadcaster IRIB said on its website early on Sunday.

“The explosion took place in one of the munitions manufacturing centers of the Defense Ministry and, according to an announcement by the ...deputy Isfahan governor for security, there were no casualties,” IRIB reported.

The official, Mohammad Reza Jannesar, later told state television: “The damages are being investigated as well as the causes and elements that caused this explosion and .. will be announced later.”

There have been a number of explosions and fires around Iranian military, nuclear and industrial facilities in the past few years.

The blasts have at times caused concern amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear program with Israel and the United States.

Israel has long threatened military action against Iran if indirect talks between Washington and Tehran fail to salvage a 2015 nuclear pact.