Lebanese Diaspora: the imagined communities History and numbers

0 57
Reading Time: 13 minutes

The article below is a compilation of web and Library research done by Bassam AlKantar. It reflects a diverse points of views of Foreign, Lebanese immigrants, Lebanese researchers and thinkers regarding the Lebanese Diaspora and Communities in different regions around the world. Attached to the article is a list of Kantar’s sources and a brief bibliography about each.
By definition Diaspora is a dispersion of people from their original homeland, likewise expatriation, extradition, migration, separation, or displacement.
People have been emigrating from Lebanon for well over a century. It is currently estimated that there are between 11 and 13 million people from Lebanon or of Lebanese descent in the worldwide Lebanese Diaspora. Such numbers easily surpass the small number of Lebanese that actually live in Lebanon today – around 3.7 million.
The Lebanese emigration has formed an important part of the international movement of population which is one of the features of the modern world. The emigrants from Lebanon established communities in North and South America, the Caribbean, Australia and West Africa, and more recently in the Gulf and other parts of the Middle East (Kerbage, 2002).
The Lebanese, having first begun emigrating around 130 years ago, are not the pure, traditional version of a Diaspora. They assuredly do not meet all of the various requirements that William Safran claims to be the test of a true Diaspora. While the Lebanese are dispersed from an “original center,” maintain a memory or myth of their original homeland, are in many cases committed to an ideal for their homeland (however, this agenda varies tremendously among differing sects), and are finally identified in relation to their homeland (Saffran, 1991), they often lack various other qualities that are necessary to fit Safran’s traditional definition at different points in the Diaspora’s history. At different points in the Diaspora’s history certain Lebanese groups may or may not wish to return to the homeland or certain groups may or may not have been accepted by their host countries. Therefore, when speaking of the Lebanese Diaspora, one cannot define it statically. Some communities or groups within the Diaspora may meet some of the requirements at one time and others at another time.
While defining a Diaspora in certain concrete or static terms may offer more problems than it does clarity or resolution, there yet exists an idea of the term “Diaspora” in public and academic discourse. We can define it as “a transnational ‘imagined community’ of dispersed people who consider themselves to share a common bond or identity despite historical movement and the resulting differences among them.”
In the definition above, a Diaspora is a group of people who “imagine” themselves to be a certain way, therefore the Lebanese of the Diaspora have created for themselves, an “imagined community,” (Anderson, 1983) as being a vision of their community that the group possesses – a widely accepted ideal or myth.
When focusing on places of immigration and conditions within the host countries, particular attention will be given to the situations of the Lebanese Diaspora in the United States and Brazil (as one grouping, modeling a laissez faire immigration approach) as well
as Australia and Canada (another group, modeling a current multicultural immigration approach).
Emigration Pre-1943
Emigration from the area of Lebanon during this period largely began in the 1880s. During this time, thousands of people from the Mt. Lebanon area emigrated. It is difficult to attain accurate numbers of emigrants during this period because up until 1920, emigrants arrived in their host countries with Ottoman passports and were classified as Turks. Others were classified as Syrians until the 1926 constitution or independence in 1943. However, it is widely accepted that the majority of the Syrians arriving during this time period (up to 90%) came from the Mt. Lebanon area (Lesser, 1996, p. 52).
During Ottoman times, from the 1880s through World War I (very little emigration during the war due to feasibility problems) people from Mt. Lebanon emigrated for various reasons. Firstly, they were able to feasibly emigrate because they had begun to make connections with the west through economic and cultural linkages via Beirut. When the western missionaries had come to the area, followed by western tourists, the population of Mt. Lebanon benefited from both the education and cultural interchange (Knowlton, 1992, p. 287).
Once the first emigrants arrived in their various host countries and sent back large sums of money to their families, many others were encouraged to follow. Christian missionaries in the late 1800s reported that “immigration fever” was sweeping over the region (Knowlton, 1992, p. 289). The area began to see more and more ticket agents talking about life in the Americas. They held meetings, describing the wonderful situation in the United States and South America and informed people of how to make the trip (Knowlton, 1992, p. 288). At this time, most Lebanese had a very vague idea about “America,” unaware of its vastness. It was not the place of destination that was important so much as just leaving. Many were vulnerable to unethical ticket agents that would say they would end up one place when they would be sent to another. However, once people began to establish themselves in their respective host countries, they were able to send for family members and describe the exact means of getting to a desired place.
In this first period of Lebanese emigration, the main destinations were the United States and South American countries like Brazil and Argentina. Australia and Canada, while receiving some Lebanese emigrants, did not receive the large amounts that both the United States and Brazil did. The size of the Lebanese immigrants populations to Canada and Australia during this time period were much less significant. In addition, the situation of immigrants in these countries largely mirrored what was occurring in Brazil and the United States.
In the late 1800s, immigration to both Brazil and the United States was occurring in large amounts. Although accurate numbers for this entire period do not exist, there are estimates that from 1890 to 1914, over 60,000 immigrated to Brazil while during that same time period over 86,000 immigrated to the United States (Truzzi, 1996, p. 13).
These first Lebanese immigrants, after arriving in Brazil, generally became peddlers or hawkers. They gravitated toward this work for two reasons. Firstly, most of the immigrants were unskilled, and peddling was a means of work that didn’t require skilled labor. Secondly, it was a way to get “quick returns.” Most wanted to make money fast and return to Lebanon to a better life there (Truzzi, 1996, p. 3). Peddling, however, requiring language skills helped the Lebanese immigrants develop the Portuguese language, which would help with assimilation.
Despite the widespread use of peddling in the Lebanese immigrant community as a means of work, by the 1920s peddling was in decline among Lebanese. This was due to the fact that more and more women were emigrating and the Lebanese began making Brazil their permanent home (Truzzi, 1996, p. 9). By the 1920s, Jeffrey Lesser estimates
that there were about 130,000 Arabs in Sao Paulo and Santos, 20,000 in Para, 15,000 in Rio de Janeiro, as well as many more in other large cities (Lesser, 1996, p. 52). In Brazil, many Lebanese immigrants went from peddling to retail trading, wholesaling, and manufacturing, largely in the textile industry. As Oswaldo Truzzi, notes, the Lebanese immigrants were in the right place at the right time to create a stable and profitable niche for themselves in the textile industry (Truzzi, 1996). This was possible because the Lebanese were the first predominantly urban immigrant group in Brazil (they had immigrated after many other groups that had gone to more rural areas). At the time of their arrival, Brazil was beginning to industrialize – the perfect time to sweep in and occupy the textile niche (Truzzi, 1996, p. 21). In fact, Truzzi writes that by 1940, 50% of the capital invested in Sao Paulo’s textile industry was Lebanese.
The success of these early Lebanese immigrants in the Brazilian textile market allowed them upward social and economic mobility in Brazil. Many of the second and third generations were able to use this economic success as a jumping off point for professional careers. Many went to universities and became professionals in medicine and law. This in turn, allowed for their access into Brazilian politics. Today, in fact, Lebanese are actually overrepresented in Brazilian politics because of the economic and social niche that allowed for their success in the country (Truzzi, 1996, p. 12-13).
The Lebanese in Brazil were able to retain a sense of cohesiveness and connection to their “Lebanese” identity due to their connections with the home country. In Brazil, during the period of 1908-1936, there was a very large (46%) remigration rate out of Brazil. These connections to the home villages remained vital to their sense of identity. In fact, entire villages in Lebanon would be able to speak Portuguese due to the connections, migrations, and remigrations with Brazil (Lesser, 1996, p. 54).
These connections with the home country, as well as the large influence of the Arabic press in Brazil (Lesser, 1996, p. 56) allowed the Lebanese in Brazil to retain their Lebanese identity. In the United States, the early Lebanese immigrants’ story was very similar to that in Brazil. As in Brazil, the early Lebanese immigrants began arriving in the late 1800s. After arrival, most began working as peddlers in order to make quick money to bring home (Suleiman, 1992, p. 190). However, as immigration became more of a permanent phenomenon, the Lebanese in the United States began moving into other trades. The Lebanese used peddling as a way to save up enough money to begin their own businesses (Ahdab-Yehia, 1980, p. 142).
However, unlike in Brazil, the Lebanese in the United States did not create a niche in one particular industry, but instead began their own businesses in many different types of industry. They were actually very gifted at the middleman professions, and this early generation of immigrants became largely economically successful. As in other countries, those that were able to successfully establish themselves served as middlemen for other immigrants, helping them find jobs and housing as they arrived (Ahdab-Yehia, 1980, p. 141).
The second and third generations, like those in Brazil, entered the professional enterprises and became very successful, also soon entering politics in the host country. As this integration into the host culture occurred, aspects of their cultural identity declined. Although for many it was important to keep the Arabic language alive in the household, in most cases they were fighting a losing battle (Ahdab-Yehia, 1980, p. 144-145).
Emigration: Independence to the Civil War
During the period from independence to the beginning of the civil war, Lebanon was generally known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Its economic and financial prosperity masked the brewing sectarian and class issues, superficially making it the West’s model for a pluralistic state. Internationally, Lebanon was regarded as the ideal state – able to work out its sectarian differences and profiting at the same time.
During this time period, emigration from Lebanon was significant and steady. According to Boutros Labaki, for the period from 1945 to 1960, emigration was steady at around 3000 leaving per year (1992, p. 605). However, these arrivals differed significantly from the early arrivals of the first period of emigration. While the first waves of emigrants were generally poor and illiterate, this new phase if emigrants largely consisted of students and professionals (Suleiman, 1992, p. 194).
In the United States the Lebanese population was largely assimilated and had lost a large amount of its ethnic identity, aside from food, music, and religious beliefs. With the arrival of new Lebanese Arab-oriented immigrants to the United States, younger generations of the first immigrant wave were revitalized and wanted to search for their ethnic roots. The secular nature of the new immigrants was very appealing to these American-born Lebanese, and this was able to bind together the two different communities of earlier and latter emigrants (Suleiman, 1992, p. 194).
Canada, like the United States, saw a steady stream of new Lebanese immigrants during the decades following World War II until the civil war. A small Lebanese immigrant community had already established itself before the war years (1975 to 1990) in a few urban areas. From 1911 to 1950, any increase in the Lebanese population was largely a result of natural birth rates. However, after 1950, immigration from Lebanon greatly increased. By 1971, there were an estimated 50-60,000 people of Arab origin in Canada, roughly half thought to be Lebanese. The heavy influx of Lebanese immigrants from 1965-1975 was largely a result of Canada’s new liberal immigration policies (Abu-Laban, 1992, p. 229-233).
Emigration: Civil War to Present
It is estimated that around 990,000 Lebanese left their home country between 1975 and 1989, up to 40% of Lebanon’s population (Labaki, 1992, p. 609). Those emigrating largely went to the states that have received past immigrants from Lebanon. Because there were few foreign embassies in Lebanon during and even after the war, Cyprus became a “stepping stone” for many Lebanese who wished to flee the country (Davie, 1992). A large Lebanese community was established in Cyprus to help others with housing, papers, etc. The community in Cyprus served the fleeing Lebanese as a network of middlemen.
In addition to the large numbers of Lebanese immigrating during and since the civil war, Boutros Labaki notes that there are some distinct new trends in this new emigration period. Firstly, there is a trend from professional emigration towards heavier family reunion emigration. Secondly, there is a trend away form mainly Christian emigration to multi-sectarian emigration. Finally, there is also a trend towards the diversification of the economic and financial status of new Lebanese emigrants (Labaki, 1992, p. 621).
Based upon estimates, there are over 2 million people from Lebanon or of Lebanese ancestry living in the United States today. However, in order to understand the immigrant population of today, it is important to know the number of Lebanese-born immigrants currently in the country. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1990, there were over 86,000 first-generation Lebanese immigrants in the United States (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999). The Center for Immigration Studies offers the number of first- generation immigrants in the United States as over 83,000 in 2000 (Camarota, 2002). However, in addition, there were an estimated 20,000 illegal Lebanese immigrants in the United States as of 1996 (Camarota, 2002).
The Center for Immigration Studies also offers some very significant statistics for the socio-economic characteristics of first-generation Lebanese immigration in the United States as of 2000. Nearly 58% of these first generation immigrants are United States citizens, nearly 50% have a college or graduate degree, and the average annual income of $50,000 is well over the national average. In addition, the percentage of Lebanese immigrants that are self-employed is over 21%, double the national average, and the
number of Lebanese immigrants who are home-owners is 71%, also slightly above the national average (Camarota, 2002). When taking these statistics alone, one might think that the Lebanese emigrating today to the United States are adapting just as easily as did their predecessors in earlier generations. However, after looking at poverty and welfare statistics for this same immigrant group one can’t be so sure. Once again, using the statistics of the Center for Immigration Studies, there are over 25% of new Lebanese immigrants living in poverty and over 20% are making use of major welfare programs. These are noticeably above the national averages, which are 10.5% and 15%, respectively (Camarota, 2002).
In Australia, despite its multicultural policy that for a time strove to unite the Lebanese under an umbrella of national identity, the situation is largely similar to that in the United States. In Australia, there is an estimated 400,000 people that are either Lebanese born or are of Lebanese descent. Australia’s Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs reports the latest census figures for Lebanese-born people in Australia as being over 70,000 (2002).
Although Lebanese have been immigrating to Australia for well over 100 years, the numbers have not been as significant as those in the Americas, and their situation in Australia did not warrant extra detail since it largely mirrored that of Lebanese immigrants to both the United States and Brazil.
In the decades following Australian independence up until the 1970s, a “White Australia” policy largely survived, limiting the numbers of Lebanese that were allowed into the country as well as limiting citizenship. However, the policy of multiculturalism was gradually introduced in the 1970s and exists yet today, prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of race and culture (Humphrey, 1998, p. 6).
The identity and imagined communities of the Lebanese Diaspora over the last century have undergone large transformations due to the influence of homeland issues and sentiments, as well as the societal context of their host countries. The Lebanese have remained connected in their own diasporic niches to other Lebanese niches around the world (and to the homeland) through new immigrants, familial connections, and through larger cultural organizations. However, the most important means of communication is via family. Many Lebanese have siblings, parents, cousins, and former neighbors living in many different countries around the world. Due to the importance placed upon family by the Lebanese culture, these connections have allowed many Lebanese in the Diaspora to remain connected to their culture and homeland.
Therefore, the connections produced by family and new immigrants to the home country and other Lebanese groups around the world have allowed for the transferal of homeland politics and identification to those residing in diasporic communities. Thus, as has been described, the sentiments and events of the homeland play an important role in shaping the imagined communities of the Lebanese in the Diaspora. These imagined communities are then refined and redefined in the context of the host country.
List of resource:

  • –  Abu-Laban, B. (1992). The Lebanese in Montreal. In A. Hourani & N. Shehadi (Eds.), The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (pp. 227-242). London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies: This article investigates Lebanese immigration and settlement in Canada with an emphasis on Montreal. It looks at characteristics of the Lebanese community in the context of the host society of Montreal and Canada.
  • –  Ahdab-Yehia, M. (1980). The Detroit Maronite Community. In B. Aswad (Ed.), Arabic Speaking Communities in American Cities. (pp. 137-153). New York: The Center for Migration Studies of New York: This article studies the integration of one of the largest Maronite communities in the United States – that in Detroit.
  • –  Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities. London: Verso.
  • –  Camarota, S. (August, 2002). Immigrants from the Middle East: A Profile of the Foreign- born Population from Pakistan to Morrocco. The Center for Immigration Studies Retrieved October, 7, 2002 from the World Wide Web: https://www.cis.org: This study gives in depth statistics on different elements of Arab immigrants in the United States, providing information on population statistics to socio-economic statistics. It focuses only on first generation immigrants.
  • –  Davie, M. (1992). Cyprus: Haven and Stepping-Stone for Lebanese Migrants and Emigrants. In A. Hourani & N. Shehadi (Eds.), The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (pp. 627-650). London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies: This article not only discusses the role of Cyprus as a stepping-stone for Lebanese emigrating during the civil war, but also assesses their reasons for leaving Lebanon.
  • –  Humphrey, M. (1998). ISLAM, Multiculturalism and Transnationalism. London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies: This book studies the nature of migration and social attachment as related to the recent Lebanese immigrants to Australia. It focuses on the role of these new “proletarianised” immigrants in the urban setting, struggling to find a place of belonging.
  • –  Knowlton, C. (1992). The Social and Spatial Mobility of the Syrian and Lebanese Community in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In A. Hourani & N. Shehadi (Eds.), The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (pp. 285-312). London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies: This article details the nature and characteristics of the early Lebanese immigrants to Brazil and their upward social mobility in the context of Brazil’s early development.
  • –  Kerbage, S. (2002). The Evolution of National Identity and Imagined Community in the Lebanese Diaspora, paper submitted at Hamline University during a senior seminar option for International Studies majors, a required course for advanced students in the Certificate in International Journalism program, and an upper-level elective for Anthropology majors and other interested students. https://www.hamline.edu
  • –  Labaki, B. (1992). Lebanese Emigration During the War (1975-1989). In A. Hourani & N. Shehadi (Eds.), The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (pp. 605-626). London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies: This article looks at the new and different trends of Lebanese emigration during the civil war, detailing how these immigrants differ religiously, socially, and economically from the emigrants of the previous decades.
  • –  Lesser, Jeffrey. (July 1996). (Re) Creating Ethnicity: Middle Eastern Immigration to Brazil. The Americas,53.1, 45-65: This article discusses the identity of early Syrio- Lebanese immigrants to Brazil, looking at the construction of a hyphenated Arab-Brazilian identity.
  • –  Safran, W. (Spring 1991). Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return. Diaspora, 1.1, 83-99: In this article, Safran seeks to define a diaspora as well as to list and support the requirements a group must meet to be characterized as a diaspora.
  • –  Suleiman, M. (1992). The Arab Community in the United States: A Comparison of Lebanese and Non-Lebanese. In A. Hourani & N. Shehadi (Eds.), The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (pp. 189-208). London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies: This article discusses the growth of an Arabic speaking community in the United States that has changed in nature from being largely Lebanese to one that is more differentiated as other Arab groups have come to dominate.
  • –  Truzzi, O. (Winter 1997). The Right Place at the Right Time: Syrians and Lebanese in Brazil and the United States, A Comparative Approach. Journal of American Ethnic History, 16.2, 4-34: In this article, Truzzi argues that the Lebanese immigrants in Brazil were in the right place at the right time to successfully attain a successful niche in the textile sector during Brazil’s early development. He contrasts this to the situation of Lebanese immigrants in the United States, who were also successful, but did not dominate any one sector of industry.
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.