In 1928 my father, César Assad Chelala, emigrated from Lebanon to Argentina and made there his permanent home. The love for his country remained unaltered, and for the rest of his life he dreamt of going back. Although he never fulfilled his wish, he transmitted to us, his children, the love for his new country. He came to live in Tucumán, a city in the North of Argentina, where he already had some relatives.
Among the earliest memories I have of my father were his permanent comments on how everything was more beautiful in Lebanon. The apples were bigger, the oranges tastier, the tomatoes the richest in the world. The love for his native country was present at every moment. I also remember when I sometimes accompanied him to breakfast with his friends and saw how they enjoyed eating exotic culinary combinations, such as fresh fruits with different types of cheeses. Only when I grew up I could appreciate how tasty those combinations were.
During those breakfasts it was impossible for me to understand their conversations as they always discussed the latest political events in their home country, which they followed greedily. Today, I live in New York, thousands of miles from Argentina, and I keep his example, following closely the political events of Argentina, my native country.
When they emigrate, the Lebanese are exemplary citizens and adapt easily to their new country. However, they never lose contact with the country where they were born. That adaptation was emphasized during the Lebanese President Camille Chamoun’s visit to Argentina in 1954. He met then Argentina’s President, Juan Domingo Perón, who proudly told him how Lebanese dressed as gauchos could be found in the farthest corners of the country.
The Lebanese in the world
Another instance of the total integration of the Lebanese into the countries to which they emigrate is shown by something that happened to me during a mission for the United Nations that I carried out in Equatorial Guinea in the 1990s. When a colleague learned that I was of Lebanese origin she told me: “This Sunday I will give you a surprise, get ready for a trip to the interior.” That day we left in her car towards a small village located three hours from the capital of Malabo through a winding – and dangerous – mountain road.
We arrived at a small town and headed to a small restaurant that was almost empty. We were welcomed by a middle-aged man, with obvious Middle Eastern features. “Nabil,” she told him, “here I bring you something you can’t imagine. This man is an Argentine doctor who is here on a mission for the United Nations and is the son of a Lebanese.” Nabil, who was born in Lebanon, looked at me with huge eyes and we hugged each other. “Since I arrived here 5 years ago I have not seen any Lebanese coming to this place,” he said excitedly. “What’s your name?” When I told him my name he almost fainted. “Are you related to the Beit Chelala village family?” he asked. “Of course,” I replied, “we are the same family.” “What a coincidence,” he told me, “I used to go through that town frequently when I lived in Lebanon.” Immediately, a strong bond was established between us. “Wait,” he told us, “I’ll bring you something to snack on,” and disappeared behind a curtain.
A long time passed, and Nabil did not return. We were very hungry after the trip and were already beginning to get restless and wondering what happened when we saw Nabil coming out of the kitchen with a huge tray. It had Arab bread and typical Lebanese dishes such as hummus, babaganoush, mujadara, and turnip pickles. I was in the fifth heaven of contentment since I had been in Equatorial Guinea for several weeks and had not eaten any of those foods that are part of my daily diet in New York. When we finished, we exchanged more memories and I joined him in a bear hug before returning to the capital city. That day I had won a new friend.
Another curious incident happened to me a few years ago in New York. I was visiting the art gallery of my friend Sundaram Tagore, great-grandson of the famous Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. I was joking with him about the origin of our families when I mentioned that my family came from a town in Lebanon called Beit Chelala. A man in his 60s who was in the gallery asked me: “Excuse me, did you say Beit Chelala?” Yes” I replied, “Why?” He looked into my eyes with a smile and said, “Because my name is Edward Shalala (as our name is often spelled in English) and my whole family comes from that town.” We started talking and discovered that our grandparents were first cousins. A great friendship was born there, that still endures.
Lebanon and Argentina
Lebanon and Argentina now have important diplomatic relations, related to the history of Lebanese immigration to Argentina. Today, there are approximately one and a half million Lebanese-Argentines in Argentina who constitute, after Spain and Italy, the third-largest immigrant community in the country. In addition, Argentina today has the second largest Lebanese community in Latin America, second only to Brazil.
A sample of the Lebanese contribution to the culture of our country is the foundation in Tucumán of the Gibran Khalil Gibrán Cultural Athenaeum, carried out through the personal effort of three friends: my father, César Assad Chelala, Professor Manuel Serrano Pérez and the notable Tucumanian philosopher Víctor Massuh. Although many decades have passed since the Athenaeum ceased its activities, Tucumán’s intellectuals still remember with nostalgia the lectures that the most prominent representatives of world culture gave in my native city, which were sponsored by the Athenaeum.
What does Lebanon, its history and its culture have that maintains the devotion and interest of those who were born there and want to perpetuate their culture in all the places where they live? Without any doubt its ancient history, the beauty of its landscapes, and the contribution of its artists, doctors, writers, architects and merchants, who have played an important role in creating a culture and a unique personality in the Middle East. For me, it also is the country where my father was born, a source of pride for my father and a source of enchantment for me.