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Palestine in Chile


social history

© Natascha Scott-Stokes, 2007




According to Mario Nazal, Director of the Palestine Foundation in the capital, ‘every small village in Chile is sure to have three things: a priest, a policeman and a Palestinian.’ This may not be completely true, but it does reflect the extraordinary fact that Chile is home to the largest Palestinian community outside the Middle East. Around 350,000 people of Palestinian descent are at home in this far away land and they are not outsiders eking out a miserable living, but by and large successful and fully integrated members of Chilean society. Indeed many have become extremely wealthy and the Chilean textile industry was founded by a handful of Palestinian families whose names are as well known here as any multinational brand: Yarur, Kassis and Nazal are hardly names you would expect to find in a South American country, and yet they are not unusual. Perhaps the best-known name in the West is that of film-maker Miguel Littin, who famously spent time filming illegally during Pinochet’s era in 1985, and whose friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a book about it (Clandestine in Chile: The Adventures of Miguel Littin, Henry Holt & Co, USA, 1987).

If you walk down the street in Patronato, Santiago de Chile’s traditional Palestinian quarter, you will see Arab kebabs sizzling on giant skewers and countless shops selling predominantly textiles and clothing, but also accessories for belly dancing and traditional smoking materials. Rising above all is the Orthodox Cathedral of San Jorge, an indication that the first Palestinians who came to Chile were Orthodox Christians not Muslims. In fact, almost all Chilean Palestinian families can trace their roots to just a few Christian villages around Jerusalem. They came from Beit Jala, Taibeh and neighboring settlements, many of which are no longer home to Palestinians, Christian or otherwise.

The earliest exodus of Palestinians to Latin America occurred in the mid 19th century, when Palestine was ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire and its Christian population lived in fear of massacre and conscription into wars that were not their own. In the 1850’s, they were escaping from being sent to the famously dreadful Crimean War; in 1914, it was the First World War; but the worst disaster, known to all Palestinians as the Nakba, occurred after the foundation of Israel in 1948, when 700,000 people lost their homes and property. Many Christian Arabs followed their ancestors to the Americas and the majority went to Chile, a land not dissimilar to their own, where a central valley backed by mountains looks west, out to sea, and a Mediterranean climate makes a very similar agriculture possible. Wine and olives grow wonderfully in Chile, and one of the oldest wineries in the country is Viña la Rosa, founded by the Palestinian Francisco Ignacio Ossa after he became hugely wealthy from mining in the Atacama Desert.

The journey to Chile was often long and dangerous. First the Mediterranean, and then the Atlantic Ocean had to be crossed to Buenos Aires, followed by an eternal train journey over the Argentinean plains before coming face to face with the Andes mountains, second only to the Himalayas. From there they were forced to walk and ride, hiring mule drivers to guide them across treacherous passes thousands of meters high, and down frightening ravines to the thin strip of their new Promised Land, the other side of the mountains. Chile’s Pacific coast runs thousands of kilometers down the tip of the South American continent, but the country itself is never more than 200 km wide.

Thus the Palestinian immigrants came, welcomed by a government that was keen on their agricultural and business acumen to help develop their country, and set about creating a new life. Similar to their North American counterparts, they came seeking the freedom for self-determination. They sought a New World and they came with open minds, ready to integrate and be part of the emerging Chilean nation. They did not feel diminished by adopting their new country’s Spanish language or Roman Catholic religion, and their Arab heritage was carried on within a newly emerging culture that included inter-marriage with Hispanic Chileans. They had much in common: both come from traditionally deeply religious patriarchal societies.

A new life and economic opportunities undreamt of in their native land awaited those who came and they chose to integrate without any more regret than others leaving their native roots behind. Institutions such as the Colegio Árabe in the capital and a major research department at the country’s top university are proof that Chilean Palestinians are a respected part of society now, even if they were called turcos at first, because of the Turkish nationality they arrived with. There is even a famous football team: the Palestinos, whose fan club – bizarrely, considering they are all working-class Chileans with no connection to the Middle East struggle – is proud to call itself the Intifada. The team plays in the country’s first division, though there are no Palestinians playing for it these days.

Palestinian immigration to Chile therefore originated in an era prior to the struggle with Zionism and those that made their life there were happy to assimilate and become middle-class Chileans, focusing their political and economic aspirations on their new country rather than the one they had left behind. Even those who arrived as refugees from the 1948 Partition of Palestine did not bring nationalist politics with them, though their emotional heritage is clearly a case apart. I met a Palestinian shop-keeper in a provincial town who still has the key to his house in Haifa and dreams of going home, if only to die. Refugees who have arrived since the Intifada began in the 1980’s and those displaced by the violent impact of 9/11 in 2001 are also a case apart, their pain made worse by the realization that many of their Palestinian ‘brothers’ here in Chile are not particularly interested in their tale of suffering. Most Palestinian Chileans are proud of what they are and what they have achieved. They don’t wish to get involved in the highly politicized nationalist politics of the Middle East. It clashes with their self-image as successful members of the community and some new arrivals have found they have been snubbed by those who would rather they didn’t bring their troubles to Chile.

Many established Palestinian Chileans would prefer to continue enjoying the fruits of their success in this country. The dream of a new life is about being positive and looking ahead, of making something of your life, not clinging to the past ‘Old Europe’ fashion. Ironically, it is the foreign politics of the Land of the Free which is threatening that dream for so many people now, and Chileans too have been forcibly politicized by that global threat to peace. The War on Terror means Arab and Jewish-descended Chilean youth now eye each other across the dance floor with more than the usual tension and there have been demonstrations in the street here too. But this does not detract from the fact that overall, Palestinians in Chile are a success and not just in traditional Arab businesses, such as shop-keeping, either. There are many Chilean Palestinian writers, academics and artists alongside the great banking, mining, and textile families, not to mention the wine-makers and restaurateurs who add very welcome flavor to cultural life throughout Chile. This is one country where Palestinians are not immediately associated with suffering, but rather with the exuberance of their great culture. Santiago even has its very own Alhambra Palace, built by an Arab mining magnate in 1860, complete with elaborate mosaics and beautiful fountains.


Further Information

Travel tips: Take a stroll through Patronato district in Santiago
Must see/do at this place: Eat kebab
You should avoid here: Leaving your bag on the ground in restaurants
Other helpful information: Patronato is also a great place to shop for belly dancing gear!

Did you like this article? Then you'll like these: Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, Carretera Austral, Punta Arenas, The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round, Cruising From Scl To San Pedro De Atacama 2 Days, Wine Tours Valparaiso, Torres del Paine National Park, Coihaique, Trekking Tour on Navarino Island - Tierra del Fuego and Machu Picchu Tours.

By natascha scott-stokes
I established myself as an independent and adventurous traveller in 1989, when I became the first woman to travel the length of the Amazon river...
02 Jul 2009

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