According to Mario Nazal, Director of the Palestine Foundation in Santiago, 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’s traditional Palestinian quarter, you can still see Arab kebabs sizzling on giant skewers and a few shops selling predominantly textiles and clothing, but also accessories for belly dancing and traditional smoking materials. (Sadly, most of the area has been taken over by Korean shopkeepers selling cheap Asian imports). 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 neighbouring 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. 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 for a similar agriculture. 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 metres 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 kilometres down the tip of the South American continent, but the country itself is never more than 200km/124mi 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 undreamed 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 Arabe 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 here were happy to assimilate and become middle-class Chileans, focusing their political and economic aspirations on their new country rather than on 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 Quillota who still has the key to his house in Haifa and dreams of going home, if only to die. There is no justice in this world, he said simply, when I came to buy his wool, and there are other, more recent exiles who would agree with him.
A little known fact is the present-day Israeli state’s continued endeavour to expel as many Palestinians as possible, and some of the most recent Arab arrivals in Santiago are people who have had their identity papers confiscated while they were travelling abroad, denying them the right to return home. I know a woman in Santiago who was visiting her son in England when her papers needed renewing, but the Israeli authorities declined to do so. She has lost her home and everything in it, unable even to ship her belongings to Chile. She too dreams of returning to her home and family, but there is no realistic prospect of that ever becoming possible.
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 ‘brothers and sisters’ 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 politicised 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.
This is one country country where Palestinians are not immediately associated with suffering, but 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, and many towns have a Club Arabe, including Limache, which host cultural events open to the whole community.