Bridge Building, Fighting Misconceptions Key for Mideast, Latin America Amid Globalization
Ismael Elias Adriss (Courtesy)

Bridge Building, Fighting Misconceptions Key for Mideast, Latin America Amid Globalization

Syrian-Argentinian activist tells TML how he encourages critical thinking and deconstructs misconceptions about the Arab world in Latin America

In the eighth episode of The Media Line’s Spanish-language podcast, Medio Oriente 123, host Debbie Mohnblatt is joined by Ismael Elias Adriss, musician, political scientist and director-general at Al Hákima Ensemble.

In Argentina, Ismael Elias Adriss, a musician, political scientist and director-general of Al Hákima Ensemble, creates bridges between the Arab world and Latin America. “My primary goal is to try to bring the Arab and the Spanish-speaking world closer,” Adriss, who is of Syrian descent, told The Media Line.

He adds that the MENA region has its own history with Latin America, “and because of that history, I was born. I’m a product of the Arab migration to Latin America in the period between the two world wars,” he said.

That is why he dedicates his life to creating human connections between the Arab and Islamic worlds and Latin America.

Adriss explains how he created a cycle of lectures during the COVID-19 pandemic that now has turned into a certification course attended by people from different countries in Latin America and Spain. These lectures, Adriss says, are mainly designed to deconstruct the misinformation that is spread by the mainstream media and encourage critical thinking among attendees.

“If there is something that we do not want, it is propaganda,” he said.

My primary goal is to try to bring the Arab and the Spanish-speaking world closer

The lectures dive deep into the study of some situations such as the different wars that have taken place in the region also involving the Western powers and the State of Israel, he explained. “We try to offer self-criticism from the Arab perspective and, most importantly, we try to see what are the bridges that will allow the Arab world to get closer to Israeli society,” he continued.

“In our space, it is not like the Arabs are good and the Jews are bad, as we see that it is that way in other forums; I have a clear stance that I try not to infuse. I try to create a critical space,” Adriss said.

Adriss, born in the city of Tucuman in the north of Argentina, is the grandson of Syrian immigrants that arrived in the country in the 1920s and 1930s. “I was born into two Syrian families; I had an education in the Arab community in the city of my birth where our best neighbors were Jews,” he said adding that there was a Sephardic synagogue one block from his house.

Many Jews were close to the pan-Islamic society, which was the forum that brought together all the Muslims in Tucuman, he said. “These Jews that came from Arab countries had a cultural affinity,” he added.

The waves of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants that arrived in Argentina even before the 1930s, he explains, were generated by Arabs that were looking for a different way of life. “One should note that the American continent as a whole and specifically Argentina was seen as the panacea,” he said.

During those times, the Argentinian government intended to bring in people from England, Norway and Finland to generate different types of industries, but in the end the immigrants that arrived were from Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe, Syria and Lebanon, he explained, adding that some arrived with Ottoman passports. “That is why here people fondly call all the Arabs Turks,” he added.

In the Arab countries, small groups started migrating to Latin America and when the word spread that there was a lot of land and that the conditions were favorable it had a contagious effect causing even more people to migrate, according to Adriss. He said that in the Argentinian port there was a hotel for immigrants that provided the first week of lodging free of charge.

Almost 100 years since this wave of Arab immigrants arrived in Argentina, Adriss says that most have mixed in to Argentinian society by marrying locals or Christians that are descendants of Spanish and Italian immigrants.

Culturally, he explains, many elements have transcended in both directions. He cites the example of maté as an Argentinian cultural element that crossed into in the Arab world.

“Maté is an Argentinian hot drink comparable to English tea. It is not just a drink, it is also a cultural practice,” Adriss explained.

“Argentinians drink maté every day, all day long,” he said, adding that some Syrians and Lebanese immigrants that returned to their countries of origin took maté with them; today, according to Adriss, the main destination for maté exports from Argentina are Syria and Lebanon. This case of transculturality opened the door to commerce of this drink and other products as well.

In the opposite direction, he cites belly dancing and the Dabke, a traditional Arab folk dance that today is performed in Argentinian nightclubs. “The Arab gastronomy has also become deeply rooted in Argentinian cuisine where you can see, for example, ‘Arab empanadas’ that can be bought anywhere in Argentina,” he said.  Another example of an Arab custom that has taken root in Argentina is the social use of the nargileh or hookah.

Regarding his two areas of expertise: music, and politics, Adriss says that at the beginning he thought that they were not connected. “I started my music career when I was 10 and later I started my degree in political science,” he noted.

Toward the end of his degree, Adriss says that there were many studies about the historical process of the Arab Spring that began in 2010. “I started to notice that a lot of what happened on the streets was accompanied by artistic and musical creations. So, there is where I found out how music can reflect what happens in society,” he said, adding that later he understood that this is the case in almost every corner of the world.

From this, two projects arose, according to Adriss. One is the cycle of where he teaches about historical processes and their soundtracks, and the other is a cultural project called Al Hákima. Cordoba, the city where Adriss lives, is known as “the scholar” because there are many universities there.  Al Hákima is Arabic for that nickname, and is the project’s tribute to the city, Adriss explained.

“This project offers cultural and pedagogic concerts where there is music mixed with lectures. Between songs we speak about their context and on a screen we show the translation of what we are singing and complementary videos,” he continued.

Generally, there is a lot of curiosity among the Spanish-speaking public.

“There are a lot of people that come attempting to counter prejudices, there are some that come with a need to get to know Islam better, in many cases not to convert but to comprehend what it is about, to understand if what is being said in the media is true, and many who came decided to learn about the Israeli-Arab conflict,” he said.

Many come with common misconceptions as well.

“Twenty years after 9/11 there are still misperceptions where people believe that Islam is a synonym for violence or terrorism, or that terrorism comes from Quranic concepts. There are a lot of misconceptions about women in the Arab and Islamic worlds as well,” Adriss said.  He points out that with globalization these kinds of prejudices and misconceptions, and the separation between the East and the West, are not congruent with reality anymore.

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