Cuba Arab union

Dossier on Palestine released to the Cuban public

HALIFAX (16 April 2004) -- On February 14 at the regular Saturday public gathering of the Arab Union of Cuba (UAC), a delegation from the Dossier on Palestine, published by shunpiking, was warmly received and given the floor to introduce the book-length work to the Cuban public.

The lively function was held at the headquarters of the UAC -- a blue building marked by a neon sign declaring "Union Arabe de Cuba" (UAC) in Spanish and Arabic -- on the historic, tree-lined Prado, a world famous boulevard in the centre of Havana. In the days of the dictator Fulgencio Batista the building served as the headquarters for the Zionist Union of Cuba. The UAC is a non-governmental organization founded on 4 April 1979 as a result of the unification of the Lebanon Society of Havana, the Center Arab Society and the Palestinian Arab Society of Cuba. This union meant the fulfilling of an old wish that the managers of such entities had: to unify the Arabic family in Cuba and to develop a better task in the promotion and diffusion of identity, traditions and Arab culture.

"The former unions were based on nationality and religion. We wanted the new union to be based on plurality," explains Alfredo Deriche Gutierrez, the current president of the UAC. "In 1979 there were a lot of difficulties in the Middle East. We achieved here in Cuba what has not been achieved there. It wasn't easy ... but eventually we were able to bring about enough enlightenment."

To grasp more fully the significance of these events, it is important to remember how "the past is prologue," that the reality of the present is itself the product of a richly-woven tapestry of all-sided previous development. Just as the editors of the Dossier had considered it perfectly natural to include from the pages of the Cuban newspaper Granma the perspective of Ima Jadaa, the Palestinian ambassador in Havana, on the developments of the Intifadah and the internal crisis of the Israeli Zionist state, so too the Cuban people from colonial times has respected and defended Arab cultural identity as a compnent part of realizing their own self-determination and liberation. The Republic of Cuba is universally known as a consistent defender of Palestine and the rights of the Arab countries.

A rich, storied, polychromatic and patriotic culture

This is no coincidence. The UAC carries the traditions of a rich, storied and polychromatic culture. The first indications of Arab emigration to the Antilles are confirmed in the form of a prohibition of such emigration by the Spanish Crown, warning colonial authorities -- in systematic Royal Letters dispatched throughout the 16th century -- about the illegal presence of people in the New World "newly converted into Moors". This describes the ancient Spanish Muslims, the Moors from North Africa or those driven out of Andalusia by the Spanish monarchy before and after 1492. The prohibition by the Spanish monarchs also extended to slaves from different ethnical African groups that used to practise the Islamic religion such as the berbers and the yolofes. In 1593, a Moor from Berberia was baptized in the principal church in Havana as Juan de la Cruz ("John of the Cross"). This ceremony, and the similar ones practiced to the African or Spanish Moorish, were performed by important colonial dignitaries of the island. According to the discoveries of Dr. Cesar Garcia del Pino, in 1596 scores of Muslim slaves were arriving in Havana by 1596, originating from the ancient kingdoms of Morocco, Fez, Tunis and Tlemecen, among others. These documents make it possible to catalogue the first stage of Arabic cast in Cuba as not only Spanish-Moorish but also Moorish-North-African, formed by either slaves and free people converted to Catholicism. These influences are reflected in the Cuban "mudejar" architecture, in a linguistic legacy of several thousand terms from Arabic origin in the Castilian language, in the conservation of important Moorish species in traditions of Cuban cuisine and also in the aromatic plants commonly found in Cuban gardens. Indirect influences from the Arabic-Islamic culture came through slaves of different denominations and Islamized ethnic groups from Western Africa. They brought ritual greetings as "salamu aleikum" ("peace be with you"), the white dressing, the turban worn by women and some other Islamic customs assimilated nowadays by different Cuban religious systems.

The great historical moment of Arabic presence on Cuban soil broke forth from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th, with the arrival of people from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and, in lesser numbers, from Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Yemen. The first representative of this wave is believed to have been José Yabor, who arrived in 1870. Between 1906 and 1913, thirty per cent of Arabs reaching Cuba came directly from Middle Eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire. Others came from Europe and elsewhere in the Americas. The greatest percentage came from Lebanon. Many of these people left their home territory as a result of the great economic crisis which devastated the native production workers. Others -- much like what happened with Lebanese emigration to Nova Scotia and Québec in the late 19th century -- came as a result of some of the broader contradictions inherent to the Ottoman Empire that generated upheaval in Christian communities in that pert of the world, particularly the Maronites. Palestinians emigrated mainly after the First World War, the Balfour Declaration and the British Colonial Mandate. Just between 1920 and 1931, the Cuban census recorded that some 9,337 Arabs had already arrived from the Eastern Mediterranean. (2)

They left their imprint in the most different areas of the socio-political and cultural life of Cuba. More than a dozen of them participated actively in the independence war against Spain. In the insurrections of the neocolonial period, many of their descendants were martyred. There is also a remarkable legacy of Arab-speaking scientists and their successors in different medical disciplines, appreciable successes in the artistic field such as music, plastic, and poetry, as well as outstanding figures in law and philosophy, with a great prestige in the international field.

Today, the Arab Union of Cuba is an active and outstanding member of the Arab Entities Federation of Latin America (Federación de Entidades Arabes de América Latina (FEARAB-America). It develops fraternal exchanges with the Arab associations from the other member-countries, as well as people-to-people exchanges with their ancestral homelands.

Every Saturday morning, Cuban citizens interested in the issues of Arab civilization and its contribution to Cuban history gather to discuss on a prepared topic. On the last Saturday of every month, it's about Palestine. The building houses a public lending library with unique serial collections of journals and magazines of the Arab world, as well as their own quarterly publication, El Arabe, and an ethnographic collection. It also features a restaurant with some of the finest Arab cuisine to be found anywhere in Cuba.

A warm reception: the spirit of Norman Bethune

The main theme of the delegation's presentation was that the Dossier on Palestine had been published by shunpiking magazine as an act of Canadian internationalism, in the spirit of Norman Bethune. The justice of the Palestinian cause is so clear that anyone anywhere in the world cannot fail to be moved and to act. It is the people of Palestine, who have courageously stood against the darkest reaction in a period of retrogression, to whom we are indebted. Although published in Halifax, the Dossier has become a document that belongs to the people, a weapon of enlightenment against the disinformation of the monopoly media on the Middle East. Its echo also resonates abroad with all those interested in a just solution, in truthful information.

A warm and lively discussion ensued on that memorable morning in the island republic with which Nova Scotians also have long and friendly ties. Different questions were asked by Cubans about the consciousness and activity amongst Canadians concerning issues in Palestine. Various examples were given from recent history of the anti-war movement as to the increased awareness of the injustices suffered by Palestinians, the state terrorism of the Israeli government, and the support expressed by Canadians. At the same time our delegation underlined that the Dossier on Palestine was not a one-shot publication but has become an integral part of an initiative involving scores of people from all walks of life in Halifax and across the nation through symposiums, forums, films, websites and journalism. In this sense the initiative of the editors of shunpiking magazine also reflects a distinct and new concept of the social responsibility of journalists and the media.

The delegation had already met with Alfredo Deriche Gutiérrez, president and Juan Dufflar Amell, administrative vice-president of the UAC. Both had previously seen the Dossier on Palestine and warmly endorsed its appearance. Maria Deriche Gutiérrez, cultural chair, suggested that the UAC would deposit copies at selected embassies in Havana as well as disseminate them to pro-Palestinian and Arab solidarity groups throughout Latin America. Indeed, over one hundred copies had earlier been distributed in Mexico.

The UAC executive expressed that it would be excellent if the Dossier on Palestine could be translated into Spanish. Mr. Dufflar later expressed in an e-mail that he too thought the Dossier to be one of the finest works he had read about Palestine. They appreciated the comprehensiveness in terms of the historical treatment of the Palestine national movement, that starts in the 19th century against the Ottoman Empire, well before Zionist colonialization, and continues through to date. They specifically highlighted the stress of the Dossier on the fundamental right of self-determination of the people of Palestine, and of the right of return.

Equally important, in their view, was the popular style of presentation, both in terms of language, variety of articles and the use of photography and maps.

Mr. Gutiérrez noted with surprise and satisfaction that such a document had been produced in Canada, remarking, "oh, Nova Scotia, that's not in the United States!"

Mr. Gutiérrez also noticed that religion had nothing to do with the origin of the Dossier. Addressing co-editor Gary Zatzman, he remarked that it was the first time he had personally met someone of a Jewish background whose stand was against imperialism, and who situated Zionism as an agency of imperialism. At this time, too, he said, the mass media is diffusing Zionist propaganda and disinformation that is based on lies and historical falsifications, a dangerous phenomenon that must not be treated casually, spontaneously or on a reactive basis.

Cuba commemorates Day of the Land, Iraqi invasion

After our delegation's visit, during the third week of March, the national solidarity committee of Cuba -- Cuban Movement for Peace and Sovereignty of Nations (MCPSP) -- together with Cuban political, social and mass organizations organized a week of events everywhere in the island on the occassion of the 28th anniversay of Palestine Land Day and a year after the attack against Iraq. On March 19, for instance, Ernesto Gomez Abascal, Cuban Ambassador to Iraq at the moment of the US-British invasion, launched his book titled Mision en Bagdad at a reception held at the UAC. Guatemalan Percy Alvarado also launched his book Memorias de un antiterrorista in which he narrates his experiences as an agent infiltrated in the ultra right-wing groups of Cuban origin based in Miami.

The presentation of these two new books joined the international wave of protests called for March 20. Speakers and artists spoke against the imperialist aggressions in all parts of the world in a people's concert that took place in Cueto district, Holguin province, on March 20. Cuban pianist Aldo Lopez Gavilan offered a concert for peace at Havana Amadeo Roldan Theater that evening.


1 "The Solution", Marelys Valencia, Dossier on Palestine, pp. 30-31

2 See the report, "Cuban-Arabs: Another Rich Legacy of Cuba", by Susan Hurlich, which follows on Shunpiking Online

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