Latin American Studies Spanish American Arab Literature
Christina Civantos
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0220


In the mid-1800s various historical circumstances in the Ottoman province of Greater Syria including economic changes, religious tensions, and the shift from Ottoman to European control produced a large-scale Levantine (Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian) migration movement that took many Levantine Arabic-speakers to Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, and neighboring countries. This immigration wave and subsequent ones between the Middle East and Spanish America gave rise to a body of literature that can be referred to as Spanish American Arab literature. These immigrants and their descendants, known as turcos—“Turks”—because they arrived from the Ottoman Empire, were mostly Christians of various Middle Eastern churches, but some were Muslims, Druze, or Jews. They typically sought their livelihood through commerce and the Christian immigrants used religious affinity with the Hispanic world as a vehicle for assimilation. Nonetheless, some of these immigrants did pursue interests in the world of letters and often consciously crafted an Arab émigré identity through their writings, whether in Arabic or in Spanish. The early writers who were publishing in Arabic formed associations to support their Arabic literary enterprise and published in Middle East–based periodicals while also establishing local Arabic-language or bilingual periodicals, in order to secure publication venues. Perhaps because many of these writers worked in journalism, in both earlier and later periods historical and cultural essays have been a prominent genre among Arab Spanish Americans. Although most of the Latin American mahjar poets (or émigré poets) were more traditionalist in views and in poetic style than their brethren who settled in North America, some did participate in poetic innovation. In prose, in addition to a few plays, autobiographies, and book-length essays, émigré writers in Argentina produced early attempts at Arabic novels. Regardless of genre, these early writers participated in significant ways in the cultural and political aspects of either Arab nationalist movements or pan-Arabism. In order to engage with the cultures surrounding them, Arab immigrant writers and their descendants soon turned to writing and publishing in Spanish, across various genres. Many of these writers continue to address, whether directly or indirectly, Arab identity and broader conceptions of diaspora and uprootedness. Regardless of these émigré writers’ language of expression, language in relation to identity and the representation of the immigrant or ethnic experience is a key motif in Spanish American Arab literature. Given that the Southern Cone and Brazil received more Arabic-speaking immigrants, more research has been done on these regions. Although Brazil is the site of rich Arab diaspora cultural production, those works do not fit within the scope of this bibliography. With time, researchers may unearth more primary texts from other regions in Spanish America and hopefully continued scholarly work on all of these regions will further our knowledge about Arab literary production in Spanish America.

Primary Sources in Arabic

Language of expression was a central issue for writers who, often by choice and in spite of meager schooling in Arabic, continued to publish in Arabic after settling in Spanish America. Although the mahjar writers of South America included poets and prose writers, it was the poets among them who attained renown. With regard to form, although the Levantine émigrés in South America did make some use of shorter meters and a type of strophic verse (the muwashshaḥ), largely they continued with the classical structure of two hemistiches and monorhyme. For this reason, their literary groups were not schools with distinct principles, but rather associations that fulfilled practical publishing and cultural needs. By the 1920s Arab writers were actively publishing in Argentina, largely in local Arabic and bilingual periodicals as well as in individual volumes; but it was not until 1949 that a group of Syro-Lebanese writers in Buenos Aires formed al-Rābiṭa al-Adabiyya (The Literary Union). A common topic of this Poetry was Arab nationalism, usually expressed with the rhetorical, declarative tone typical of neoclassical Arabic poetry. In contrast with their counterparts to the North, the Argentine mahjar writers focused on public and political occasions and issues. As a result, although the works of most of the Southern mahjar writers did not have much of an impact on the direction of Arabic poetry, the Latin Americans’ works did play a significant role in Arab culture because of their support of, and even direct involvement in, homeland national politics or the pan-Arabism movement. In Buenos Aires, The Literary Union included Syro-Lebanese writers Jūrj Ṣaydaḥ, Jūrj ʿAssaf, Jūrj Ṣawāyā, Yūsuf al-Ghurayyib (José Guráieb), Zakī Qunṣul, and Ilyās Qunṣul. Like most of their brethren in Brazil, with whom they had close contact, the Argentine writers wrote poetry about Arab identity, Arab nationalism, or pan-Arabism. Prose fiction writers in the South American mahjar also experimented with short and long Arabic narratives in the first two decades of the 20th century, at a time when in the Arab world the short story had just begun to be cultivated and there were only a handful of accomplished novels. In general, as could be expected, the cultural and formal literary referents in these works are from the Arab world and the works are geared toward the Arab community in the Americas and/or the Middle East. To date, only in Argentina has a body of work been found beyond Arabic language newspapers. Future research may yield additional Arabic-language texts.

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