March 28, 2023

Maicao, Colombia – As native distributors promote their items within the busy market streets of Maicao, the bustle is out of the blue interrupted by an Arabic name to prayer.

The decision, generally known as the adhan, emanates from the minaret of the native Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque, an imposing constructing of Italian marble rising above the small border metropolis.

Because the blistering noon solar beats down, Muslims head to the mosque, guided by the adhan, which floats over the cacophony of rickshaws and shouts about yuca and tomato costs.

The mosque — among the many largest in Latin America — is the centerpiece for one in all Colombia’s most necessary Muslim and Arab communities. However it’s a neighborhood in disaster, as commerce with neighboring Venezuela falters and its inhabitants declines.

“Maicao isn’t what it ought to be for being a border city. The state of affairs is crucial,” says Pedro Delgado, a researcher who research the town’s Muslim neighborhood and has transformed to Islam himself.

However those that stay within the metropolis specific delight of their neighborhood. Mayor Mohamad Jaafar Dasuki, the primary and solely Muslim particular person to guide a metropolis in Colombia, calls his time overseeing Maicao an “honor”. His time period, which started in 2020, is ready to finish this yr.

Dasuki believes Maicao nonetheless has an necessary position to play in dispelling stereotypes inside the in any other case heavily-Catholic nation.

“Now we have a accountability to generate a notion for many who suppose Muslims are terrorists or Colombians are drug sellers — that by way of our actions we are able to present this can be a shame and a nasty notion,” he advised Al Jazeera, his Spanish punctuated by a thick To put in Arabic accent.

Maicao's mayor, Mohamad Jaafar Dasuki, sits in his office
As mayor of Maicao, Mohamad Jaafar Dasuki turned the primary Muslim particular person to guide a Colombian metropolis. [Anton Alexander/Al Jazeera]

A diaspora propelled by civil warfare

Arabs and Muslims arrived all through Latin America following the demise of the Ottoman Empire within the early twentieth century, although few settled in Colombia then.

It was the start of Lebanon’s civil warfare within the Seventies waves of asylum seekers throughout the Caribbean and Colombia, driving the expansion of Maicao’s Arab neighborhood.

“They realized that there was an important community of potentialities in ports throughout the Caribbean,” mentioned Diego Castellanos, a historian finding out Latin American Muslim communities on the French Institute for Anatolian Research. “And that exploration introduced some to Maicao.”

Omar Dabage was amongst them. He arrived in Colombia on December 10, 1971, initially settling within the port metropolis of Barranquilla. He spent a couple of years as a touring service provider, promoting textiles on the road, earlier than relocating to Maicao in 1974.

“I used to work the land however there was no work for me again residence. I want Maicao to my hometown,” the 73-year-old mentioned with a smile as he sipped ginger tea from a small plastic cup.

Maicao’s Arab neighborhood stays largely Lebanese, with residents of Syrian and Palestinian descent aswell. And within the Seventies, new arrivals discovered prosperity within the border city: Venezuela was on the cusp of an oil growth and Maicao was only a stone’s throw away.

The city bloomed within the financial upturn. Nestled within the arid plains of the Colombian province of La Guajira, it had traditionally been a distinguished hub for enterprise — licit and illicit — and the largely unregulated border close by enticed new arrivals with financial alternatives.

“Again then, Maicao was a city the place many issues had been missing but it surely had a big presence of contraband,” Castellanos, the historian, defined.

“Above all, there was a framework of illegality that allowed those that arrived with out paperwork to settle and start to provide economically. Maicao started to be seen as a affluent but very harmful place.”

With armed teams and paramilitary forces clashing for management of the world, Castellanos described Maicao on the time as “a Colombian Wild West”.

Shop owner Omar Dabage, 73, showcases some of his Arab products.  He has a white beard and is holding onto a column of a shelf.  Some shelves are bare, another has green jars on them, another some cans and three shelves behind him are stocked with boxes, all of the same design.
A former textile service provider, Omar Dabage, 73, now runs a small store close to Maicao’s central market. [Anton Alexander/Al Jazeera]

A flourishing Arab neighborhood

Commerce throughout the porous Colombian-Venezuelan border allowed Maicao’s Arab neighborhood to flourish. Companies with names like Walid, Hassuna and Safadi quickly peppered the town’s internet of business streets, providing items like home equipment, perfumes and textiles.

In 1997, the neighborhood accomplished its topped jewel: the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque. Adorned with turquoise stained-glass home windows, the mosque gives a flash of shade within the in any other case dusty city—to not point out a welcome shelter from the solar’s cruel rays.

Throughout its heyday within the late Nineteen Nineties, it was rumored that Maicao’s mosque acquired so busy that the devoted spilled out into the road, providing Ramadan prayers from the sidewalk.

It stays the third largest mosque in Latin America—although some declare it’s, actually, the second largest, dwarfed solely by mosques in huge metropolises like Buenos Aires and Caracas.

For Samira Hajj Ahmad, who has run a close-by electronics store for 41 years, the mosque is the guts of the neighborhood.

“It is custom, it is our delight and our faith,” she mentioned as she swept the store steps alongside a energetic industrial road, her cheerful eyes peeking out from her black hijab. “With out the mosque, there can be no unity, no knowledge, no conscience to be who we’re. It is all the pieces for us.”

Samira Hajj Ahmad holds a broom outside her electronics shop.  She is smiling and wearing a dark hijab.  Behind her, the shop has a kids' bicycles standing out front and a couple of fans.  Above the shop are the letters: 'COMMERCIAL VALID'
Store proprietor Samira Hajj Ahmad believes that, with out Maicao’s mosque, there can be ‘no unity’ to the native Arab neighborhood. [Anton Alexander/Al Jazeera]

A inhabitants in steep decline

The Dar El Arkam college, located subsequent door to the mosque, exhibits no outward indicators of the altering circumstances the neighborhood faces.

Its halls are lined with pictures of graduating courses from throughout the years, labeled with a mixture of surnames — some sometimes Hispanic, others historically Arab.

However courses have shrunk lately. Within the Nineteen Nineties, the college housed between 800 to 1,200 college students throughout two facilities, with about 15 % having no Arab roots in anyway.

Now, the college has solely 252 college students, whereas its preschool and first college have closed down, their buildings rented out to maintain the remainder of the institution afloat.

The diminishing class sizes mirror the general falling inhabitants. Though exact figures are disputed, the Arab neighborhood in Maicao counted as many as 5,000 to eight,000 residents at its top within the Nineteen Nineties.

Its present inhabitants has plummeted to about 1,000, in line with native media studies. The mayor claims the overall could also be nearer to three,000 — although researchers like Delgado say that determine is “exaggerated”.

“There’s few of us left right here in Maicao,” mentioned the pinnacle of the mosque, Hussein Omais Barrera, as he sat within the empty carpeted corridor. “It is saddening. There was a big neighborhood earlier than and now it is dwindled. It makes one unhappy, having been born and raised in Maicao, to see folks go away in quest of different choices.”

The inside of the mosque is dark but tinged with a green light coming through the greenly framed windows.  Worshipers are in rows in the middle of prayer, on their knees, with heads bowed to the ground.  There is a small fan at the front that seems too small for the large area it is cooling.
Worshipers collect for Friday prayer on the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab mosque [Anton Alexander/Al Jazeera]

Financial collapse and an increase in crime

The blossoming commerce alternatives that introduced many Arabs to Maicao have now withered, hampered by Venezuela’s whole financial collapse,

The rise of socialist leaders like Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela additionally led to friction throughout the border. Political tensions with Colombia’s previously conservative authorities resulted in border closures and crackdowns on imports and migration, measures that stymied Maicao’s financial system.

Solely lately, with the 2022 election of Colombia’s first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, have eased relations between the 2 international locations. In January, Venezuela and Colombia dedicated to totally reopening their shared border, and in February, they signed a brand new commerce settlement.

However Maicao’s decline was additionally spurred by a wave of crime within the Nineteen Nineties because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)a now-disbanded insurgent groupclashed with rivals within the space.

Cash laundering surged amid the battle, as did incidents of violent crime like kidnapping and extortion.

“Maicao turned immersed in a disaster of insecurity, and the dearth of management from the state made it a complete dysfunction. Folks most popular to go away as an alternative of risking their lives,” the researcher Delgado defined.

Adnan Stated, an area enterprise proprietor initially from Lebanon, was amongst these kidnapped within the crime wave. In 1996, he and his spouse had been driving residence from the close by metropolis of Valledupar when an armed group stopped their automotive, abducting the couple for eight days.

He and his spouse had been finally launched unhurt, although their captors tried to extort a ransom in alternate for his or her freedom. Stated mentioned he imagines the kidnapping “was for financial causes”.

However he famous that violence and financial instability had been the explanations he left Lebanon within the first place.

Two students write on a white board at the Dar El Arkham school
College students at Maicao’s Dar El Arkham use Arabic as a part of their classes. [Anton Alexander/Al Jazeera]

The Arab neighborhood these days is a remnant of what it as soon as was. However at the same time as new generations transfer away to hunt higher alternatives, the historian Castellanos believes the neighborhood has left an indelible mark on Maicao.

“It isn’t that each one of Maicao’s Muslims will go away,” mentioned Castellanos. “There’ll all the time be a core that continues to be. However in some unspecified time in the future, the [Arab] establishments and elites will dissolve, and the Muslim and Arab traces will change into merely a component of status, of distinction.”

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