‘We’re all refugees’

A son to Palestinians who arrived in Brazil under refugee status in the 1960s, Hassan Zarif runs Al Janiah, a bar in downtown São Paulo whose main features include (good) Arab food and a staff replete with refugees, plus political discussions. He told ANBA a bit of his story and his ties with Palestine.

André Barros

My family came to Brazil in 1967 as refugees. They were from the village of Al Janiah, in the West Bank’s Ramallah area. My parents and four siblings – three sisters and a brother – were born in Palestine and came to Brazil. I was born later on, in 1973, in Rio Grande do Sul, and I have been in São Paulo since 2002. We’re from the generation of refugees from the War of 1967. We’re part of the six million Palestinians who are away from Palestine.

You get this a lot: “Oh, you’re no longer a refugee because you were born in Brazil.” There are 12 million Palestinians. Half were born in Palestine and half were born away, so until we return, our children, our grandchildren, we’re all refugees.

My father, like most Arabs who came to Brazil, started out as street vendors. He went to Rio Grande do Sul, on the Uruguayan border. Back then, many Palestinians moved into Chuí, Santana do Livramento and Uruguaiana. My father went to Chuí because it was a work opportunity everyone had. The commerce was thriving, so Arabs would go after it and others would follow suit. He spent some time there and left when the border lost the strength it had.

‘I’ll go to Jordan and see Palestine with my eyes, from across the border, but I can’t get in anymore’

I lived in the Middle East for six years. I spent one year in Palestine, nine months illegal, without a visa. I had to leave for Jordan and stayed there until 2002, then I came back to Brazil.

Since 2011 I cannot enter Palestine. In order to enter, you must go across the Israeli border and I wasn’t allowed in, after a 12-hour wait. I cannot get into Palestine anymore.

Whenever I go, I’ll go to Jordan and see Palestine with my eyes, from across the border, but I can’t get in. That’s quite complicated. I’ve been to Jordan last January. I went up to the Dead Sea and watched the sunset in Palestine.

A poster on the façade of Al Janiah, in downtown São Paulo

Then I ended up coming to São Paulo, with plans to articulate with some people to organize the Palestina da Esquerda (Leftist Palestine) movement. Palestinian leaderships were weak after the Oslo agreements [which Israel and Palestine entered into in the 1990s]. In 2007 we organized Movimento Palestina para Todos (the Palestine for All Movement), along with other fellow countrymen. Since I came back, I’ve been a militant in support committees, social movements, left-wing parties and organizations that deal with the Palestinian issue. We’ve carried out different actions. Whenever there’s a more active political issue going on, we mobilize, we have it in our consciousness to mobilize. We are permanently doing activities, lectures, going to places that open their doors for us to discuss the Palestinian issue.

And then there’s the question of the arrival of Palestinian refugees who came from Iraq in 2008, and more recently the folks coming from Syria.

We support them in order to get them to join the struggle, and to welcome them as well, because folks come in without speaking the language, they barely know anything about the country at all. We do have a political motivation, and that’s to get them to tell their own stories, to put the Palestinian issue on the agenda.

We have done various actions. We’re always there when we’re needed. But there’s one thing we’re trying to work on: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. We want to work on identifying Israeli goods on sale here and garner support for the boycott, whether it be boycotting end buyer goods or an academic, cultural boycott. Until the occupation [by Israel of Palestinian territory] is over. It’s a way for us to put the spotlight in what’s happening in Palestine, so people can become aware of it.

I had plans to open a bar, because I worked making craft beer in São Paulo, back in 2012 or 2013.

And since I was also connected with several left-wing groups, the idea was to open a bar and encourage political debate. I was at the Leila Khaled squatter settlement and I rented out a space here in downtown São Paulo. Then I began inviting people [from the settlement] to work and it grew, more and more people were needed…

Now we have some 20 people. Seven of them are Brazilians and the remainder are refugees: we have one Cuban, one Algerian and most of the others are Palestinian men or women.

Al Janiah: a staff of seven Brazilians and 13 refugees, most of whom are Palestinian.

It all began in January 2016. We spent a year there and relocated in January 2017 [to a bigger space on Rui Barbosa street, which is also near the downtown area]. The space is available for hosting meetings of collectives and organizations. We always set aside some space for that. We also have a course in Arabic taught by a Syrian professor with a degree in Languages from Damascus University, we have lessons in African drumming, African dance, a few courses in philosophy, now we’ll have a more comprehensive course in Middle East History.

We’re also trying to get our Arab Movie Club going in the backyard. We want to make it a permanent thing, at least once a week. But we’re a bar, a space that’s within the capitalist system. We have lots of problems, like everyone. We just try to be a more easygoing place to work in, to make it more flexible.

Despite being a Palestinian bar with Arab staff, an Arab owner and Arab cuisine, there’s a lot of African presence in Al Janiah. Every Wednesday, for instance, we have an open mic event for foreign groups that’s organized by a singer from Congo.

I miss having Arab patrons a bit, since the bar isn’t frequented by Arabs much.

We’re not part of the mainstream Arab food scene, so we can keep prices much lower than other places. We’re open to everyone, and this is one of our principles. We’re happy with the strong African presence, it’s one of the things that bring us the most joy, but we feel that the Arab community doesn’t come here. It’s a shame, because we believe in getting people involved with the Arab political issue. Because much of what happens in the Middle East stems from disinformation and lack of political unity. We’d like for the Arab community to be here more and get into discussions. We’d like to see a stronger presence.

Quick facts
Al Janiah
Open Tuesday to Saturday from 6:30 pm
Rua Rui Barbosa, 269 – Bela Vista, São Paulo
Find out more: https://www.facebook.com/aljaniah01/ (in Portuguese)

Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum

Sérgio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sergio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sergio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sergio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sergio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sergio Tomisaki/ANBA
Sergio Tomisaki/ANBA

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