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Of Many Cultures The People Who Came
Most of those that fled were Christians who suffered religious persecution at the hands of the Muslim Turks who controlled most of the area under the Ottoman Empire. At the time, that region of the Middle East contained people from an area known as Mount Lebanon which was then part of Syria hence the common confusion between the terms Syrian and Lebanese and why they tend to be used interchangeably. Having heard of the wonders of the New World, a place where the streets were supposedly paved with gold that was there for the taking provided one worked hard enough, many sought to escape as quickly as possible and build new lives for themselves and their families.
In addition, stories recount that many Lebanese/Syrians first heard of Jamaica as a result of the Great Exhibition of 1891. The Exhibition held on the grounds of what is now Wolmer's Schools drew over 300,000 visitors from around the world including some from the Middle East. They spoke of opportunities in Jamaica and soon, middle easterners from Lebanon, and Palestine such as noted Father of Jamaican Tourism, Abe Issa's grandfather and father, decided to journey to Jamaica and try their luck at selling dry goods.
On landing in Kingston, new arrivals in the 1890s often encountered a full harbour and a vibrant market scene. Labourers in distinctive jippi-jappa hats, businessmen in morning coats, and East Indians in dhotis, all haggling over prices. Finely dressed women abounded. Single and double horse-drawn traps recruited passengers while mule-drawn tramcars offered alternate means of transportation. Even though they had to jump over open drains, there was electricity and potable piped water. The city was booming there was good reason to believe that a pedlar would do well (Issa, 1994, p. 5).
Earlier Lebanese/Syrian immigrants seemed to have been active in the banana industry but faced with its decline in the beginning of the 20th century, most turned to buying and selling and eventually to retail, following members of the Jamaican-Jewish community. At first, very few had enough money to buy shops so they turned to peddling (Sherlock and Bennett, 1998, p. 334).
PEDLARS TO STORE OWNERS
A potential pedlar would locate an area, ascertain the possibilities, borrow money from a more established member of the Lebanese/Syrian community, purchase a small amount of goods and sell them door to door. As business improved, the pedlar might expand to add first a donkey to his set-up, and then as it expanded further, a horse and buggy and eventually a motor vehicle. Customers appreciated the convenience of being able to shop from home even though they had limited choice (Sherlock and Bennett, 1998, p. 334). Once the pedlar amassed enough funds, he would open what is called a dry goods shop many of which were and still are located in downtown Kingston on Orange, King, West Queen and Harbour streets: Issa's, Joseph's, Shoucair's, Hanna's, Bardowell's and my family's, G.E. Seaga and Sons.
Many amongst the first wave of immigrants worshipped in the Greek Orthodox Church but found none on arrival in Jamaica and so turned to the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches the first of many adaptations that included the learning of a new language, and intermingling with Jamaican society, whose own cultural modes were being formed as different groups the Chinese, Indians, Africans and Europeans struggled to make the island their home. Some Lebanese immigrants, such as those from the village of Schweifat, did speak English as it had been taught in school their region of the Middle East. This certainly made it easier for them to adjust than other immigrants and assisted their assimilation into Jamaican society. Others, especially those later arrivals that landed between the two World Wars to join family members, spoke French so it took them longer to adjust to both the Queen's English and Jamaican English.
As time passed, many Lebanese/Syrians achieved success in business. They were careful with their money and worked hard. Fewer and fewer returned to Lebanon. In fact, many of the second generation Lebanese-Jamaicans did not return to Lebanon to find wives and retain aspects of their culture as had been the custom of some of their parents. World War II interrupted this tradition. Second and third generation Lebanese-Jamaicans therefore became more Jamaicanized.
TO JAMAICAN LIFE
In 1946, when Lebanon gained its independence, a National Pact was instituted that gave political offices to major religious groups the Christian Maronites, Sunnis Muslims and the Druze.
By the beginning of the 1950s, tensions in Lebanon began to grow as thousands of Palestinian refugees entered the country and Shi'ite Muslims became the largest religious sect. In an attempt to co-ordinate pro-Arab and pro-Western sentiments a brutal civil war broke out between different religious factions in 1975.
Israel invaded in 1978 and 1982, and Syria also intervened militarily. (Syrian troops are still stationed in various parts of the country). In 1990, a cease-fire was declared and by 1992 much of the actual fighting stopped.
Sources: Ammar, N. From Whence they came in The Jamaica Journal. Issa, S. (1994). Mr. Jamaica - Abe Issa. Kingston: publisher, Sherlock, P. and Bennett, H. (1998). The story of the Jamaican people. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.
A Jamaica Gleaner Feature originally posted October 06, 2003.
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