El Salvador: Central American Palestine of the West?

International observers at the recent, heated elections in the Central American nation of El Salvador might have been surprised to discover amid the violent political polarization, a curious similarity between its two presidential candidates: both are Palestinian. Tony Saca, a hard-line capitalist with strong American ties, and Schafik Handal, a Cuban-style communist, both hail from families that emigrated from Bethlehem together in 1913.

This curiosity is a bit easier to comprehend given that more than 100,000 of El Salvador's 6 million residents are of Middle Eastern descent (almost all from Bethlehem) and that many of them have managed to elevate themselves to the highest social and economic strata in a scant few decades.

Families with names like Dabdoub, Safie, Nasser, Gadala and Jacir run many of the industries, such as textiles and banking, that uphold the struggling Salvadoran economy.

The Siman family, for example, own the largest high-end department store chain in Central America despite being only two generations removed from their homes in Bethlehem. Anyone arriving in San Salvador on the national airline will see an on-board commercial showcasing Siman's inventory of plasma-screen televisions, designer jeans and Chanel perfumes.

Contrast this with the arrival of Jose (Youssef) Jorge Siman upon the same shores in 1917. Hoping to escape the dangers of living under the collapsing Ottoman Empire during World War I, Siman and his family left their prosperous surroundings hoping to find a new market for the Christian iconography upon which they had built their business in tourist-rich Bethlehem.

Along with many of their countrymen, the Simans first brought their wares to Colombia - whose culture was saturated with Catholicism - but found the heat insufferable and the business prospects disappointing.

So Siman turned his eyes toward Central America - the weather was more reminiscent of his distant home, and the Christian market relatively untouched - and settled in El Salvador, where he opened a small religious convenience shop.

Life, however, was not easy. Because of their Ottoman passports, Middle Easterners in Central America were labeled as "Turks," and barred from civil society, public organizations and government posts.

Discrimination and xenophobia ran deep; legacies of Spain's racially obsessed colonial policies in Latin America divided subjects into more than a dozen different ethnic classifications. As Palestinians continued to flee the turmoil of their homeland during the first half of the 20th century, El Salvador may have seemed an unlikely and unwelcoming destination.

But Central America held a certain appeal to the entrepreneurial Middle Easterners who made it their home. It was, in a sense, a clean canvas: The economy was undeveloped, the governments were weak and land was cheap. Relatively poor in resources, Central America had received less foreign attention and therefore less ruinous exploitation than Mexico and South America.

So, despite the social and political barriers that stood in the way of arriving Palestinians, El Salvador and her neighbors held great potential to some economic visionaries.

Jose Siman had such a vision. His goal was to introduce modern retail to the provincial community around him. At first it was difficult: The outdoor marketplace was a culturally ingrained phenomenon, and there was little demand in El Salvador for imports and luxury goods, except by a tiny aristocracy.

But around mid-century, as immigrants continued to arrive and invest in the country, the economy began to modernize and a capitalist class with opulent tastes emerged. Before long, Siman was in business.

In the half-century since, Siman's children and grandchildren have watched the business grow into a multinational corporation, operating with a distinctly Middle-Eastern emphasis on family involvement. This system seems to function well in the Central American economy because it resists the prominent threats to business in the region, such as poor governmental protections and, more importantly, political unrest.

El Salvador's internal war covered roughly the same timeframe as of that in Lebanon, and was similar also in its degrees of brutality and foreign interference. El Salvador's war was initially about political ideology - a guerilla revolt led by mostly middle and upper-class Communists - but quickly degenerated into a cycle of massacres and Cold War power-wrangling.

Many Palestinians, with their considerable investments, found themselves caught up in the conflict, and thus began their legacy of political involvement in the country whose government had, until the war, been dominated by Spanish-Americans.

Most of the wealthier Middle Eastern families sided with the pro-American government, fearing the dissolution of their enterprises were the Communists to win. Ironically, this same government was forced to rely heavily on Israeli military aid to maintain their foothold in the country.

Not all of the Arabs in El Salvador were business leaders, however, and many of them sympathized with the Communist agenda.

Schafik Handal was one of these: having earned his first scars fighting against a military dictatorship in the 1940s, he rose to prominence 40 years later as a guerilla leader in the Communist Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN), which received much of its support from Yasser Arafat and the PLO.

Handal traveled to Beirut in 1981, reportedly to secure arms from the Fatah organization.

Despite having lost the war, the FMLN is now the main opposition party in El Salvador's democratic system, with Handal running as its candidate for this year's presidential election. Had he won, El Salvador would have been among the last countries in the world to move its embassy from Jerusalem.

Handal's rival, incumbent Tony Saca, is notorious for his stubbornly pro-American, capitalist policies. Throughout the country, walls are papered with photographs of the two candidates smiling benevolently; every bridge and telephone poll painted in party colors and until the elections, radio and television were filled with vitriolic propaganda for the competing politicians.

Despite Handal's popular appeal, Saca was re-elected in March, under widely publicized international monitoring. Handal now has five years to prepare his next campaign.

In keeping with the sort of Middle Eastern tradition already established in the economic sphere, Saca and Handal happen to be blood relatives.

The Palestinians in El Salvador display a curious amalgam of local and imported lifestyles. While few of them speak Arabic fluently (although it seems to be fashionable for members of the third and fourth generations to study the language at universities in the US), all of them still call their favorite foods by their Arabic names, and most have retained a lexicon of polite French that emerges occasionally at dinner parties.

Palestinian culture has begun to emerge from within private circles into the public domain, most visibly in the creation of the Plaza Palestina, which commemorates the Bethlehem roots of most of El Salvador's Arabs, in San Salvador.

The plaza, which features historical information on Palestine, has been hotly contested because of its omission of any reference to modern Israel, whose government has threatened to revoke foreign aid because of the monument.

The public charity of Middle Easterners in the country has also contributed to this effect: the Simans sponsor a free drug-rehabilitation program in El Salvador and a scholarship fund for Palestinians at the Catholic Bethlehem University.

Middle Easterners have also brought economic salvation and cultural diversity to El Salvador, but many of the persistent conflicts that they had hoped to leave behind have proven inescapable.

Still, their trademark resilience and entrepreneurship has seen them through the country's darkest days, and the future holds tremendous promise for the tiny Palestinian diaspora who have made their home in this Central American Levant.





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