Imprints of Arab Christians in South America
Foto: Circi Şakır’s ID card in Argentina
Being a minority has always meant migrating from one place to another. When we look at the written history of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, we see many examples of minorities being forced from their motherland and migrating to other places. This seems to be a norm for the Christian minorities of Antioch, changing only in destination, for the last 150 years. Even in this context, this mass migration to South America is quite striking. Between 1880 and 1914 about half a million Arab Christians migrated to various countries in South America from different Ottoman states for the pursuit of a better life. When we look at this number in detail, we can see that there were over 100,000 people from the state of Aleppo who were part of this migration. There are many reasons for this mass migration, but it is obvious that the reasons are very similar to the migration that occurred after the annexation of Hatay in 1939, and also very similar to the mid-20th century migration to Europe for work.
As the Ottoman Empire was crumbling, many non-Moslems broke off their ties with their motherland and emigrated to South America. This was due to myriad reasons, including but not limited to the population growth in Aleppo State and the economic troubles that came with it, the political and religious conflicts among different groups of the society who didn’t have a governing power, and because of conscription (compulsory military service.) A large number of these people were Arab Christians, although there were a small number of Armenians and Jews, and even to some extent Moslem Turks. Since these people moved from the Ottoman lands, they were registered as Turks in the South American ports of the countries in which they arrived. Because of this, the descendants of these people are still called El Turco in the countries to which they migrated.
As such, one of the 100,000 emigres, whose names and existence have long been forgotten, was my paternal grandfather Circi Şakır. When a baby is baptized in the Antioch Greek Orthodox Church, it is a tradition to record his name in the church baptismal records. My grandfather Circi (George), who was born almost a hundred years before me, was recorded in the big, black baptismal book in Antioch Greek Orthodox Church as Circi Abdülmesih Şekri. His birthday was recorded as 5 October 1889 and he was baptized on 6 January 1890, though there are multiple discrepancies regarding the accuracy of his birthday. My father used to tell us that his father was born in 1885. According to Turkish records, he was born in 1883. In the Argentinian ID card given to him, his birth was recorded as 1888. However, whichever year he was born, it is certain that Circi Şakır emigrated to Argentina when he was a young man between the ages of 15 and 20. After working in Argentina for about 20 years, he returned to Turkey in the mid-1920s. My father and aunts used to tell me that their father, who was a very soft-hearted man, used to sing them songs in Spanish. My grandfather, who worked as a crop worker in Argentinian wheat fields, worked as a cobbler when he returned to Antioch until he died. He gave his last breath after saving three children from a fire in Antioch in 1947.
Just like every other worker who leaves the country to which he emigrated and returns to his motherland, my grandfather too returned to Antioch with some money in his pocket. Since he could then be assumed an affluent artisan, he married Meryane (Marrianne) of the Seydi family. The Seydi family was a distinguished family of the time. Since the 18th century, the Seydi family had owned a miraculous Mary Mother of God icon. They are still said to be one of the most respected families around Aleppo and Antioch. They had a different family name until the 1700s and since then they have been called Seydi, meaning holy, because of the miraculous icon. Some members of this family also emigrated to South America.
My grandfather and grandmother, who got married in the middle of 1920s, went to Egypt for their honeymoon. My grandfather had a sister who had in years previous married an Egyptian. The original route for Circi and Meryane after Egypt was to Argentina. I believe my grandfather really liked the country where he had lived for those twenty years, whose language he had struggled to learned, and he had wanted to establish his new family there. However, my great-aunt in Egypt told her sister-in-law, my grandmother, ‘’What are you going to do there? Go back to Antioch!’’ In this way, they changed their minds and returned to Antioch.
People die, and often papers that are left behind are forgotten, sometimes for hundreds of years. I’d like to share a piece of paper that my grandfather left behind after his death. In Argentina, he was given a cedula de identidad, an identity card. It is hard to tell if this card is a work and residence permit or if it’s an actual citizenship card. Judging from other examples I’ve seen online, it’s safe to say that it is likely something like a Green Card. On this ID card, my grandfather’s name has completely been hispanized into `Jorge Chacra`. However, there is an ambiguity about the family name. My late father and my grandfather had a nickname/last name that was Kimriy (turtledove). Actually, my father’s baptismal records indicate that both he and his godfather, his paternal first cousin, were recorded as Kimriy. My grandfather’s brother’s children, however, have a completely different family name. I suppose they were never Şakırs. Thus, I assume that my grandfather took the last name Şakır from the Spanish word Chacra, meaning `ranch`. Even though he is recorded as Şekri in the church baptismal records, this could very well be a correction that was made in later years by the priest who was copying the baptismal records into a new book. Perhaps when Turkey passed the family name law in 1934, my grandfather hesitated to keep the last name Kimriy, a name sounding like a minority name, and chose Şakır himself as a new last name. After all, the Spanish word chacra has a Turkish ring to it. And many years later, the suffix -gil was somehow added to my family name.
When we look at my grandfather’s ID card, we see a profile picture, his fingerprint and information about his physical appearance. This card was given to him in 1922 and it’s fully in Spanish. His occupation has been recorded as zapatero, shoemaker. Even though he was born in Antioch, his birthplace is denoted as Aleppo. Perhaps they recorded the state he was coming from as his birthplace. There is also information about his hair color, height and birth year.
Apart from my paternal grandfather of whose family name I carry, there are two more ancestors of mine who emigrated to South American countries, like Argentina and Brazil, around the same time that my grandfather emigrated. One of them was a man who carried the same last name as my maternal grandfather and who probably was his first cousin. Let’s talk about him for a little bit. Back in late 2000s, a letter miraculously arrived to the Antioch Greek Orthodox Church. It was miraculous, because the letter was addressed to Antioch Greek Orthodox Church, Hatay Province, Turkey, though it was written completely in Spanish. This two-page letter was written by a man in his late seventies, Americo Rafael Menaier. He was asking for information about his father, Hanna Müneyyir, who had migrated to Argentina around 1914 from Antioch, along with a baptismal record of his father. The priests realized that the letter was a differently-spelled version of my mother’s maiden name, Mounayer and hand the letter to us. Just like my last name Şakır becomes Chacra in Spanish, my maternal grandfather’s cousin’s name had become Menaier. This old Rafael just wanted to find his father’s relatives. Thanks to one of the amazing inventions of modern day, Facebook, I found Rafael’s nephews and contacted them. Hanna Menaier, my maternal grandfather’s cousin, had six boys, so today, the Müneyyirs in Argentina are quite crowded. In order to find traces of Rafael’s ancestors, we dove into the baptismal records. There were more than fifteen Müneyyir boys born in those years, though today, there aren’t any Müneyyirs left in Antioch. The Müneyyirs in Aleppo either died without children or had daughters. Since the death of my uncle, there are only his two sons and his two grandsons as Müneyyirs. They reside in Europe. As a twist of fate, there aren’t any Müneyyirs left in the cities of Aleppo State, but they are tens of them in Argentina. Who knows? Perhaps Hanna Müneyyir and Circi Şakır worked back to back, chatting in Arabic, reminiscing Antioch, without knowing that one day, one of their common descendants would trace their lives.
It would appear that the South America legacy in my family doesn’t end here. In the USA, genetic tests are quite popular. You can easily order a kit, which is sent to your home, a saliva sample provided and sent to the company. These samples are analyzed and give interesting information about the ancestry of the person. Moreover, they can tell you about other genetic relatives who also have taken the test, even explaining how much you are related to that other person who took the test. It turns out that my brother and I share 51% of our genes. However, what is more interesting is that you can find your second, third and even more distant cousins. Since the majority of people do not know their ancestry further back than immediate grandparents, finding such distant cousin relatives can be quite odd. I was able to find a third cousin who was interested in his ancestors just like me and I have been able to communicate with him. My grandmother, Meryane Seydi, had a cousin, Natalya Seydi, who also moved to South America, likely around the same time as Circi Şakır and Hanna Müneyyir. She probably emigrated with her parents. Thanks to these genetic tests, I was able to talk to her Brazilian grandson and we figured out that our grandmothers were first cousins. Thus, I added Brazilian relatives to my Argentinian ones.
The subject of migration is a very complicated one. You can often hear around Aleppo and Antioch sentences like, `Oh yes, my grandfather’s brother emigrated to Argentina and never returned`. Though sadly, after more than a hundred years, after these many different countries and gigantic oceans in between, one loses these relations. Among the languages I know, I express myself best in Turkish. My relatives who live just at the other side of the Syria-Turkey border speak Arabic. If my grandfather had returned to Argentina as he had planned those many years ago, maybe my mother tongue would have been Spanish, like my third cousins today. Language and identity become very different shapes with every small decision that our ancestors took. Circi Şakır’s father was an Arab Christian native of Antioch, who worked as a mason when the Antioch Greek Orthodox Church was being built and he probably spoke Arabic only. His son Circi emigrated because he had to, and perhaps he thought his descendants to be multilingual and multicultural. Circi’s grandkids are all around the world today, speaking in different languages to their children and their children’s children. Language, culture and identity is fluent, both for Circi’s descendants and for all the Arab Christians who left their land.
Translated from Turkish by the author