Argentina's Muslim Industrialist

Category: Life & Society, Nature & Science Views: 2368

The muted Friday afternoon sunshine did not appear to dim the resolve of the two well armed soldiers who stood motionless at the corner of Calle Alberti to keep an eye on the people that began to mill around a tall young man who had just emerged from the only Sunni Mosque in Buenos Aires. Their object of concern unlike that of the crowd was the Mesquita (Mosque), as a spate of bombings of the town's synagogues had made the Argentinean government sensitive to the possibility of revenge attacks against the Muslims (although there was no direct Muslim link to the bombings themselves). Thus the government initiated a policy of providing security at the places of worship of the two apparently antagonistic religions.

The soldiers looked on disinterestedly as a Lexus slowly drove up and the broad-shouldered, macho looking gentleman briskly slipped into the drivers seat and stepped his foot to the throttle. Little did the soldiers know that the young man with that stately gait was none other than the 33-year old Mohammad Yalal Nazrach, a leading industrialist and the nephew of Zulema Yoma who is the former wife of Argentina's President, Carlos Menem.

A quiet and reserved gentleman, Yalal does not desire to flaunt his wealth or station in society. He is known to live a humble and industrious life. Stories abound of his philanthropic activities especially in lending a helping hand to destitute Muslims. On being questioned about it, he shrugs it off with a mischievous smile.

Together with his sister, Yalal runs a leather garments factory that has been grossing over $10-12M in annual sales for the past few years. Employing over 200 people, the factory reflects the work ethic of its owner who himself puts in an eight to 10-hour workday himself.

Yalal, who tied the matrimonial knot earlier this year in Syria, traces his origins back to that country from where his maternal grandfather Amin Yoma emigrated 90 years ago. Blessed with seven sons and four daughters, Amin Yoma saw his male offspring ground their roots firmly in the Argentinean soil by marrying the locals. However, he did not allow his daughters to marry non-Arabs. As such, Yalal's mother wed an officer in the Syrian army.

Unfortunately, the sons of Yoma and their families have left the fold of clan's faith in the religion of Islam. "The children of my uncles do not follow Islam although we are a tightly knit family," observes Yalal. But if history is any guide, this religious attrition should be no surprise. The young Arabs that emigrated during the last century or two to escape either persecution or the squalid conditions of their countries to garner riches in the New World underwent similar experiences. On arriving in the so-called Utopia of South America, reality stared in the faces of these mostly young and marriageable Arabs.

Unable to return home because of fear of reprisals or poverty, the Muslim Arabs, like their fellow Christian brethren before them, had no choice but to tie the knot with the local women. The result was that within a span of a few decades their offspring had completely embraced the religion of their mothers. These lost generations, though possessing Muslim names, had no clue about Islam. It is no wonder then, that today Argentina is home to millions of Arabs whose ancestors were either Muslims or Christians or both. In fact, if one goes back to the time of the Spanish inquisition, the "baptized and enslaved Muslims" who somehow managed to reach the South American shores had no choice but to feign their commitment to their new enforced religion. Their children were thus deprived of Islamic teachings in spite of the fervent desire of these "unfortunate Muslims."

"I wanted to marry someone who not only followed Islam but also would raise my children as Muslims," says Yalal. "As I could not find such a girl in Argentina, there was no choice for me than to find someone compatible in Syria."

Prior to his quest for marriage however, Yalal, like a majority of young men in the Western world, would run into Argentinean girls at clubs or discos who used to be pleasantly surprised to find that he did not drink alcohol and would proudly proclaim himself as a Muslim. "A lot of these girls indicated their desire to marry me. But I held firm to my beliefs," asserts a proud Yalal.

Yalal is a regular at the Mesquita on Fridays. He says he feels that "the Islamic school being established alongside the new mosque in Palermo is a great blessing."

"I am grateful to God that my children would now be able to learn about Islam while residing in Argentina and that I would be spared the anguish of sending them to Syria for religious training," says Yalal.

He is also grateful that, in his opinion, the mosque committee has been doing an excellent job. As further proof he points to the fact that it was through their efforts that the Argentinean Government in 1995 declared the two Eid (festival) days and the first day of the Muslim new year as public holidays for Muslims.

But Yalal is no ascetic. He is an avid hunter who relishes Arab food and is enamored of romantic music especially the likes of Julio Iglesias. A family man, Yalal loves to spend time with his mother, aunts and uncles, sharing a game of cards or enlightening his guests about Islam.

"The Argentineans perceive Muslims to be backward and uncouth as the media always casts them in the old stereotype mold," says Yalal. "People are really surprised when they learn that Muslims have contributed significantly to the development of sciences. I do try to answer my guests' questions. But I am looking for books that dilate on the differences."

This lack of material on Islam in the Spanish language is something that frustrates not only Yalal but also the entire Muslim minority in South America. Attempts have been made recently by some locals to translate some books, but the exercise, though commendable, lacks the professional touch. On the other hand religious groups such as the Tabligh Jamaat from the Indian sub-continent, come over on their own to help build on the message of Islam with fellow Muslims. But these four- to six-member teams neither know the local language nor do they have the written material in Spanish or Portuguese to hand out to these Muslims who are yearning for information on Islam.

The presence of people like Yalal in surroundings that encourage promiscuity and blind faith in obedience to the Vatican is indeed remarkable. They are trying to live their lives in conformity with the teachings of Islam in the way they know best. How long this struggle will continue on its own is a question that begs a response from the Muslim community at large.

  Category: Life & Society, Nature & Science
Views: 2368
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