SULTAN YAACOUB, Lebanon (AP) — At the eastern edge of the rural Bekaa Valley, where the rocky hillsides are stippled with cherry trees, a generations-old kinship with Brazil has imbued two Lebanese villages with a Latino spirit.
Lusi and Sultan Yaacoub are home to more than one thousand Brazilian nationals, many of whom speak Portuguese as fluently as they do Arabic.
The villages are deeply influenced by Brazilian culture, but this is not apparent at first glance. The Islamic call to prayer reverberates through the zigzag alleys five times a day and the pale stone houses resemble any others in the Bekaa Valley.
But residents mix Portuguese and Arabic in nearly every conversation and the local cuisine is unmistakably Brazilian. Though there are no official statistics, one municipal council representative said "99 percent" of the community are Brazilian nationals. Almost everyone said they had lived in South America at some point.
Christina Hindi's Portuguese bakery — or pastelaria — sells savory pastries such as pao de queijo, empada and coxinhas, as well as sweet treats like churros, deep fried dough. Tropical drinks, such as coconut milk and guarana soda, are popular local refreshments.
When Brazil's national soccer team plays, "everyone raises the Brazilian flag," the mayor of Sultan Yaacoub, Ahmad Jaroush, said. Nobody misses the match.
"You feel here as if you are living in Brazil," said Fatima Wehbe, a Brazilian-born member of the Sultan Yaacoub municipal council, proudly.
Since the late 19th century, people have been driven out of Lebanon — and especially its mountainous heartlands — by economic hardship, famine, conscription or war. Some travelled to the Americas, settling in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Cuba — and, of course, Brazil.
The Brazilian Foreign Ministry estimates that between 7 million and 10 million Brazilians are of Lebanese descent. Brazil's acting president, Michel Temer, is the son of Lebanese immigrants, though his family is from the northern mountains, not the Bekaa.
Many of these emigrants have maintained strong ties with their homeland, including through marriage.
Lusi residents said an average of 20 weddings take place each summer between a man or woman from the village and a suitor from Brazil. Many of these couples choose to stay, or at least to maintain a home, in the Bekaa Valley.
Hindi, the pastelaria owner, was born in the Brazilian city of Sao Paolo in 1970, and moved to Lusi with her parents in 1985. A year later, she married a young man from the village, before returning with him to her country of birth.
They moved to Brazil because her husband is a farmer, and in Lebanon "the crop was weak," she said. A decade or so later they returned to Lebanon with their daughter, for many of the same reasons they had left. "The Brazilian economy is weak, and there's no security," Hindi said.
Residents also cite their attachment to their Lebanese heritage and, sometimes, loneliness as reasons for returning to Bekaa.
"You want to marry someone of your own religion and tradition," said Yazdeh Hindi, Christina's younger sister. The community is predominantly Muslim, and its emigrants have mostly adhered to a conservative reading of their faith.
Still, many in the community who moved to Brazil have stayed. Jaroush, the mayor, estimates some 4,000 to 5,000 locals from the village and their descendants live in Brazil.
Many families have accumulated their wealth through trade or remittances from Brazil.
The homes in Lusi and Sultan Yaacoub are larger than average for the region; some are gated and have manicured gardens. Jaroush said the population swells in the Lebanese summer, especially during boom years in Brazil, when expatriates return to invest in their homes and enjoy the company of friends and family.
"We have a hall for weddings," said the mayor. "Everyone gets to know one another. Some stay; some return. But there are always people coming and going."