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A Taste of Syria in the Andes

On the trail of my great-grandfather, a merchant immigrant to Argentina

Jordan Salama
January 16, 2020
© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Punta Tombo, Argentina, 2001 © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
© Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
Punta Tombo, Argentina, 2001 © Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

My great-grandfather was called Selim Salama, and in the 1920s, according to stories passed down in my family, he worked as a traveling salesman in the Andes, leading a horse-drawn cart filled with textiles and other goods for sale throughout the vast mountains of northwest Argentina. He was an Arab Jew born in 1886—an immigrant from Damascus who had fled to Argentina as a teenager in 1905 to escape religious persecution by the Ottoman Empire—and soon found himself working as a merchant alongside many of his compatriots, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

As a group, they were labeled turcos (Turks) by the Argentine government because of the Ottoman passports they carried when they arrived. In many other Latin American countries where this was the case, the careless generalization of Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and other Arabic-speaking immigrants carries a somewhat offensive connotation. In Argentina, to be a turco is a source of pride. To be a turco means not only to be unique—to be hardy and strong, self-made and fiercely independent—but to recognize the people who worked tirelessly before you, and in turn to work tirelessly for those who will follow. Ours was a family that constantly had to move over the past 500 years—beginning with their expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition, sending them on a slow journey across southern Europe into Syria and, ultimately, Argentina, the United States, and beyond.

Selim would set off alone into the unforgiving deserts, dizzying highlands, and isolated communities of the rugged countryside. He would begin his journey in the city of Mendoza, where his wife and young children kept house, and proceed along a northbound route of approximately 1,000 miles. He claimed, among friends, to have made it to all the way to Bolivia, a three-month journey by pack animal, and would return home to Mendoza with his carriage empty but for a good quantity of silver to show for his sales.

Mendoza, San Juan, La Rioja, Catamarca, Tucuman, Salta, Jujuy, Potosí, and all the towns in between—from fertile, low-lying valleys to the breathtaking and inhospitable Bolivian plateau—these were the places the Jew from Damascus had been and the landscapes he’d encountered. For many years afterwards he’d boast of incredible adventures among the harshest of backdrops: narrowly escaping death as a train plunged off the side of a mountain cliff; enjoying sex with women who wore long, flowing chola skirts and lined the road to please passing merchants; and, in perhaps his most outlandish claim, fathering several children out of wedlock in the remote villages he visited during his years on the road. Eventually, he abandoned this trade and moved, with his wife and their numerous “legitimate” children, back to the capital of Buenos Aires, where he lived for decades until his death in 1960, largely leaving his legendary trading tales overlooked as just that—legends.

Nearly 100 years and three generations later, I found myself in the lands of the Argentine Andes, at once foreign and familiar, aiming to traverse the same route as my great-grandfather and to speak with as many people as possible who might verify his tales. Like Selim Salama, I too began my journey in Mendoza, bound for Bolivia, though I traveled largely by bus and car, and not by horse. The plan was to stop in several towns over the course of a few weeks to gather information that might, in the case of extraordinary luck, lead to one of Selim’s nameless descendants, whom I’d nicknamed “The Lost Salamas.”


The night bus from San Juan got in just before six on a July morning in Chilecito, a picturesque old silver-mining town located at the foothills of the Andes. The sun rose no earlier than 7:45 a.m. on winter mornings, so the streets were empty. Only the light from the stars allowed me to make out the endless wall of jagged black silhouettes that loomed over the western edge of town. This was the base of the cordillera.

The other passengers who got off in Chilecito quickly vanished into the black shadows that surrounded the well-lit but unheated bus terminal. Faced with almost two hours of darkness to myself, I got into the only taxi waiting outside, and we sped off.

“Take me to whatever’s open, please,” I said to the driver. “A café or something.”

“You’re alone?” he asked me through the rearview mirror.

“No.” Better for people to think that I wasn’t completely on my own, I thought, although my plan was to seek out a community of other turcos—maybe even Jews—to spend time with. The cab driver didn’t seem to believe me, and gave me a careful glance.

“Whoever you’re meeting, just make sure you take care. There’s no one on the streets at this hour.”

I thanked him, and he dropped me off at the only open café on the plaza. Towns in Latin America are often centered around commercial squares that also function as parks, and Chilecito was no different—by day, the Plaza Caudillos Federales was green with grass and trees and park benches, surrounded by storefronts and a large church. The café, called Roberta, had furniture and floors made of dark wood. A waiter was mopping the floor, and the only other customer in the place quickly invited me over to his table, I imagined because at this hour he was used to being the only customer at all.

The customer’s name was Mario Jorge Jobador; he had a round face with a white moustache and a cleft chin, and he wore a navy-blue flat cap. He sat, well bundled in a thick sweater and a woolen jacket, inhaling one cigarette after the next beside the large “No Smoking” sign plastered on the café’s cappuccino machine. He stubbed them in an ashtray flanked by a simple Argentine breakfast of two croissant-shaped medialunas and a cup of coffee.

“Who are you?” he asked me, wondering why I was on my own in Chilecito at this hour. It was a simple question, yet I had trouble finding the right answer. I could’ve told him I was an American, but suddenly that didn’t feel like enough—and even if it had, the story of my traveling-salesman ancestor had me coming to terms with the fact that certain aspects of my identity, like coming home to find my father and brother playing backgammon and sipping on Turkish coffee or yerba mate, were more Jewish or Middle Eastern or Argentine than they were simply “American.” I could’ve just said I was Argentine, like him, but that wouldn’t have been entirely true either, and I could’ve said “turco,” but that would’ve been unprompted and quite strange. Equally unprompted would’ve been to say I was a Jew, but every Jew knows that we are sometimes unwelcome.

“I’m a student,” was all I said. The only thing that seemed both objectively true and felt right in the moment. And then: “My great-grandfather passed through here a century ago.”

Jobador was a Chilecito native and remembered the traders of his childhood who came through this town, which was a major stopping point along the route north because of its important mines. His descriptions were vivid: The men would arrive on horseback and in dusty caravans of mules and llamas from the Miranda Pass and Nonogasta to the south, and after a few days in Chilecito they would continue on toward other settlements farther north. The La Mejicana mine, located at a mystically-high altitude among the snowcapped peaks, gave Chilecito life through its extraction of gold, silver, and other valuable minerals, and led in turn to the influx of English and German mineworkers whose possession of silver and willingness to spend was quickly picked up on by the business-minded turcos.

Today, though the mine itself is long defunct, a few physical traces remain of La Mejicana and the history that built Chilecito. One is a large abandoned cable-car system that stretches up into the mountains. Another is the abundance of Middle Eastern merchant families now sprinkled throughout the town.

I spent much of the rest of the morning wandering the streets around the plaza, a few blocks north of the cable-car station, asking after these families who, no longer involved in itinerant commerce, have nonetheless remained. Everyone directed me to the most famous shoe store in Chilecito, Don Justo Deportes, owned by the turco Justo Malek. The shop itself, near a corner of the central plaza, was small and its walls were crammed floor-to-ceiling with shoeboxes of all colors. Two large, brown, shaggy-haired dogs ran in and out of the open doors to the store, which felt more like a house.

The family operation inside was orchestrated by Don Justo and his dozens of children and grandchildren, who ran a tight ship fueled by a constant supply of Turkish coffee. Qahwah turkiyya—as it’s known in Arabic—is black, strong, and unfiltered, heated in a copper pot and served in small cups. I asked for Don Justo, but a thick-bearded teenager at the register named Juampi informed me that his 80-year-old grandfather was currently on vacation and wouldn’t be back for another few days. He offered a cup of coffee and invited me to have a seat until another one of his older relatives inevitably passed by.

“Where are you from?” Juampi asked while we waited. There wasn’t exactly an abundance of customers, so two of his other cousins had joined us, curious about what I was looking for in Chilecito. I told them I was from a Syrian family, and it turned out that they, too, were Syrians—Syrian Christians. He asked me my religion outright, and I hesitated before answering that I was Jewish. But he smiled.

“We’re cousins, hermano. From the same land.”

They were in the middle of offering me a third cup of coffee when Juampi’s uncle appeared outside the store. Juampi bolted out the door, followed by one of the dogs, to bring him in. His name was Roberto Abilar, an older in-law whose family came from the Maronite Christian village of Aintoura, Lebanon. They’d been in Chilecito and its surroundings since 1914. His grandfather first came alone to scope out the region because he’d heard it had a very similar climate to that of the dry mountainous lands of the Levant—another major reason for turco migration to the Argentine northwest. Since then, the men in his family had been peddlers who traveled much of the Andes to the north and south, just like Selim Salama, perhaps even alongside Selim Salama. It was a family trade that ended with Abilar’s father.

“It was a deadly and dangerous road to travel in those days, desolate and unpopulated,” Abilar said, nodding in the general direction of National Route 40, now the longest highway in Argentina, traversed by our wandering ancestors when it was still made of gravel and dirt. Initially, the older man seemed bewildered—he had been pulled unexpectedly into the store. It seemed out of place for him to be seated on a stool next to the cash register, his thinning hair freshly whipped and frizzed by the outside wind. But the store was warm and comfortable, and its light-brown décor was the same color as the land along the road.

He soon settled into a story, explaining how wealthy turcos were prime targets for robbery and assault because they carried all of their merchandise with them as they traveled. Well-connected merchants historically moved in large caravans, he continued, usually with trusted indigenous guides. Those who were less fortunate traveled in pairs or alone, oftentimes with as little as one horse or mule, and were therefore far more vulnerable. More than 60 Middle Eastern peddlers disappeared and were presumed dead in a five-year period at the start of the 20th century, sending waves of fear throughout the countryside. One wealthy Jewish turco from Chilecito, Don Abram Abravanel, was advised by police to carry a pistol on his lonely route north and would air-fire repeatedly in order to scare off would-be bandits. I imagined Selim Salama alone like this, finding his way through the cold and the darkness of a country that was not his own in the hopes that it would someday be that of his descendants.

Abilar recounted these tales with an unsettling familiarity. He suggested that our ancestors had to have known these stories, too, and had the same fears, for the community of traveling turcos was very tightknit, and everyone passed through Chilecito. He gave me the phone number of a friend—an amateur historian who had a book from 1917 that detailed the names of other peddlers like Abravanel who traded at the time—and wished me good luck as he stood up and returned to the street.


Francisco, te presento un shami yahud.” In a mixture of Spanish and Arabic, Jorge Hanna introduced me to his son later that evening in their home, on the outskirts of Chilecito. I present to you a Shami Jew. A Jew from Damascus.

“Welcome.” Francisco, 25 and with a patchy black beard, gave me a kiss on the cheek (as is customary in Argentina) but didn’t shake my hand as he was wrist-deep in preparing a large bowl of raw ground meat. Jorge Hanna was Roberto Abilar’s friend, whom I’d called from the Malek family shoe store. He invited me to have dinner with his family and some friends that evening.

Hanna seemed to know better than anyone the history of turcos in the area around Chilecito. He was a Christian Arab whose family migrated long ago from the Qalamoun Mountains, an area of Syria between Homs and Damascus now utterly devastated by civil war. So many Syrians came to Argentina from the Qalamoun region in the 20th century that some ironically returned before war broke out, and brought adopted Argentine customs with them. You could walk through the nearby city of Deir Atiyah, Hanna said, and find people drinking yerba mate, the national herbal infusion of Argentina, in the streets. It was one of many things the traveling salesmen encountered on the road—the custom of resting in the shade in small groups, passing around a gourd of tea like gauchos—and brought home to their own families.

Making ‘sfeeha’ (Photo courtesy the author)
Making ‘sfeeha’ (Photo courtesy the author)

Hanna also had a digital copy of the old book Roberto Abilar told me about: La Siria Nueva (The New Syria), a 1917 directory of then-active turcos—of all religions—doing business in Argentina. Selim Salama, always deftly elusive, did not appear on the list because it was three years too early—he did not move to Mendoza and begin his trade until 1920. But the book did demonstrate the close ties between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim immigrants from the Levant, who had together formed the Syrian-Lebanese Society of Argentina. In the Andean provinces there was hardly animosity among Ottoman immigrants from different religious backgrounds, Jorge told me, unlike in other countries where foreign issues and conflicts have caused tensions to arise. Here, there was a sense of solidarity, of looking out for one another in a world of uncertainty and new challenges. As something of an example of this, he played me the music of Azur Chami, a Syrian-Jewish singer and oud player who became, for Hanna, “the voice of Arabic music in Argentina” for all turcos, regardless of religion. (Chami’s last name is an alternate spelling of Shami, indicating his city of origin.)

So I found it fitting that we were all huddled together that night, shivering underneath our thick coats and scarves as we prepared a meal in the Hanna family’s unheated kitchen. We were having sfeeha, also known as fataye or lahmajin—triangular dough patties stuffed with minced meat and spices. A popular dish in Syrian and Lebanese households, sfeeha are like Arabic empanadas, the major difference being that the meat is baked with the dough in the oven. I’d eaten this dish at my grandparents’ house for as long as I could remember, and for the first time on my journey I felt distinctly at home.

“All we need is mint,” Francisco told his father. The filling, raw beef with fresh, finely chopped onions, tomatoes, and green peppers, oozed between his fingers.

Moments later I was outside with Hanna at the edge of his property, sifting through the soft mountain soil for the stem of a mint plant. We were at the base of the mountains, a 10-minute drive outside town, and seeing only what the narrow flashlight illuminated in front of me I felt the full presence of the Andes for the first time. My nose tickled in the fresh, chilled air, and I heard the wind swirling aimlessly throughout this valley below the cordillera. The mountains loomed overhead. Looking up at the sky, I found it nearly impossible to distinguish individual constellations—all I saw were thousands of stars.

I thought of Selim Salama and his long-lost children, wherever they might have been, and realized that they were just a small part of a tale about a family who for as long as it can remember has been in transit, learning new information, finding new homes, and creating new cultures along the way. By now the sfeeha was ready and a piping-hot batch was placed in the center of the cold table. I bit into one, and the filling burned my mouth—I didn’t mind, though, because it warmed me up. I squeezed lemon juice onto it, trying to cool it down, and the mix of lemon, meat, and spices marinating inside the dough only tasted better.


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Jordan Salama, a writer and journalist, is a recent graduate of Princeton University.