Macao, Colombia – As local vendors sell their wares in Maicao’s bustling market streets, the bustle is suddenly interrupted by an Arabic call to prayer.
The call, known as the adhan, comes from the minaret of the local Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque, an imposing Italian marble building that rises above the small border town.
As the blistering midday sun sets, Muslims head to the mosque, led by the adhan, who soars over the cacophony of rickshaws and shouts about yuca and tomato prices.
The mosque – one of the largest in Latin America – is the centerpiece of one of Colombia’s most important Muslim and Arab communities. But it is a community in crisis as trade with neighboring Venezuela falters and its population declines.
“Maicao is not what it should be as a border town. The situation is critical,” said Pedro Delgado, a researcher who studies the city’s Muslim community and who has converted to Islam himself.
But those who stay in town take pride in their community. Mayor Mohamad Jaafar Dasuki, the first and only Muslim to lead a city in Colombia, calls his time overseeing Maicao an “honor”. His term, which began in 2020, will expire this year.
Dasuki believes Maicao continues to play an important role in breaking down stereotypes in the otherwise heavily Catholic country.
“We have a responsibility to give the perception to those who think Muslims are terrorists or Colombians are drug dealers that through our actions we can show that this is a disgrace and a bad perception,” he told Al Jazeera, his Spanish interrupted by a thick Arabic accent.
A diaspora propelled by civil war
Arabs and Muslims arrived throughout Latin America after the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, although few settled in Colombia at that time.
It was the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s that sent waves of asylum seekers across the Caribbean and Colombia, spurring the growth of Maicao’s Arab community.
“They realized there was a large network of opportunities in ports in the Caribbean,” said Diego Castellanos, a historian who studies Latin American Muslim communities at France’s Institute of Anatolian Studies. “And that reconnaissance brought some to Maicao.”
Omar Dabage was one of them. He arrived in Colombia on December 10, 1971 and initially settled in the port city of Barranquilla. He spent a few years as a traveling merchant, selling textiles on the street, before moving to Maicao in 1974.
“I used to work on the land, but there was no work for me at home. I prefer Maicao to my hometown,” said the 73-year-old with a grin as he sipped ginger tea from a small plastic cup.
Maicao’s Arab community remains largely Lebanese, with residents of Syrian and Palestinian descent also included. And in the 1970s, newcomers found prosperity in the border town: Venezuela was on the verge of an oil boom and Maicao was just a stone’s throw away.
The city prospered in the economic upswing. Nestled in the arid plains of Colombia’s La Guajira province, it has traditionally been a prominent hub for business – legal and illegal – and the neighborhood’s largely unregulated border lured newcomers with economic opportunities.
“At the time, Maicao was a city where many things were missing, but there was a lot of contraband,” explains the historian Castellanos.
“Above all, there was a framework of illegality that allowed those who arrived without papers to settle and start producing economically. Maicao started to be seen as a prosperous but very dangerous place.”
With armed groups and paramilitary forces vying for control of the area, Castellanos described Maicao as “a Colombian Wild West” at the time.
A thriving Arab community
Trade across the porous Colombian-Venezuelan border allowed Maicao’s Arab community to flourish. Businesses with names such as Walid, Hassuna and Safadi soon proliferated through the city’s web of shopping streets, offering goods such as appliances, perfumes and textiles.
In 1997, the community completed its crown jewel: the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Mosque. Adorned with turquoise stained-glass windows, the mosque offers a flash of color in the otherwise dusty city – not to mention a welcome shelter from the relentless rays of the sun.
During its heyday in the late 1990s, the Maicao Mosque was rumored to be so crowded that worshipers poured into the streets and said Ramadan prayers from the sidewalk.
It remains the third largest mosque in Latin America – although some argue that it is in fact the second largest, dwarfed only by mosques in major metropolises such as Buenos Aires and Caracas.
For Samira Hajj Ahmad, who has run a nearby electronics store for 41 years, the mosque is the heart of the community.
“It’s tradition, it’s our pride and our religion,” she said as she swept down the storefronts through a bustling high street, her merry eyes peeking out of her black hijab. “Without the mosque there would be no unity, no wisdom, no conscience to be who we are. It’s everything to us.”
A population in sharp decline
The Dar El Arkam school, located next to the mosque, shows no outward signs of the changing circumstances facing the community.
The hallways are lined with photos of graduating classes over the years, labeled with a mix of surnames – some typically Spanish, others traditionally Arabic.
But classes have been shrinking lately. In the 1990s, the school housed between 800 and 1,200 students in two centers, about 15 percent of whom had no Arab roots at all.
Now the school has just 252 students, while the kindergarten and primary school have closed and their buildings have been rented out to keep the rest of the establishment afloat.
The decreasing class size reflects the overall declining population. Although exact figures are disputed, the Arab community in Maicao numbered as many as 5,000 to 8,000 at its peak in the 1990s.
According to local media, the current population has dropped to about 1,000. The mayor claims the total may be closer to 3,000, though researchers like Delgado say that figure is “exaggerated.”
“There are few of us left here in Maicao,” said the head of the mosque, Hussein Omais Barrera, as he sat in the empty carpeted hall. “It’s sad. There used to be a large community and now it has shrunk. It makes one sad, born and raised in Maicao, to see people leave looking for other options.
Economic collapse and increase in crime
The thriving trade opportunities that brought many Arabs to Maicao have now withered, hampered by Venezuela’s utter economic collapse.
The rise of socialist leaders such as Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela also led to friction across the border. Political tensions with Colombia’s formerly conservative government resulted in border closures and a crackdown on imports and migration, measures that hampered Maicao’s economy.
Only recently, with the election of Colombia’s first left-wing president, Gustavo Petro, in 2022, have relations between the two countries eased. In January, Venezuela and Colombia pledged to fully reopen their shared border, and in February they signed a new trade deal.
But Maicao’s decline was also spurred by a crime spree in the 1990s when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a now-disbanded rebel group, clashed with rivals in the area.
Money laundering increased during the conflict, as did incidents of violent crime such as kidnapping and extortion.
“Maicao was plunged into a crisis of insecurity, and the lack of state control turned it into total disarray. People would rather leave than risk their lives,’ explains researcher Delgado.
Adnan Said, a local entrepreneur originally from Lebanon, was one of those kidnapped during the crime spree. In 1996, he and his wife were driving home from the nearby town of Valledupar when an armed group stopped their car and kidnapped the couple for eight days.
He and his wife were eventually released unharmed, though their captors attempted to extort a ransom in exchange for their freedom. Said said he imagines the kidnapping was “for economic reasons”.
But he noted that violence and economic instability were the main reasons he left Lebanon.
The Arab community today is a remnant of what it once was. But even as new generations move away to seek better opportunities, the historian Castellanos believes the community has left an indelible mark on Maicao.
“It’s not like all Muslims will leave Maicao,” Castellanos said. “There will always be a core. But at some point the (Arab) institutions and elites will disappear, and the Muslim and Arab traces will simply become an element of prestige, of distinction.”