Braces aren’t just for teenagers


By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

For years many people neglected taking care of their teeth, which of course resulted in decay, cavities, and the inevitable extractions that would leave the person toothless and having to use a denture to fill in the gaps of the missing teeth.

It is said that Queen Elizabeth’s teeth turned black in the 1600s from decay because of her predilection for Moroccan sugar, since they probably did not realize that excessive consumption of sugar and lack of dental hygiene meant that their teeth were doomed. Of course things are now rather different. Widespread fluoridation of drinking water begun in the 1960s, as well as the use of fluoride toothpaste, have helped dramatically decrease tooth decay in both children and adults.

But our continued collective sweet tooth, with our love of fizzy drinks, candy and cookies, all loaded with tons of sugar, means that we will not put dentists out of business any time soon!

I have had reasonably good teeth for most of my life, albeit with my share of cavities and later on root canals on teeth that could not be saved by a simple filling. Until I reached my 40s I did not go see a dentist regularly once a year, or even every six months, as recommended by dental professionals. Like most people, I brushed my teeth twice a day, and rinsed my mouth after eating or drinking something particularly sweet. But then the problems started in my mid-40s. I started to need more and more root canals, and now in my 50s my teeth seem to be breaking more easily than ever.

In an attempt to save the remaining real teeth that I still possess, I now brush my teeth after each meal and floss once a day. Even so, I have been forced to get three implants after my dentist told me that the infection in the root was too far gone to save the tooth.

On one of my recent visits to my dentist I asked about the possibility of getting braces, as one of my front teeth was being pushed out, and my bottom front teeth were slightly crooked. It seems that as we get older our teeth start moving, and become crooked.

“Yes, of course you can have braces. I think you’d only need to wear them for nine months,” he told me.

I thought a lot about the possibility of having braces and researched online the experiences of other adults who had done the same. The results were positive, so I decided to take the plunge. This week I went in to my orthodontist and he and his assistant placed the braces on my teeth.

“Your teeth are going to start hurting in about four hours from now, so take a pain killer,” my orthodontist warned me at the end of the procedure. But my teeth did not hurt that night, thank goodness.

Having braces is not easy. You must watch carefully what you eat, not biting into anything hard such as apples and nuts. Anything that can get caught in the metal of the brackets should be avoided such as popcorn, caramels and other chewy candy and chewing gum. The other problem is that after eating a meal, some food remains trapped in one’s braces, which means a careful brushing afterwards, not just washing your moth out with water, is needed to get rid of the debris.

In the US there has been a recent boom in adults wearing braces. According to a Wall Street Journal article, 1.2 million American adults received orthodontic treatment in 2012 according to the American Association of Orthodontists, up 39 percent from 1996. The article even mentions an 87 year old man who recently had his braces removed at the end of his treatment.

It does feel a bit strange having all of those small metal brackets stuck on my teeth. My braces have given me a slight lisp, but nothing I can easily correct when talking. Now all I have to do is endure the jokes thrown at me by relatives and friends. My American cousin Tom called me “metal mouth” when he saw a picture of my braces that I posted online. A friend quipped “sweet 16!” Of course I protested and said that I had never needed braces when I was teenager, but need them now in my middle age. Braces nowadays, I told him, are for adults too.



Dilma in hot water

Brazilian congressmen celebrate on April 17, 2016, as they reach the required number of "Yes" votes to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. (Agencia Brasil photo)

Brazilian congressmen celebrate on April 17, 2016, as they reach the required number of “Yes” votes to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. (Agencia Brasil photo)

UPDATE: The Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, voted 367-137 to impeach Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Sunday, April 18, 2016.

The impeachment motion now goes to the Senate, which should decide whether to accept or not by May 10. If they do, President Dilma will be immediately suspended as president for a maximum of 180 days. The Senate will then have to vote on the measure.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazilians are experiencing unprecedented political tension as the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff moves swiftly ahead. On Thursday, the Supreme Court met in a special session for eight hours to hear the government’s petition to have the impeachment stopped. The court in the end voted 8-2 to allow the process to go forward.

Speeches for and against the impeachment started being given in the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, on Friday morning. They are scheduled to run in a marathon session until Sunday morning, with only a few breaks late at night to give the 513 congressmen a chance to sleep. On Sunday, the deputies will start voting on the impeachment. If Dilma is impeached by the lower house, she will be suspended as president for 180 days, during which the Senate will have to debate and vote on the motion. Vice-president Michel Temer, who is the son of Lebanese immigrants, will immediately assume the presidency as soon as the lower house votes in favor of the impeachment. If he does make it, he will be Brazil’s first ever president of Arab descent.

According to polls taken by all the major newspapers, Dilma will lose the vote in the House of Deputies and in the Senate too. She seems to realize that she is on the way out, but in interviews this past week has vowed to fight to the last minute. The Folha de Sao Paulo counted 338 votes in favor of her impeachment in the lower house, with 123 votes against the motion, and 52 lawmakers still undecided. For the motion to pass they would need 342 votes. In the Senate, out of a total of 81 senators, the paper counts 44 senators in favor of impeachment, 19 against and 18 undecided. For the motion to pass only 41 votes are needed.

The whole impeachment process has sharply divided Brazilians along ideological lines. Poorer Brazilians and leftist intellectuals have remained strong supporters of President Dilma and her Workers’ Party, though most will not deny that she has not handled the economy well at all. Middle class and wealthier Brazilians have been leading the massive protests against the president and her party, calling on her to be impeached or for her resignation.

Both pro- and anti-impeachment groups have called for huge rallies on Sunday across the nation. Fearing that violence may break out between the opposing groups, the governor of the Federal District ordered that a 2-meter high metal be installed in the Esplanade of the Ministries, a grassy mall that runs from the central bus station to Congress in the center of Brasilia, with all of the ministries ranged on either side of the mall.

The wall is one-kilometer long and has already been dubbed the “Berlin Wall” and the “Wall of Shame” of Brasilia by locals upset at seeing their public space so sharply divided. The federal minister of justice called it a “crazy idea” in a television interview. Some observers have said they fear that violence may break out between the Movimento dos Sem Terra (Movement for the Landless) activists and the pro-impeachment crowd. The MST members are known for using violent tactics in their protests, burning tires and throwing dangerous objects at riot police.

The polarization of Brazilian society caused by this political debate has become so severe that even a Brazilian doctor recently announced she could no longer the treat the child of a Workers’ Party activist because she could not stand the ruling party. The local doctors union defended the doctor’s decision, saying she should be proud of what she did, pointing out that no doctor is obliged to provide medical treatment to someone they did not like unless it is an emergency or they were the only doctor in the area.

In the meantime, Vice President Temer has been busy having meetings with groups of politicians, all eager to get an appointment in the new government they see coming soon. President Dilma has been decimated by the departure of the PMDB party from her ruling coalition, as well as that of a slew of smaller parties, and is trying to put on a brave face by visiting the camps of her ardent supporters who have traveled to Brasilia to protest for her on Sunday.

She has been looking very tired and run down in her public appearances. A major newsweekly magazine ran a particularly unflattering cover story claiming that the president was losing her mind because of all of the stress she has been under. Her defenders slammed the publication, claiming the article was sexist and mean-spirited. But the president has long had a reputation for being a tough woman who does suffer fools easily, and who regularly blows up and shouts at her ministers and staff members during meetings.

Supporters of the government call this impeachment a “coup attempt,” and many observers have pointed out that some of the congressmen voting for the impeachment have committed worse crimes than the president has. President Dilma has been accused of mismanaging government spending accounts by using creative accounting methods to hide the growing deficit.

We will have to wait and see if Temer as president will be able to turn around the Brazilian economy, which is going through one of its worst recessions in 100 years.

Questioning of Lula is sign of Brazilian maturity

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police.

Anti-Lula protesters shout at Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo on March 04, 2016, where the former president was taken for questioning by the federal police. (AFP photo)

This column was printed in Arab News on March 6, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazilians awoke on Friday morning to the breaking news that the Federal Police and tax inspectors were parked outside the home of former President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva in Sao Bernardo do Campo, a suburb of Sao Paulo. This was the beginning of the 24th phase in the months-long “Car Wash” investigation into massive corruption at the state oil giant Petrobras. Lula was being taken into custody for questioning whether he wanted to go or not.

Soon supporters and critics of the former president had gathered outside his home, arguing and pushing each other. The police were quickly called in to take control of the situation, as Lula was questioned for nearly four hours at an office of the Federal Police at Congonhas Airport.

Lula took three lawyers with him and a federal congressman of his Workers’ Party. When it was over, he went to the headquarters of his party and gave an angry speech, railing against the excessive use of police intimidation and devolving into his usual accusations of the rich not being able to accept that a once poor man such as himself had made it to the presidency of the nation. It was the classic leftist class struggle spiel of the rich versus the poor.

Lula ruled Brazil for two terms as president from 2003 to 2010, and now the current President Dilma Rousseff, his protégée, has ruled Brazil from 2011 until now. While no one denies that the Workers’ Party helped lift millions of Brazilians out of poverty and gave them many new rights, the corruption of the politicians from this party has been so all-encompassing that practically no aspect of Brazilian life seems to have escaped its taint.
The “Car Wash” investigation, which is being led by the federal judge Sergio Moro, has found that top Petrobras officials were involved in a massive corruption, kickback and overpricing scheme that has involved a handful of the country’s major construction and engineering firms. These firms have been accused of funneling money gained from Petrobras to a host of politicians in illegal payments, including Lula. Even President Dilma’s 2010 election campaign fund has been linked to dirty money from construction companies.

Moro has been handing down reduced sentences, called “delacoes premiadas” in Portuguese, to get prime suspects to cooperate with investigators and spill the beans about all they know. The latest person to do so was Sen. Delcidio Amaral, the former head of the ruling party in the Senate. He was arrested late last year and just released a few weeks ago after he agreed to squeal on his co-conspirators.

Joao Santana, Lula and Dilma’s main election campaign strategist, and his wife were recently arrested after it was discovered that $7.5 million in tainted money had been paid to him by construction companies.

To top all of this off, Brazil is going through a severe economic recession. Its GDP shrank 3.8 percent in 2015, its worst performance since 1990, inflation is at 10.67 percent and unemployment is around 8 percent.

All of this has deeply polarized the Brazilian electorate, with most of the poorer Brazilians still supporting the Worker’s Party, while more educated and well-off Brazilians are fed-up with a never-ending stream of corruption scandals.

Having been one of the most popular presidents that Brazil has seen in modern times, Lula for a long time believed he was untouchable. The relentless investigation by Moro and the Federal Police has shown otherwise.

So far the independence of the investigators has been maintained despite alleged attempts by various ministers to get some of the accused off the hook. Hopefully the investigations will continue. This shows that Brazil has become a mature democracy where no one is above the law.

Brazil struggles with Zika outbreak

Brazilian soldiers empty bottles filled with water in a person's backyard to not allow mosquitoes a breeding place.

Brazilian soldiers empty bottles filled with water in a person’s backyard to not allow mosquitoes a breeding place.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Brazil is reeling from an unprecedented outbreak of the Zika virus, which in the worst cases affects the fetuses of pregnant woman, causing malformation of the babies’ brains.

The virus is spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito and the first case here was only recorded in 2014. It is believed that the virus was imported into Brazil by a traveler or athlete from the Pacific islands during the World Cup.

There are already 3,718 cases of suspected microcephaly in Brazilian babies, which means that their heads measure only 32 centimeters or less at birth. The majority of reported cases have been in Northeastern Brazil, the hottest and poorest region of the country. This has caused the US government to warn pregnant American women from traveling to Brazil, and has worried some Brazilians that if the outbreak is not handled quickly it could scare off some of the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists expected to arrive for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in August.

But what is the Brazilian government to do? Brazil is a tropical country with a lot of heat and rain. The poorest Brazilians live in shacks in slums that have many places where garbage accumulates as well as pools of water and sewage, perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. As one American expert rather gloatingly noted recently, the Zika virus is not going to spread like fire in the US because most Americans have air-conditioning and screens on the windows in their homes that keep the mosquitos out. Poor Brazilians do not have that luxury.

So the Brazilian government has done as it always has: Launched a public relations campaign through ads on television, radio and newspapers, telling the population to fight the breeding grounds of mosquitoes by making sure they do not have pools of water lurking around their homes in old containers, under potted plants and in any junk they may have accumulated in their backyards. But this is the continuation of a long-term campaign in its battle against the equally mosquito-borne pestilence of dengue fever. Municipal officials and occasionally army troops are annually deployed across cities and towns in Brazil, going door-to-door to inspect homes for mosquito-breeding locations. If they do find stagnant water pools, they try to drain them, and if that is not possible they pour insecticide into the water to kill the larvae of the mosquitoes.

But, meanwhile, the numbers of Brazilians infected with dengue and Zika keep skyrocketing. According to the Ministry of Health, the number of dengue cases in the first 20 days of this year jumped 48 percent, reaching 73,000 cases. In 2015, there were an eye-popping 1.6 million cases of dengue in Brazil. In dengue fever, the symptoms are high fever and acute pain in the eyes and joints of patients. In the case of Zika infection, the victim also gets red blotches on their skin across his/her body. There is also a more dangerous version of dengue fever that apart from causing all of the aforementioned symptoms causes internal bleeding.

The Brazilian government has now said its priority is to help with the work being done to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus. They hope to have human trials for a vaccine 18 months from now.

The scary aspect of the Zika virus is that when a pregnant woman catches it in her first three months of pregnancy, she most times passes it on to her fetus. Unfortunately, tests can only detect whether a fetus has been infected with the virus from the 24th week of gestation and onward. Which means that a fetus will already be six months old when the Zika virus can be detected. That causes many complications in that it makes it harder for a woman to have an abortion at that late stage in the pregnancy. Brazil has been battling with this, since being a Catholic nation abortion is strictly banned except if the mother was raped or could die if she brought the pregnancy to gestation.

A Supreme Court justice said recently he believed that women with fetuses affected by the Zika virus should be allowed to have abortions, since these babies will most likely be born with malformed brains. But no one seems to be pushing this aspect of dealing with the crisis. As one Brazilian commentator quipped: “Rich Brazilian women are not affected too much by the restrictions because they can afford to pay the $1,800 to have an illegal abortion in a private clinic, while poor women who cannot afford that remain resigned to their fate.”

The panic that this has generated here in Brazil has caused many well-to-do pregnant women to move to Miami in the US for the duration of their pregnancies, returning to Brazil only after their babies are born. Poor women obviously do not have that option. So the Brazilian government should step up efforts to control the mosquito population in Brazil, while work is being done on a vaccine for Zika and dengue too. Fumigating areas with too many mosquitoes, encouraging Brazilians not to throw their trash everywhere, and handing out free insect-repellent in poorer areas would go a long way in controlling the ever growing number of dengue and Zika victims.

This column was printed in Arab News on Feb. 14, 2016:

The rocky relationship

Jean Wyllys poses in front of Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he participated in a conference.

Jean Wyllys poses in front of Hebrew University in Jerusalem where he participated in a conference.

This column was printed in Arab News on Jan. 17, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The recent visit of leftist Brazilian congressman Jean Wyllys to attend an academic conference at Hebrew University in Jerusalem caused a mini-storm of controversy in Brazil, with many pro-Palestinian activists accusing Wyllys of supporting Israeli propaganda and letting down the cause of the Palestinians.

It all started when the congressman posted a picture on his official Facebook page showing him standing in front of a Hebrew University sign. Critics were quick to point out that one of the university’s campuses is built on land confiscated from Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. Members of his Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) harshly criticized him, with the news website The Intercept reporting that Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian diplomat and former UN rapporteur on Myanmar, posted a video online in which he said: “Lamentable and deplorable, Congressman Jean Wyllys’ comments about his visit to Israel reveal a crass ignorance of and total misinformation about Israel’s current human rights policies.” The video was later removed.

The Intercept reported that the congressman was not even scheduled to visit the West Bank, but after the backlash he announced he would visit Bethlehem and perhaps Hebron. When some Brazilian voters commented that he should try to visit Gaza, the congressman said he would never be allowed to because of his “sexual orientation.” The Intercept noted that Hamas would never harm a visiting foreign politician.

Wyllys’ trip brought up the whole controversy surrounding the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, which aims to pressure the Israeli government into accepting an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, into focus. The congressman said he was deeply opposed to any sort of boycott movement, saying that it only strengthened extremists on both sides of the conflict.

Another controversy currently rocking Brazil-Israel relations is the appointment of Dani Dayan by Israel to be their new ambassador in Brasilia. He headed the Yesha Council from 2007 to 2013, which represents the half-million illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Dayan was appointed in August 2015, after the previous Israeli ambassador left Brazil after serving here for only a year. His appointment was announced on Twitter, even before the Israeli government officially communicated the decision to the Brazilian government. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry felt like it was being railroaded into accepting Dayan’s appointment, and has refused to accept his nomination, saying that Brazil considers the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem occupied territories and therefore does not want Dayan here. The Israelis have admitted privately that Dayan will have to be sent elsewhere.

Although Brazil is a strong supporter of Palestinians and their struggle for an independent homeland, they also buy many Israeli weapons. Brazil chooses Israeli weapons because their prices are often cheaper than western alternatives and the Israelis are willing to transfer the technology along with their weapons. The former Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, recently warned that Brazil was becoming too dependent on Israel for weapons, and said that the country should further diversify its arms suppliers.

Despite the efforts of the Israeli government to promote Israel in Brazil and get more Brazilians to visit and sympathize with them, most Brazilians have a strong sense of justice and see the Israeli oppression of Palestinians as not acceptable. Last year two very famous Brazilian singers, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, received much criticism for a concert tour of Israel. The Israeli government and people were more than happy to receive them and host them, as Brazilian music is very popular in Israel. But when Veloso returned to Brazil he wrote a newspaper column saying he would never return to Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved.

Wyllys has said he plans to return to Israel again if invited by leftist Israelis. But even so, the controversy surrounding his visit, and that of Veloso and Gil, shows that Israel, despite its best efforts, cannot hide what is happening to the Palestinians under its control. Israel may be a democratic oasis, but only if you are Jewish and Israeli. The lengths that Israel goes to control and oppress Palestinians gives lie to their propaganda that all is good in Palestine. It’s not and most everyone knows it.

Syrian refugees in Brazil

Syrian refugees in Brazil. (Foto AFP)

Syrian refugees in Brazil. (Foto AFP)

This is my column that was published in Arab News on Oct. 18, 2015:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

IT isn’t a very well-known fact but Brazil has been taking in Syrian refugees since 2013 when the Brazilian government decided to issue them special visas that gave them refugee status in the country. In September, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced that her country was extending special visas for Syrian refugees for another two years. There are now roughly 2,000 Syrian refugees living in Brazil.
Many Syrian refugees have said in interviews that they chose going to Brazil legally with visas and on airline flights over risking their lives being smuggled to Europe via the Mediterranean. Even so, immigrating to Brazil is not that much cheaper than going to Europe. Ali, a new Syrian immigrant in Brazil, told BBC Brasil that he paid $10,000 to get to Brazil.
The two main problems that Syrian refugees face upon arriving in Brazil are the language barrier and the fact that the Brazilian government has no official program to help refugees settle once they arrive. I’ve read accounts of individual young male Syrians arriving at the airport in São Paulo and being overwhelmed by the different language here and not having any local contacts yet that can help them.
With a lack of Arabic-speaking staff at the airport, some new arrivals have spent days in the terminal until someone told them how to take the bus to the center of the city and where to find cheap hotel accommodation.
The language barrier is especially harmful to these Syrian immigrants as it stops them from finding good jobs. Some local charity groups, such as Caritas, as well as mosques in São Paulo have been providing language lessons to the refugees and helping them find at least temporary jobs. Some enterprising Syrians have set up their own small stalls on the streets to sell homemade Arabic pastries and sweets to make a little money.
Brazil is going through an economic crisis, with many Brazilians being laid-off of work, so this has not helped the work prospects of the new immigrants. I’ve read several reports in the Brazilian press that immigrants from Haiti, which were once flooding into the country at the rate of several hundred a month, are now leaving Brazil for greener pastures such as the United States.
To help cope with this situation the Brazilian government has allowed needy Syrian immigrants to be enrolled in their income transfer program called Bolsa Familia, which pays very poor Brazilians a small sum of money every month to stop them from starving. According to BBC Brasil, there are now 163 Syrian families receiving monthly payments of around $41 each. This may seem like peanuts, but this welfare program was designed to keep the poorest of the poor Brazilians from absolute poverty, and not for helping refugees. Sonia Rocha of the Institute of Work and Society Studies told BBC Brasil that she did not think the Syrian refugees should be included in the Bolsa Familia program because they need specific help from the Brazilian government.
“This just masks the problem,” she said. “We need proper mechanisms for refugees in our institutions.”
To help state governments and municipal officials deal with the influx of refugees from various countries, the Brazilian Ministry of Justice’s National Committee for Refugees last week released R$15 million in credit (around $4 million) for the assistance of refugees and immigrants.
Despite all of the problems, the positive side of this story is that Brazilians are very friendly and welcoming, and this helps immensely in the adaptation of Syrian immigrants to their new home. The children of these immigrants, once they are enrolled in Brazilian schools, quickly pick-up the Portuguese language and often end up being their parents’ interpreters when they deal with Brazilians.
Brazil is a continent-sized nation with a population of 203 million, rich in minerals, agriculture and rivers. This country could easily absorb up to 50,000 refugees, according to a paper written this month by Cecilia Baeza, a political science professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, who specializes in the Arab world. One problem they face that Baeza points out in her paper is the lack of support from the local population of Arab descent who are of Syrian and Lebanese origin, who because most of them are Christian therefore do not feel compelled to help the new immigrants who are mostly Muslim. “Some fear that the arrival of Muslim refugees would change the image of the diaspora, which is mainly Christian. Adolfo Numi, director of the Syrian Charitable Society in Chile, recently said in an interview: “We want to bring Syrian refugees to Chile, but even if we do discriminate by religion, we want the Syrian community in Chile to remain Christian in its majority…,’” writes Baeza.
Facing such discrimination, it is imperative that the Brazilian government and the local Muslim community in Brazil help these Syrian refugees much more. Most of these immigrants are educated and can contribute a lot to Brazil. There are many opportunities here despite the economic downturn, and what these refugees need is help with cheaper accommodation, since high rents are one of their main complaints; intensive Portuguese-language and Brazilian culture training and monthly cash payments for at least two years to help them buy food and other necessities.
Most of the Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to Brazil in the 20th century arrived here penniless but soon adapted to their new home and built successful businesses. Today, there are Brazilians of Arab origins in the highest echelons of the government and business community. There is no reason that this new wave of immigrants from the Syria cannot achieve the same heights. They just need a little helping hand to begin with, and the many opportunities offered by such a rich nation as Brazil will surely take care of the rest.

Saudis dancing in Ibirapuera

Brazilians dance with a Saudi folklore group in Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo, Brazil, om June 8, 2014. (Photo by Rasheed Abou-Alsamh)

Brazilians dance with a Saudi folklore group in Ibirapuera Park in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on June 8, 2014. (Photo by Rasheed Abou-Alsamh)

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

I never thought I’d see Saudis dancing at Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo, the business center and largest city in Brazil, but that’s exactly what I witnessed last Sunday. These dancers, all men, were part of the Saudi Cultural Days event organized by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.

I learned that this cultural event was unfolding in São Paulo by chance through my email on Friday evening. In the email there was a link to a story of the Brazil-Arab News Agency (Anba) about the festival. I was surprised and excited to learn of the event and started planning my trip to São Paulo to witness the event up close. With my flight and hotel paid via the Internet, I flew from Brasilia to São Paulo on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday morning I was in a taxi heading to the park.

“We want to be close to the Brazilian people because we love them and we want a closer relationship.  That is why we want to culturally expose ourselves, so they may learn more about us,” said Saudi Deputy Minister for Cultural Relations Abdulaziz Almulhem to Anba. And the Saudis certainly succeeded in exposing themselves culturally in São Paulo.

Housed in a giant tent beside the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Ibirapuera Park, the central area was a stage for the presentation of the various folk dance groups with their accompanying musicians. In adjacent areas were assembled booths with Saudi artists, of both sexes, showing off their paintings. The Saudi photographer Susan Baaghil, a pioneer as the first woman to establish a commercial studio in Saudi Arabia, occupied a large space taking pictures of Brazilians dressed in typical clothes Saudis. Another booth very much coveted by female visitors was the henna stand, where two Saudi women drew pretty designs on their hands using henna, a typical decoration that Arab women use for special occasions like weddings and parties. Another crowded booth was the calligraphy one, where a Saudi woman and man wrote participants’ names in Arabic using various colored inks. Visitors washed all of this down with Zamzam water and three tons of imported Saudi dates.

The joy of the Saudi dancers and their Brazilian spectators was contagious. I think that this part of the exhibition was the favorite of visitors in São Paulo. At one point, one of the folkloric groups began a dance at the main entrance, and soon had attracted a small crowd of Brazilians, beating their palms to the rhythm of drums and a flute, many dancing in a circle around the musicians. There were women and men, all savoring the sounds of Arabic music on a sunny Sunday morning. How wonderful this was, I thought to myself.

While I waited in line to have my name written in Arabic, I observed two Brazilian sisters taking a look at jewelry being sold by a Saudi craftsman. One of them bought a pink bracelet for the bargain price of five reais (SR8.30). “Did you already know something about Saudi Arabia before coming here?”  I asked one of them. “No, it’s the first time I saw something about Saudi Arabia,” she replied.

Another section that attracted much attention was the Bedouin tent, where visitors could sit on cushions and colorful rugs and drink Arabic coffee and eat dates while posing for photos. In all 36 dancers, 17 musicians, and four painters participated in the exhibition which ran for four days.

For me, this festival showed the incredible power of artistic and cultural diplomacy. Of course, in a way, events like this reduce such a rich and complex culture such as the Saudi one to a few clichés, like dates and men wearing thobes, but they are also an important way to bring people together so that they can see similarities in the songs, dances and arts of each other.

It was great to attend a joyous Arab event that did not deal with politics or the disastrous uprisings of the Arab Spring. The Saudi ambassador to Brazil, Hisham Alqahtani, said he hopes that Brazilian cultural events can take place in the near future in Saudi Arabia, so that the Saudi people may know Brazilian culture. I, for one, certainly hope so!

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