How a hardware store helped build Belize’s Muslim community
SAN PEDRO, Belize — In Belize’s tropical Ambergris Caye, Islam is a family affair. The largest city on the island, San Pedro, has a population of just over 13,000, including around 200 Muslims. This small but vibrant Muslim community was started by one adventurous Lebanese family – the Harmouches.
A collective Friday prayer known as “jumah” brings together about 60 islanders. Despite temperatures reaching over 90 F, a series of fans, air conditioners, and thick walls help keep the interior of the mosque cool. Just beyond the mosque’s fence is the island’s modest airstrip, which ferries well-to-do tourists to the island’s elite resorts. Ambergis Caye is one of the Caribbean nation’s top tourist destinations. The mosque’s parking lot is not filled with cars but with golf carts which are ubiquitous on the island.
Equally ubiquitous are large iguanas, often attracting the attention of barking dogs. Yet what really separates the mosque from other religious institutions in Belize is that most worshipers are related.
Malak Harmouche, a pillar of the San Pedro community
Malak Harmouche, of Lebanese descent, is the mosque’s part-time imam and a full-time hardware store owner. When the prayer is over, the robes are removed and he returns to the hardware store he owns, stopping only to pick up a sealed check with staples that has just arrived from the mainland.
The hardware store shelves are filled with weeders, tiles of various types, and Samsung televisions. Colorful children’s tricycles hang on a wall. In front of his desk, on which are piled up business documents and copies of the Koran, a Belizean customer waits for him to return from prayer. After a brief friendly discussion, he offers the man a piece of furniture on credit.
“I moved here 20 years ago and haven’t been to Lebanon for 20 years,” says Harmouche. “I found this place to be virgin territory, shall I say, from a business perspective. I’ve given half a million worth of goods on credit, slowly paying back.
Minutes later the phone rings and his generosity is echoed by a family member in Belize who says some of the stock recently shipped to him is to be treated as a gift. He smiles and thanks him in Arabic. Later, a man shows up with $110, a partial payment on a television. Bookkeeping is largely done by hand. Malak consults his receipts and files. The payment turns out to be $5 more than expected, and he gives change to the customer.
Malak has already refused money. When the mosque was built in 2000, many in the community felt that he should receive a stipend for his role as imam of the mosque. He says he refused: “As for me, I am doing this work for Allah’s blessing only. I was an imam in Lebanon, and now I’m one here.
Malak Harmouche on the phone with a relative in his hardware store.
Unlikely links with the United States
Muslims on the island are either members of the Harmouche family or invited to do business in Belize by the same family. Only three or four Muslims on the islands are converted, usually the wives of Lebanese-Belizian businessmen. It’s just such romance that has produced San Pedro’s small Muslim community, which has an unlikely American connection.
In the 1980s, as the Lebanese civil war raged, Simon Harmouche, a relative of Malak, went to study abroad at Loyola University in New Orleans. There were a few Lebanese at the school, including a Belizean woman and Loyola student who was also of partial Lebanese descent through a grandparent. Simon eventually married her, and the couple moved to Belize City and opened a hardware store. It was an unusual choice given that at the time there were so many opportunities in the family business.
“The Lebanese community now dominates the hardware industry in Belize.”
The Harmouche family business at the time exported Lebanese fruit to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the summer when apples, oranges and peaches from Lebanon were in season. Then came the Gulf War, which devastated the market. Simon began to encourage his brothers and family members to join him in Belize, where there were many opportunities.
“The Lebanese community now dominates the hardware industry in Belize, but not entirely,” says Malak Harmouche. “One of the main suppliers and a good friend of mine is a Jewish businessman who is a hardware supplier in Belize City.”
Malak’s phone is constantly ringing with WhatsApp calls from family members as far away as Houston, Texas, and Alexandria, Egypt. He hasn’t been to Lebanon for 17 years but doesn’t hesitate to offer his guests “ma’amoul”, a traditional Lebanese biscuit with butter and dried fruit. As customers come and go, he alternates between English, Spanish, and Arabic.
Malak Harmouche is the Imam of the Mosque of San Pedro, Belize.
Belize’s Different Religious Communities
“Everyone in San Pedro knows a member of the Harmouche family,” says Ahmad Harmouche, who runs the One Love golf cart business for tourists. “We are important contributors to the business community.”
Ahmad says the community tried to support a halal restaurant that opened a few years ago. However, local customers would walk out, leaving their shawarma behind, upon hearing that there was no beer on offer. The imam personally raised a goat for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday so that it could be slaughtered in a halal manner. The local police chief has attended community celebrations in the past, and he stressed that there were no tensions between members of different religious communities.
Muslims here are like everyone else.
Outside of San Pedro, Belize is home to a handful of mosques scattered across the country. Estimates suggest that there are 600 Muslims in Belize. It gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, and indeed the first Muslim immigration to the country is closely tied to the history of the British Empire. In the mid-19th century, a handful of Indian Muslims moved to Belize. Today there is also an Aḥmadiyyah Muslim community.
“They pay taxes and bring in goods and services,” says Jimmy Zometa, a commercial fisherman from San Pedro who lives near the mosque. “So Muslims here are like everyone else. In Belize, that’s all that matters.
* Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright scholar and journalist who has reported extensively on Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East.
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