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How A Hardware Store Helped Build The Muslim Community Of Belize

In Belize, San Pedro's Muslim community revolves around the Harmouches, a Lebanese family who immigrated in the 1980s and whose hardware business is at the heart of the town.

​Photo taken in front of the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize

Photo of the Muslim Community Primary School in Belize

Joseph Hammond*

SAN PEDRO, Belize — On tropical Ambergris Caye in Belize, Islam is a family affair. The island's largest town, San Pedro, has a population of just over 13,000, of whom some 200 are Muslims. This small yet vibrant Muslim community was launched by a single adventurous Lebanese family — the Harmouches.

A Friday congregational prayer known as “jumah” finds roughly 60 of the island’s inhabitants in attendance. Despite temperatures reaching more than 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 in well-heeled tourists to the island’s elite resorts. Ambergis Caye is one of the primary tourist destinations of the Caribbean nation. The mosque parking lot is filled not with cars but the golf carts that are ubiquitous to the island.

Just as ubiquitous are the large iguanas, often drawing the attention of barking dogs. Yet, what really separates the mosque from other religious institutions in Belize is that most of the congregants are related.

Malak Harmouche, a pillar in San Pedro's community

Lebanese-born Malak Harmouche is the mosque’s imam part-time and a full-time hardware store owner. When prayer is over, the robes are off, and he races back to the hardware store he owns, stopping only to pick up a check sealed with staples that have just arrived from the mainland.

The hardware store shelves are stacked high with weed wackers, tiles of various types and Samsung televisions. Colorful children’s tricycles hang from one wall. In front of his desk, which is stacked high with business documents and copies of the Quran, a Belizean client is waiting 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 I haven’t been to Lebanon in 20 years,” Harmouche says. “I found this place to be virgin territory, can I say, from a business perspective. I have given on credit half a million in merchandise that is being slowly paid off.”

Just minutes later, the phone rings, and his generosity is reciprocated by a family member in Belize who says part 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. The accounting is done largely by hand. Malak looks through his receipts and records. The payment is found to be $5 larger than was expected, and he returns the change to the patron.

Malak has turned down money before. When the mosque was built in 2000, there were many in the community who felt he should be paid a stipend for his role as the imam of the mosque. He says he refused: “For me, I do this work for Allah’s blessing alone. I was an imam in Lebanon, and now I am one here.”

A man sits at his desk, smiling.

Malak Harmouche on the phone with a relative at his hardware store.

Joseph Hammond

Unlikely ties with the U.S.

The island’s Muslims are either members of the Harmouche family or were invited to do business in Belize by the same family. Only three or four Muslims on the islands are converts, usually the wives of Lebanese-Belizean businessmen. It was just such a romance that produced the small Muslim community in San Pedro, which has an unlikely American connection.

In the 1980s, with the Lebanese Civil War raging, Simon Harmouche, a relative of Malak’s, went abroad to study 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, opportunities in the family business were abundant.

"The Lebanese community dominates the hardware industry in Belize now."

The Harmouche family business at the time was exporting Lebanese fruit to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in the summer, when Lebanon’s apples, oranges and peaches were in season. Then came the Gulf War, which devastated the market. Simon began encouraging his brothers and family members to join him in Belize, where there were many opportunities.

“The Lebanese community dominates the hardware industry in Belize now but not entirely,” Malak Harmouche says. “One of the major 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 off as Houston, Texas, and Alexandria, Egypt. He hasn’t been to Lebanon in 17 years but doesn’t hesitate to offers guests “ma’amoul,” a traditional Lebanese butter cookie with dried fruit. As customers come and go, he switches between English, Spanish and Arabic.

Masjed Al-Akramin in Belize.

Malak Harmouche is the imam of the mosque in San Pedro, Belize.

Joseph Hammond

The various faith communities of Belize

“Everyone in San Pedro knows a member of the Harmouche family,” says Ahmad Harmouche, who runs the One Love golf cart business aimed at tourists. “We are important contributors to the business community.”

Ahmad says that 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 learning that there was no beer on offer. The imam personally raised a goat for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday so it could be slaughtered in a halal way. The local police chief has attended the community’s celebrations in the past, and he stressed that there are no tensions between members of various faith communities.

The Muslims here are like anyone else.

Outside of San Pedro, Belize is home to a handful of scattered mosques around the country. Estimates suggest there are 600 Muslims in Belize. It received independence from the United Kingdom in 1981, and indeed, the earliest Muslim immigration to the country is tied closely 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 as well.

“They pay taxes and bring goods and services,” says Jimmy Zometa, a commercial fisherman in San Pedro who lives near the mosque. “So the Muslims here are like anyone else. In Belize, this is all that matters.”

* Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who has reported extensively from Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East.

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Inside Putin's Deal For Iranian Drones

Outgunned by Ukraine's Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, Russia has reportedly started importing armed drones from Iran, which may have explained Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Tehran, which is looking to flex its muscles internationally. But it could prove to be a dangerous turning point in the war.

At an underground drone base, in an unknown location in Iran

Christine Kensche

The satellite images show a hangar. The rough outlines of two geometric shapes are visible — a triangle and an elongated object with wide wings. According to intelligence information from the United States, this is the Kashan airfield south of Tehran, where Iran is training its regional militias.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

The geometric objects are drones: the Shahed-191 and the Shahed-129, both considered capable of carrying weapons. Their name translates to martyr. According to U.S. information, the picture also shows a transport vehicle for visitors from Russia. If what the White House recently said is true, the "martyr" drones could soon be circling Ukraine, controlled remotely by Russian soldiers.

Tehran's drone army

According to national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Iran wants to deliver "several hundred" drones to Russia and train Russian soldiers on the devices. Training may have already begun, Sullivan said. In June, Russian delegations traveled to the Iranian airfield twice. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Tehran in person on Tuesday.

It's a turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer.

"This is a significant turning point for Iran as an international arms dealer," says Israeli drone expert Seth Frantzman, who has published a book on the subject (Drone Wars). So far, outside the circle of its allies in the region, Tehran has only sold its technology to Venezuela and built a drone factory in Tajikistan. "The deal with the world power Russia finally makes Iran an international player in the drone business, with its influence reaching as far as Europe."

In terms of technology and trade, the world's drone powers are the U.S., Israel, China and, by some margin, Turkey. Indeed, the Turkish-designed Bayraktar drones are deployed by Ukraine against Russia, which initially gave Kyiv important strategic successes.

There are two key reasons why Russia is now apparently buying from Iran: its own drones cannot keep up. And Iran's drones are technically less sophisticated than those of Western competitors. But they do the job – and are quicker and cheaper to make. Even Iran's nemesis Israel recognizes the powerful potential of Tehran's drone army.

"Iran has massively upgraded its drone program in recent years," says Frantzman. The Shiite regime introduces new types of drones almost every week. According to information from the Israeli army, Iran has a complete production chain, from missiles to navigation systems. The parts are often copied — for example, from U.S. drones that Iran shot down in the past. It now has a variety of different series and types — from unarmed reconnaissance devices to combat drones and those called kamikaze drones (small unmanned aerial vehicles with explosive charges that ram their target). The damage Iranian technology can do has been demonstrated by the regime's devastating attacks in recent years.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei receiving Russian President Vladimir Putin in the presence of his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi (right) in Tehran

Iranian Supreme Leader's Office/ZUMA

Attacks by Iranian drones

Iran's arsenal of remotely piloted aircraft stretches from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to the Gulf and Yemen. The technology is used by Iranian allies — by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, by Yemen's Huthis against Saudi Arabia, by Shiite militias against the U.S. Army. Or, indeed, by Iran itself.

The "Pearl Harbor" of the drone war happened three years ago: Iran used drones and rockets to attack the Abqaiq refinery of the world's largest oil company Aramco in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi air defenses were powerless. The attack shut down Saudi Arabia's oil exports for several months. Global oil production collapsed by six percent.

Iranian drones were used in the last Gaza war.

Since then, Iran has systematically relied on weapons. Drones are said to be responsible for at least five attacks on U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq in May and June last year. Iranian drone technology also played a role in the last Gaza war. Hamas not only fired 4,000 rockets at Israel last May. It also deployed a new explosive-laden drone.

Last year, Iranian drone attacks claimed human lives for the first time: Kamikaze drones attacked the Mercer Street oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world's most strategically important choke points between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Two crew members died, including the captain. Then, in the spring, drones attacked tankers and Abu Dhabi airport. Three people lost their lives. The Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supplied with weapons and technology by Iran, said they were responsible for the attack on the U.A.E.

A military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) launched from an Iranian navy vessel in the Indian ocean

Iranian Army Office/ZUMA

No war is won by drones alone

There is no precise information on exactly which drones Russia could acquire. The types shown by the U.S. on the satellite images are among Iran's most important reconnaissance and combat drones. The Shahed-129 is the country's oldest combat drone. It can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and can be armed with eight guided missiles. Also known as the Saegheh (Thunderbolt), the Shahed-191 is a combat drone whose specialty is great mobility. It can be mounted on the back of a truck and launched while the vehicle is in motion.

Kamikaze drones are easier and cheaper to produce.

This combat drone, which can be equipped with two remote-controlled anti-tank missiles, is therefore extremely flexible. However, it is doubtful that Iran can actually deliver hundreds of these types in a hurry. A deal with Russia is therefore likely to include kamikaze drones, which are easier and cheaper to produce.

If Russia were to use Iranian drones in the near future, it would not be a turning point in the Ukraine war, says expert Frantzman: "You don't win a war with drones." However, Russia could use them to damage Ukraine's strategic infrastructure comparatively cheaply, without having to put expensive war equipment at risk.

And another target could become the focus of Iranian drones — Western war equipment, such as the HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, which the U.S. supplied to Ukraine and which play a central role in defense against Russia.

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