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.
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.”
Malak Harmouche on the phone with a relative at his hardware store.
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.
Malak Harmouche is the imam of the mosque in San Pedro, Belize.
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.