In late 2007, Sheikh Hassan al-Burji arrived in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, to become the senior mullah at the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad. Known to his flock of Lebanese Shiite traders as “Padre,” Hassan had spent all of his 28 years growing up in Lebanon and studying in an Iranian seminary. He had never been to South America.
When I met him soon after his arrival, he still looked as wide-eyed as a freshman at a Vassar orientation, and unsure whether he had chosen wisely by forsaking the gardens of Qom for the buzz of Ciudad del Este. He came partly out of duty: the office of Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, had asked him to choose between Paraguay and the Côte d’Ivoire. Finding neither option attractive, he opted for the more challenging. The city was then even filthier and more crime-ridden than today—a smugglers’ paradise and a border entrepôt for knockoff goods, weapons, and other contraband destined for across the river in Argentina and Brazil—and hardly the natural habitat for a bookish mullah.
“People here think only about money, not about Islam,” he complained. Although South America’s Shiites are among Hezbollah’s biggest donors outside the Middle East, Hassan thought his congregants were all too obsessed with selling mobile phones, and too little devoted to God and prayer. I saw Hassan’s thick eyebrows knit in sorrow when he talked about missing his beloved teacher, the exiled Saudi marjah Sayyid Munir al‑Sayyid ’Adnan al‑Khabaz, and I mentally gave him six months, tops, before he fled back to Iran.
I did not count on swine flu, the global economic crisis, or el Padre’s discovery of the local Chinese food. Eighteen months after our first meeting, I visited him again. I was shown directly to an upper floor of his apartment building, into the sitting room of a neighboring Lebanese family. They were watching an old World’s Strongest Man competition, televised from Anaheim and dubbed in Spanish. As the contestants began picking up Volkswagens, el Padre walked in, and the family switched to the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation.
He greeted me warmly and said life was good: his wife and two children had joined him in February 2008, and when the economy tanked a few months later things started looking up for him. The Lebanese in the Triple Frontier (where Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil meet) make their living buying and selling cheap bootleg products, and when global demand shriveled, so did their work. Some left for São Paulo, but those who remained had less business. “When a man feels under pressure, he goes toward God,” Hassan said. “And now they are under a lot of pressure.”
Moreover, Hassan hit his stride. He started a magazine, Eco de la Mesquita (“Voice of the Mosque”), which features photographs of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, as well cartoons depicting the lives of the prophets. He found a Chinese restaurant that would serve him tasty fish dishes, and his family came to appreciate the earthly conveniences of life in a trading city, such as 24-hour ATMs.
“They like Paraguay more than Iran,” he said, and even more than Lebanon. “I would like to live here more time. Here I can read, I can write, and before I did not have any private time.” Paraguay had become home. “Now I have my family here and a lot of things to do. I went for 15 days to Lebanon, and I felt like a stranger there.” He had peace and space enough to read his religious texts, prepare sermons, and listen to his kids—Sara, 7, and Ja’afar, 5—chirp away in Spanish.
The next day, I attended prayers and his sermon. The signs of Lebanese devotion to commerce were still there. When his congregants prayed, they all carefully took the phones and money and keys out of their pockets and put them on the ground in front of them, so it looked almost as if they were praying to Allah and Nokia in one motion. But their ranks did seem thin, compared with my previous visit.
And Hassan seemed smoother, more comfortable throwing around his gravitas. He lectured on different analyses of the sura of the Koran called Al Zumar, which speaks of the deafening trumpet blast that God will make on Judgment Day, and the lofty riverside mansions the faithful will occupy in heaven. A year and a half earlier, it would have seemed odd to imagine these shopkeepers spellbound by the finer details of textual interpretation. But this day, I saw a captive audience of Muslims with little else to do, and one very happy mullah.