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Joel Khawly and wife Sheila Khawly outside the home they built in Jacmel. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Joel Khawly and wife Sheila Khawly outside the home they built in Jacmel. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Project Jacmel

The King of Jacmel Add to ...

Sitting at the Hotel Cyvadier's best open-air table, Joel Khawly is staring poker-faced at the darkened Bay of Jacmel when his phone rings.

Mr. Khawly does not take calls after 6 p.m., so his wife, Sheila, with jet black hair and the almond eyes of Disney's princess Jasmine, carries an extra cell in her black Chanel to respond to the overflow.

An acquaintance is on the line.

"He wants you to turn the power back on," Ms. Khawly says. Her husband's eyes glint for a moment before he gives his head a tired shake.

"Tell him to pay his bill."

The most prosperous businessman in Jacmel, Mr. Khawly built his empire by delivering necessities here - gas, trucks, water, construction materials, motorcycles and currency exchange. The services he provides literally powered the Canadian military effort here in the days after the earthquake; his philanthropy enabled a school to reopen and teachers to take home pay once the institution's coffers had run dry.

Before an epic earthquake and even more so now, Jacmel could not function without him. That everyone knows this is evinced by the way they fawn over him in the streets or scuttle to get out of his way.

While the 46-year-old patriarch finishes his dinner of bouillabaisse and grilled fish on this January night, Ms. Khawly will listen to three more calls pleading for her husband's help.

It has been a year since the earthquake hollowed out downtown Jacmel, Haiti's favourite vacation town and its cultural hub. It was the third-most destroyed city in the quake; cut off from other towns by debris-covered roads, Jacmel became the recipient of the largest Canadian military-aid commitment outside of Afghanistan. For the past year, The Globe and Mail has been documenting its attempt to rebuild.

While most of Jacmel's 60,000 people are still trying to scrape their way back to status quo, Mr. Khawly logged a record year, parlaying huge spikes in demand for just about everything he owns: new apartments, gas stations and a small resort.

Despite his burgeoning business, he doesn't expect a pile of job applications. His Haitian brethren, he says, are too passive to risk competing with him, too vengeful toward his success to work alongside him, preferring instead to work on sullying his name.

"The biggest handicap of the Haitians is they hate each other. They hate people with money. They make up ridiculous lies about me," Mr. Khawly said, spitting: "If I was a drunk in the street, they would love me."

The choppy gulf between a prospering businessman like him and the people of Jacmel has existed for years, mirroring the undercurrent of dependency and hatred that runs through broader Haitian society. It is the reason the country has not seen real change this year - and might never - despite the continuing post-quake efforts to reorient it.

Haiti's downslide has been long and deep: over two centuries ago, it became the world's first independent black republic, but the country is better known now as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. That unfortunate title came from years of economic and political instability, exacerbated by a litany of attempts by other nations to intervene. Over the years of bloody coups and upheavals, Canada has maintained significant ties to Haiti through the United Nations. Those strengthened last January when the earthquake struck and Haiti rocketed into position as the world's largest recipient of humanitarian aid.

This obscures the fact that some Haitians living here remain prosperous.

The Khawly family's range of flashy vehicles - from a Mercedes G-Class sport utility to Hummers and a Land Cruiser - are easy markers for their whereabouts in Jacmel, a town which typically consumes motorcycles sold by the Khawlys.

The most legendary of the Jacmel bunch was Jacques Khawly, Joel's deceased father.

Joel, the eldest of Jacques's four children, was 8 when the government jailed his father "for being a communist." After 21 days, he was granted release; he went on to become one of the city's most beloved mayors.

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