x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Mosque's 4200km trip to Arctic Circle

Built in Winnipeg in Canada, the wooden structure stands in Inuvik, the northernmost town on the country's mainland, serving the most northerly Muslim community in the Americas.

The Midnight sun mosque is the most northern mosque on the American continent.
The Midnight sun mosque is the most northern mosque on the American continent.

INUVIK, CANADA // "There are strange things done in the midnight sun", the poet Robert Service wrote of the Canadian arctic, adding for good measure that "the northern lights have seen queer sights".

They witnessed another strange spectacle last autumn when a mosque floated north along the remote Mackenzie River towards the Arctic Ocean.

Prefabricated in Winnipeg, the "Mosque of the Midnight Sun" was being shipped to the northernmost town on Canada's mainland, Inuvik, whose 3,500 inhabitants live 200km inside the Arctic Circle.

Having barely made it onto the last barge to brave the river before its annual freeze, the mosque was opened in November in a celebration attended by Muslim, Christian, Inuit, Gwichin and civic leaders. It now forms the religious and social centre for the most northerly Muslim community in the Americas, a 100-odd assortment of expatriate or naturalised Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians, Sudanese, Albanians and Tunisians.

The wood-frame 140 square metre mosque is set on stilts above the ground to avoid melting the underlying permafrost and is distinguished from its neighbours mainly by a small, decorative minaret.

"The cost would have been higher if we'd built it here," said Ahmed al Khalaf, 37, an Iraqi-born engineer who designed and supervised the project. "The labour cost in Manitoba is much lower than here, and also the cost of materials. Prices for everything up here tend to be higher, because the government pays well for most things in order to encourage business."

He estimates that building the mosque in Inuvik would have cost 25 per cent to 30 per cent more, even allowing for the C$50,000 (Dh187,000) cost of transporting the building 4,200km from Winnipeg by barge and wide-body truck. The Zubaidah Tallab Foundation of Winnipeg provided money for the project, aided by private donors and the Inuvik Muslims, who purchased the site from the municipality.

On January 31, with the outside temperature at a mild minus 20°C, a plumber was noisily battling to repair some frozen pipes in the mosque's bathroom. Meanwhile in the prayer hall, half a dozen men faced the mihrab to perform the maghrib evening prayer.

Present, though not himself praying, was the 70-something Sidney Bucina, who reckoned that after 40 years in the north he was Inuvik's first and oldest Muslim resident.

"I was born in Albania, but I lived here for so long before other Muslims arrived that people all call me Sidney. But my real name is Sayeed."

A former driver for oil and mineral exploration companies, Mr Bucina had - like most of the Canadian Arctic's non-aboriginal minority - been drawn north by the opportunities still available on North America's last remaining frontier.

The mosque's designer, Ahmed al Khalaf, 37, came to the region 10 years ago as a project engineer for the Northwest Territories government.

"There was a job advertised and I applied for it and I came. It was good pay and a secure job. The economy wasn't getting any better down south so I decided to stay in the safe job. Life here's not bad, not bad. There are always many advantages - longer holidays, less tax, higher pay."

His Syrian-born wife accompanied him up north, and their three children attend the school. But others view life in Inuvik as more of a hardship posting. Abdalla Mohamed, 45, a Sudanese businessman, said he commutes back and forth to a family home in Edmonton, 3,000km to the south, where his five children attend a Muslim school.

"You can put up with the isolation and all the things that come with it here, but there is not much of a social life," he said.

The extreme northerly location, with its huge oscillation in the length of the day from winter to summer, also poses problems for the routines of Islamic worship. On January 31, the maghrib prayer more or less coincided with sundown, but if the strict solar prayer cycle had been in force then dawn prayer would have taken place only five hours hours earlier, with two other prayers, zuhr and asr, crammed in between.

In practice, the Inuvik community has obtained a religious decree allowing it to peg its prayer times to those observed in the nearest major city, Edmonton, which at 53 degrees north is only about as far from the equator as most French, German or British cities.

The same ruling fortunately applies to Ramadan - otherwise, strict Muslims would have to head south or die in those years when the month of daytime fasting coincides with Inuvik's 60 days of 24-hour sunlight.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae