August 8, 2012 By Alia Yunis

Ramadan in the Farthest North

alia yunis articleDisembark at the fog-shrouded, mountain-rimmed, Arctic-gateway harbor of Tromsø, Norway, walk along the cobbled main street with its wooden homes and shops painted bright reds, blues and yellows, and take a left just before the pet shop. There, next to the Natural Medicine Center, you will find Alnor Senter, a simple square building. The former dance studio is now the world’s northernmost mosque. Alnor Senter shares that superlative with much else in Tromsø, including the world’s northernmost Protestant cathedral, the northernmost botanical garden, the northernmost brewery and the northernmost symphony orchestra.
Open since 2005, Alnor Senter in downtown Tromsø is the world’s northernmost mosque, and it counts some 450 members.
A bit above 69 degrees north latitude, 350 kilometers (215 mi) above the Arctic Circle, it’s almost as far as you can get from the heat and desert winds of the land of Islam’s origin. Tromsø was formally founded in 1794 and has been the starting point of international polar expeditions—in fact, this year the city is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Norwegian hero Roald Amundsen at the South Pole. For much longer, fishermen and traders of whale, cod and sealskin have come here. Reindeer herders have lived here longest of all. Recently, international medical researchers have arrived, seeking clues to cures from the sea. Since the mid-1980’s, the farthest-traveling voyagers to this city of 67,000 are Tromsø’s 1000 or so Muslims, many of whom have come from the Mideast and North Africa.
When you walk into Alnor Senter, one of the first people likely to welcome you is Hakima Mabrour, who laughs about the first time she saw Tromsø. “I got married in Morocco to a man who was already living in Norway. I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to go live in Europe! How glamorous!’ It was like my own kind of ‘American dream.’ I arrived in April 1997, and there was a record snowfall of two and a half meters (98″). I couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I got off the plane, and I thought, ‘Welcome to my new dream!'”
Things got stranger for her in a couple of months. Each March and September, Tromsø’s days and nights are of equal length. But in summer, Tromsø is part of the Land of the Midnight Sun, and in winter, the Land of Polar Nights: From May 20 to July 22, the sun remains above the horizon and never sets, and from November 25 to January 21, it does not peek above the horizon.
At Alnor, this raises a uniquely Muslim conundrum: When there is neither sunrise nor sunset, at what times does one perform the fajr (dawn) prayer and the maghrib (sunset) prayer? And what happens when the month of Ramadan, which requires fasting from sunrise to sunset, falls in high summer or deep winter?
“What to do during the Midnight Sun and on Polar Nights has been a big point of debate for us,” says Sandra Maryam Moe, deputy director of Alnor. Her husband, Andrew Ibrahim Wenhem, is the mosque’s registrar, overseeing the legal paperwork of marriages, divorces and deaths. “We finally asked a shaykh in Saudi Arabia, and he gave us a fatwa [instruction] with three choices: Follow the timetable of Makkah, follow the timetable of the nearest city that does have a sunrise or sunset, or estimate the time and set a fixed schedule. We decided to follow Makkah for the part of Ramadan that falls under the Midnight Sun or Polar Nights, and then, for the other times, we follow our own sun.”
This year, with Ramadan falling between August 1 and August 29, fasting begins with the 2:30 a.m. sunrise and ends with the 11:00 p.m. sunset in early Ramadan. Chilly daytime temperatures, even in August, help make the 20 1/2-hour fast easier, and by the end of the month, sunrise is at 4:45 a.m. and sunset at 8:45 p.m., so the fast lasts only 16 hours.
Inside Alnor one night during the last week of Ramadan, just after 9:00 p.m., spirits are running high. The women have gathered in one section and the men in another, all talking and eating as children chase each other between the sections. Throughout the month, women have been taking turns preparing the daily iftar, or post-sunset fast-breaking dinner, and the food on tables on any given night reflects the diversity of the community: Somali samosas, Iraqi pilaf, Finnish pasta salad, Norwegian cakes. Although Alnor members come together to be family in one sense, their exposure to new cultures goes beyond the obvious encounters with Norwegian ways and people.
“Are you speaking Palestinian together?” a newly arrived Pakistani woman asks two Palestinian women she has just met. They explain with smiles that, no, their language is Arabic—although there is much Norwegian and English tossed in.
After eating together, Sandra, Hakima and 10 other women form a line, facing southeast toward Makkah, shoulder-to-shoulder in the sparsely furnished prayer room.
Sandra works as a translator of Islamic texts from English to Norwegian. “Most people here read the Qur’an in English because the Norwegian translation is not strong,” she explains. “We’re trying to improve that.”
Alnor has nearly 450 members. They, as well as the non-practicing Muslims in town, can be found throughout the city, working as engineers, medical researchers, shop owners, kitchen help and just about everything in between. (A small group, predominantly Somalis, belong to the town’s other mosque, which is simply an unnamed green house.)
Tromsø’s first immigrant Muslims arrived in 1986, when the Norwegian government opened a refugee center in Tromsø and welcomed a group of Iranians. Today, Somalis are the largest refugee group, both in Tromsø and in Norway as a whole. Moroccans are the largest national Muslim contingent in Tromsø with working immigrant backgrounds. Norwegian converts like Sandra are but a handful. Norway takes in around 15,000 political refugees annually, and in 2010 they included more than 2000 Somalis and about as many Afghans and Eritreans. Like the us and other countries, Norway also has an annual visa lottery system that admits around 20,000 workers, predominantly from Sweden, Eastern Europe and countries in Asia and Africa.
Hakima says that, in Morocco, she grew up with little connection to her religion. But soon after she arrived, she became friends with two Norwegian Muslims, and she wondered how these two, with no heritage connection, could be so committed. “I started to know my religion though them,” she says.

Hakima’s husband, however, has been largely absent since their divorce four years ago. “If the Norwegian government didn’t force him to pay child support, he wouldn’t,” she says. She and her three sons now live in a small, minimally furnished white house off one of Tromsø’s mountain roads, where they get around by bike or bus or on foot. “No one needs a car here,” Hakima says. “You can walk around at any time and not be worried, light or dark.” She knows from experience: For years, she worked as a baker in town, mostly at night.
This month, she wakes the boys up at 3:00 a.m. for the sahur (pre-dawn meal). “I don’t ask them to fast,” she says. “They love going to the mosque for iftar. Many at the mosque are like fathers to them.”
Her children speak comfortably in both Arabic and Norwegian, particularly gregarious Ossama, 10. Hakima says she knows her kids are Norwegians because they love snow. Ossama says he never wants to leave Norway. He points to an animal hide hanging on the wall, a common motif in Tromsø homes. “But this isn’t a seal,” he boasts. “It’s a Moroccan cow.”
When asked what his friends at school think of his fasting, he smiles. “They think it’s cool that I can do all my sports training without drinking any water or eating.”
Top and above: Maisoon and Belal Al Jabri both came to Tromsø from Syria for the opportunities its university offered in medicine—and they spent two years mastering Norwegian. One day, says Belal, “I’d like to see a first-class research center in Aleppo.” While working nights, Hakima realized she wasn’t spending enough time with her boys as they approached their teen years. She now studies bioengineering at the University of Tromsø, and she hopes to earn her master’s degree one day.
The University of Tromsø—yes, it is the northernmost university in the world— is the largest employer in the city and the reason Tromsø’s population has doubled since it opened in 1973. “Because of the Gulf Stream, we are very different from other places in this latitude,” says professor emeritus Randi Rønning Balsvik. “We have relatively mild weather—the average January temperature is minus five degrees centigrade (23°F)— so we have always been a center for ship repair and trade, especially seal hunting and fish freezing and canning, but those industries have crumbled. We now have a knowledge industry. We’re a center for high-tech and medical research, particularly biological marine research.”
It was the university that four years ago brought Belal and Maisoon Al Jabri, both in their early 30’s, from Aleppo, Syria. Belal earned his medical degree at the university, and is now doing rotations at the hospital in addition to cardiovascular research. Maisoon is working on her doctorate in the medical genetics department.
Belal looked into schools in other countries, but Tromsø, he found, was more affordable than others, and it had a solid reputation. Mastering Norwegian took them about two years.
In the two-story house they own and live in with their daughters, Lene, 4, and Sanaa, 2, they follow Makkah time during Ramadan. “That is the only way that makes sense to us,” Belal says as Maisoon lays out the family’s iftar, which includes not only Syrian traditions like sous and lentil soup, but also a fresh salmon with dill sauce and two kinds of potatoes. Some foods are crossovers: Both cultures like to flavor savories and sweets with cardamom. Syrian sous is a licorice-root drink, and licorice happens to be a Tromsø obsession, evidenced by the competing brands that can take up half an aisle in a grocery.
Sometimes the Al Jabris are joined for iftar by friends, mostly other doctors and researchers with Arab roots, including one who jokes he is “the northernmost Syrian in the world.” However, most of their neighbors are Norwegians. “They call this the doctors’ neighborhood,” Belal says. “But, for example, one of the men on the block works in construction. There are differences in education here, but not so much in salaries, unlike in the Middle East.”
The Al Jabris hope to go home one day to give back to their birthplace all they have learned here. “I’d like to see a first-class research center in Aleppo,” says Belal, and Maisoon nods.
Regardless of which timetable people use to break the fast in Tromsø, they still do it in the traditional way: One begins iftar by eating a date. And here, dates mostly come from Alanya International Marketplace owned by Huseyin and Seuda Kartay, one of three food import stores in Tromsø.
“When are you getting more habaneros in?” a young American man asks Huseyin one morning.
“Wednesdays and Fridays are when the fresh vegetables come in,” Huseyin explains. “By Saturday they will be gone.”
The store is lined from floor to ceiling with Indian, Asian, Tex-Mex and Middle Eastern cans, jars, bottles and packages, with no space wasted. Many of the items have been requested by customers, who come from all over the globe.
When Huseyin first came here in 1996, such a shop wouldn’t have been possible. “Back then, when I would see a dark face or black hair, I would want to shout, ‘Hello, my brother!'” he grins. “Today there are so many people from so many places, although it is still very much Norwegian. I’d say half my customers are Norwegians—they are interested in cooking foreign foods now.”
Huseyin came here from his native Turkey, where he was working in tourism. There, he met a Norwegian woman whom he followed back home and married. Soon they had a son, who is now 15.
“After we divorced, I visited Turkey, and my family introduced me to Seuda,” who is Kurdish, like him. “When she came back with me, she didn’t like that I owned a café that served alcohol. I saw the hypocrisy, and in 2002 I opened this shop instead.”
Hakima Mabrour, from Morocco, laughs when recalling her arrival in Tromsø after a record snowfall. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!” A mother of two, she now studies bioengineering at the university.
He and Seuda have two sons, and he says his family is very Norwegian—they ski, go mountain hiking and pick blueberries in the autumn. “My kids play football and swim— they have more opportunities here,” he says. But in the winter, during his 12-hour workdays, he often thinks of Turkey. “The dark and cold are a big problem. It’s boring, stressful, depressing. It is hard to stay here a long time.”
The weather, along with the high cost of living, is the reason that Tromsø will probably not grow into an immigrant enclave. The Norwegian government requires immigrants to stay in the city they are assigned upon arrival for at least two years. After that, many head south to Oslo or Bergen.
“Actually there are also studies that show some people get depressed in the Midnight Sun, rather than the dark,” says Einar-Arne Drivenes. He is a professor at the university as well as a leading polar-area historian and a native of the region who says he loves both the sun and the dark. “Neither immigration nor multiculturalism is new to the high north, like they are to Oslo and southern Norway,” he explains. “The high north, unlike the south, was never homogeneous. We have the Sami [reindeer-herding native people, known for hunting and fishing skills, who live across Arctic Scandinavia] and huge groups of Finns who came here in the 1800’s. As a trading center and center for polar exploration, and now oil, Tromsø has always had people come and stay here for long periods of time. What’s new with the Muslims is that this is immigration from a different part of the world, so I think the gap is bigger than in the past.”
The “past” refers to the early-20th-century government effort to “Norwegianize” minority groups —particularly the Sami, many of whom were forced to give up their nomadic ways and culture. Most Tromsø residents, and particularly the many who, like Drivenes, have Sami heritage themselves, are ashamed of that history, and so today there is a reverse effort to promote Sami identity and, along with that, an effort to welcome others as they are.
Set out for ‘Id al-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan, the Alnor Senter’s traditional Norwegian kakebord, or “cake table,” features waffles, homemade strawberry jam and grønn genser (“green sweater cake”), a local specialty named for its topping of green marzipan—the sweet almond paste so popular throughout northern Europe.
And thus not all of the newcomers in town are Muslims. The pews at the Catholic church are filled with Africans and Indians on a Sunday morning, as well as hotel and service workers from Poland and Lithuania. In largely secular Norway, the landmark Tromsø Cathedral, a Lutheran church, is sparsely attended.
“I go to church for Christmas, weddings, and funerals,” is the usual response when you ask non-immigrant locals about their religious practices.
Sandra remembers this from her childhood. Pride in her Tromsø heritage is clear as she points out where her grandfather lived, and she talks about her favorite areas of the countryside, her memories of vacations in mountain huts and the fishing spots she’d show you if only the weather would clear up.
As a teenager, though, she felt restless, she says. She spent years traveling and looking for adventure with her husband, Andrew, whom she met when he came to Tromsø on a European skydiving tour. Later, it was a skydiving accident and a broken femur that brought them back to Tromsø.
She was 28 then and she started exploring religion. She asked Andrew to read the Qur’an with her so she could discuss it with someone, and it was not long before they became Muslims together. Later, Sandra felt the need of a place where the Muslim community could come together.
In 2005, with the help of a private donor, the community bought the building that is now Alnor Senter. Sandra says the center started out with 150 people and has continued to grow since, adding events like weekly women’s and children’s discussions at which the requisite Tromsø snack—waffles with jam and gjetost, a Norwegian brown cheese made from condensed goats’ milk—is served with coffee.
These days, Sandra often stops by her 82-year-old mother’s clothing shop on the main street, often with her children in tow. “People don’t ask me about my daughter converting anymore,” says Sonja Kjoer. “It was strange at first, but now it has been 18 years.”
“It is not always easy organizing things,” Sandra smiles. “For example, when I went to rent Tromsøhalle for ‘Id, I couldn’t tell them actually what day that would be, which is hard to explain to people who don’t know about Ramadan.”
For the prayers that are customary on the morning of ‘id, Alnor Senter rented a gymnasium.
Tromsøhalle is a gymnasium on the outskirts of the city. On the morning of ‘Id al-Fitr (the post-Ramadan holiday, pronounced eed ahl-fit-ur), it fills with Muslims, some of whom van-pooled from as far away as Alta, 400 kilometers (250 mi) north, or Hammerfest, 540 kilometers (335 mi) north. (Last year, both cities opened community centers which, if they grow to become mosques, will strip Tromsø of its bragging rights to the “northernmost mosque.”)
When some 250 men and 100 women are all gathered, and the indoor hockey nets have been pushed aside, an imam, visiting from Stockholm and originally from Iraq, leads them in prayer. The kids, happy to be out of school, as Norwegian law permits, run around the hockey nets.
Marit Dagsvik shushes them from the side, while holding the baby of one of the women praying.
Marit’s warm chattiness seems to fit the Norwegian stereotype that the high north is the friendliest part of the country. This holiday morning, she was one of the first to arrive at Tromsøhalle. Her husband is from Somalia, she says, and they have two children whom they have agreed to raise Muslim. Before the congregants arrived, she set up the kakebord, a Norwegian dessert table used for celebrations. She has brought waffles and homemade strawberry jam; others have brought pies, cookies and grønn genser (“green sweater cake”), a specialty of the area named for its green marzipan topping.
Sandra Maryam Moe, deputy director of Alnor Senter, drops by with her daughter Shahida, 7, to visit her mother, Sonja Kjoer, at Sonja’s clothing shop downtown. Sonja says, “People don’t ask me about my daughter converting anymore. It was strange at first, but now it has been 18 years.”
“A lot of my friends don’t know any Muslims personally,” Marit says. “They think they need a good excuse to go to the mosque to meet people. So I think I am lucky to be able to step into both worlds.”
Sandra sees it all as just one world in her hometown. These days, she focuses much on the next generation. “We need to have alternative activities for them. We can’t just tell them certain things are haram (forbidden) without letting them feel fulfilled and giving them alternatives.”
Asked if she would be disappointed if her children don’t remain Muslims, she gets thoughtful. “I raise them to love who they are and be proud of who they are. I hope they will feel as rich as I do because of Islam. But I also remember what the Qur’an says: ‘There is no compulsion in religion.'”
In Tromsø’s main square, there are frequent festivals, and vendors and organizations often set up booths while families and friends gather on the main street. On one such day, people stop by the Alnor Senter booth just as they might stop at the booth of the Moroccan woman selling cloudberries and lingonberries, or that of the political party offering free waffles, or the French lady selling sweaters of local wool, or the Sami representative in bright traditional garb who has set up a tent in the town square.
Working at Alnor’s booth, Hakima enjoys talking to any passers-by. “Somehow God sent me here, and I’m confident in who I am here,” she says.
Sandra and others help make Alnor Senter part of Tromsø’s civic landscape at one of the city’s downtown festivals.
Most everyone is too familiar with the beauty of Tromsø’s natural setting to give it full attention—seagulls squawking, ships sliding into the harbor, the fjord glistening and the mountains that never lose their snow.
Above the mountains, other birds are flying south ahead of the dark winter; some of them will cross the Mediterranean. “When I ask my mother to visit me here in Tromsø,” says an Algerian engineer, “she answers that ‘birds fly to the trees, not the other way around.'” Like so many others in this city, he knows all about flying far away from your home to build a nest in a different land.
Alia Yunis ( is a writer and filmmaker based in Abu Dhabi. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Night Counter (Random House, 2010).
Courtesy: Saudiaramcoworld

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