The Muslims of Tromsø Ramadan in the Land of the Midnight Sun
Part 2: Envy for the North
First, they met with all the Muslims in town; most are refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea but there are a number of Moroccans as well along with a handful of converts. Later, in long conferences and heated debates, they consulted with around 20 other Muslim communities in northern Norway. The talks lasted about three years before they finally agreed -- with the exception of a small Moroccan minority -- to adopt the Mecca schedule. But they were hardly satisfied with their solution, and it created new problems.
Now, the Muslims of Tromsø must avoid food and water for 15 hours each day during Ramadan, not much for a country like Norway. In Oslo, Muslims continue fasting for 20 hours, meaning that some from the southern part of the country have become envious of those in the north.
Ahmed Hammadan and his boss, Mohammed Haddoüme, normally live in Oslo. Haddoüme isn't really Hammadan's boss, they are friends and it is just a nickname. Six days ago they left Oslo, only to arrive the day before yesterday. The day after his arrival, Ahmed got a text message from an Oslo friend: "If you want to do Ramadan right, come back." It doesn't hurt enough in Tromsø; that was the message.
Now, though, Ahmed is sitting and eating rice with chicken in the light of day shortly after 7 p.m. Across from him is Mansoor Waizy, a 37-year-old Afghan who is part of the mosque leadership. He wears his beard bushy and his head shaved, he has bright, brown eyes. "There is already a Ramadan tour," he says.
Waizy speaks fluent German. His wife of 14 years, Yvonne, a convert to Islam, comes from Erfurt and the couple lived in Cologne for a long time. Now, though, they and their children call Tromsø home because Waizy, a nursing home caregiver, decided he could no longer work in retirement homes in Germany with a clear conscience. It is a "humanitarian disaster," he says.
It is 7:21 p.m. and the sun set more than an hour ago in Mecca. In Istanbul, sunset isn't for another eight minutes and in Marrakesh, it won't set for two hours.
There are many reasons why Muslims live way up here in Norway's north and many more to take a vacation here: the snowcapped mountains and the clean air, for example, not to mention the northern lights. The waters are a dream for fishermen and students enjoy the Scandinavian cosmopolitanism. Safaris, Waizy says, are quite popular here, with travel agents offering all manner of midnight sun tours. Now, though, there is a new kind of safari on offer, Waizy says -- for those seeking to move from unbearable fasting conditions to the more comfortable ones in Tromsø. He says he has heard of lots of people who plan to take the long journey north, particularly now that school vacation has started. But it's nothing more than a trick, he says. And tricks, he adds, run counter to a serious approach to religious duty.
Ahmed Hammadan doesn't want to be accused of belonging to the "Safarists." He originally comes from Morocco where he even fasted during major heat waves. He was in Oslo when Ramadan began and fasted 21 hours a day for several days. He describes it as if it were a physical accomplishment, like a mountain climber might speak of peaks he has conquered. That local fasting rules make Ramadan more comfortable had no bearing on his travel plans, he says. But, he adds, "I'm happy to be here."
Mohammed Haddoüme, his companion, is 51 but looks even older. He's unshaven, his eyes look tired and he has wrinkles on his cheeks. He sleeps a lot these days. He also offers convincing reasons to argue that he's not on a safari. He's ill and has to undergo dialysis every two days to clean his blood. He also suffers from serious diabetes. The rules of Ramadan stipulate that people who are ill, pregnant or have jobs requiring tough physical labor are exempted from the fasting tradition.
There are exceptions and compromises. Still, there are debates during Ramadan about all sectors and all areas of life, even football. The World Cup semifinal between Algeria and Germany took place during the month of fasting, and Islam is the national religion in Algeria. It's not uncommon there for a person to land in prison if found guilty of breaking the fast. Algerian religious leaders were divided over the World Cup. Sheikh Mohammed Mekerkeb of an association of Islamic scholars, said that "breaking the fast is not permitted. God is with those who are fasting." But representatives of the country's High Islamic Council said they felt an exception was justifiable. The members of the Algerian football team were silent on the issue. Whether they fasted or not remained their own secret. Either way, the team managed to find enough energy to force the Germans into extra time in the match.
It's 8:51 p.m.. The sun has long since gone down in Mecca and Istanbul, but there's still another hour of daylight left in Marrakesh.
A New Schedule for Polar Muslims
"To orient things around Mecca's time isn't the long-term solution," says Sandra Maryam Moe. She believes there's hope, too. There's new research, this time from a Turkish team seeking to finally come up with a common approach for all Muslims. Professor Abdülaziz Bayndr of the University of Istanbul is leading the mission. He traveled three times to Tromsø and Spitsbergen, the Arctic Ocean island, as part of his effort to determine when the night begins in a city where, for two months each summer, there is 24-hour daylight. He also considered what to do on polar winter days when there is essentially 24 hours of darkness, making daylight fasting impossible.
Bayndr has determined that the prayer times originally set weren't perfect. The mistake, he writes in his report, was that they were based on astronomical measurements and not on the incident angle of the sun. He argues that's the only reason that it has so far not been possible to fast and pray correctly in the polar region.
So are science and the wonderful world of faith coming together on the issue after all? Bayndr's research team developed a new schedule and recently presented the results at a conference in Tromsø. Accordingly, no fasting anywhere in the world would last for longer than 18 hours.
'Everyone Is Looking to Us'
The Muslims at the Alnor Mosque have praised the effort, calling it a good approach. But they haven't implemented Bayndr's plan. Moe says that it must be accepted by Muslims across the far north. And so far, she says, the majority have opposed it, arguing it is nothing more than a single researcher's opinion. She says that people will only accept the new fasting times if several researchers come to the area and confirm the findings or if an established religious scholar issues a fatwa. "Everyone is looking to us," Moe says. "It's a lot of responsibility." She wishes everyone good luck and then says, "We trust that further researchers will come." Moe, it seems, is a patient woman.
Mansoor Waizy is less so and is obviously irritated by the situation. After all, he says, he reads the Koran. Earlier, he says, the word sun took center stage. "But (the Koran) only mentions light and darkness, not night," he says. He supports the researcher's central thesis. It may only be a single opinion, he argues, but people should work on getting the community to accept this new approach.
On July 27, the darkness of night will again be visible in Tromsø, the same day Ramadan ends. That's when several hundred Muslims will come together to celebrate in the gymnasium, with plentiful food and drink for everyone. People will also be allowed to smoke and have sex again.
But now, in the middle of Ramadan, six men sit on pillows in a mosque in the far north and talk. Ahmed Hammadan tells of the time he spent living in the German city of Krefeld. The boss's eyes grow heavy. Mansoor Waizy, the thinker in the group, the caregiver, starts coughing. First once, then twice. His brown eyes glaze over and he starts to sniffle slightly.
When asked if he's sick, he responds, "Yes, a little. It's a cold."
So is he still required to fast?
"It's hard to say," he says before adding a number of explanatory sentences about faith and balance and he frequently mentions the Koran. In the end, though, he doesn't have a definitive answer. So Waizy continues to fast. It's better to be safe than sorry.
Now, though, he has to go work the night shift. It's 9:45 p.m. when he leaves the mosque -- by now, the sun has even gone down in Marrakesh.
But in Tromsø, it's still bright as day. And so it will remain.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey
- Part 1: Ramadan in the Land of the Midnight Sun
- Part 2: Envy for the North