Seeking Mecca in Inuvik

By Allen Abel

The Canadian Geographic

INUVIK, NWT -- Way up north, where the midnight sky is painted pink and gold, the first local resident a lonesome traveller meets is a brown man from the Blue Nile.

Ebaid Emam drives car number 24 , a well-worn Crown Victoria, for the United Taxi Co. in a town that may have more cabs per capita than any other metropolis this side of Manhattan. He has spent the past eight years north of the Arctic Circle, motoring up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down Mackenzie Road, supporting a bride and a baby son, and utterly befuddling his Sudanese kinfolk back in frost-free Khartoum.

"When you phone home, what do you tell them about Inuvik?" I ask Mr. Emam as he imports me from the air terminal, along the only 10 km of paved highway in the entire northwest Northwest Territories.

"I don't tell them anything," he replies. "They don't believe the midnight sun. They don't believe the driving on the river in winter. They don't believe the two months of darkness. They don't believe the 45 below zero. So I stopped telling them."

At the United Taxi Co., the fleet has known cleaner and sounder days, and there isn't much point in hosing the cars down or tuning them up. Just getting the vehicles here from civilization requires four or five days of jittering, jolting, gravel and dust on the Dempster and Alaska Highways. But there is no doubting the need for public transportation, even in July, when the wind comes bellowing unblocked from Tuktoyaktuk and the weak-kneed little trees duck for cover.

We're not halfway in from the airport when Mr. Emam invites me to join him and his friends for sundown prayers, even though I am not an adherent of Islam.

"How can you have sundown prayers if the sun doesn't go down?" I wonder.

"We looked to the Holy Koran for guidance on this matter," Ebaid Emam says. "We are going by Edmonton time."

"Welcome to United Nations headquarters," says the Filipina behind the desk at the Swiss-owned Finto Inn. It is dawning on me that Inuvik is not the tripartite society I envisioned this far north -- Inuvialuit, Gwich'in, and Anglo-Canuck.

(I don't remember seeing any Sudanese in Povungnituk or Davis Inlet on previous trips to the tundra. But it works both ways -- the night clerk at the Finto is an Inuvialuit woman who previously ran a vegetarian restaurant in Vietnam.)

"We have been here only two months from Ontario," says the Bangladeshi woman serving chop suey, pizza, falafel and caribou burgers at the Blue Moon Bistro. "Every day my little son is crying ,"I want to go to Swiss Chalet.' But I must tell him that there is no Swiss Chalet."

I wander into the kitchen of the Blue Moon, which is tenanted, aptly enough, by an axe-wielding chef from Hong Kong named Moon, though the man's mood is anything but cerulean.

"Why did you move all the way up here?" I ask him, after he has put his cleaver down.

"In Edmonton, make money, go to casino, money go goodbye, Charlie," he answers, doubling up with laughter. "Inuvik, no casino. Money stay in pocket."

"What about the winter time?" I persist.

"Winter time, stay in kitchen," beams Moon. "Kitchen always hot."

Mohamed Mohamed was working in a Palestinian convenience store on Mackenzie Road, early in his first January in the Far North, when he heard the unmistakable sound of explosions coming from somewhere in the town.

"I didn't know what it was," he says. "Then a native woman came running into the store, very excited. She was shouting, 'The sun is back! The sun is back!'

"Now I know what the explosions were -- every year, they have fireworks and a big celebration of the first sunrise after the weeks of darkness. I think it means a lot spiritually to them."

We are in the living room of Mohamed Mohamed's little green house and, despite the brilliant sky outside at 11 o'clock p.m., it is sundown, Edmonton time. Ebaid Emam is here, and an Egyptian cabbie named Wa-Il, and a Lebanese teamster named Hassan El-Khalid, plus the symmetrically named homeowner and United Taxi Co. driver, who is explaining how he happened to end up, like all the others, at the top end of life's winding highway.

"When I left Sudan, I went to New York, to the Bronx," he says. "I lasted there only one week! I went up to Canada as a refugee. They believed my story, so here I am.

"Inuvik is a very interesting place. Basically, you find every nationality: Egyptian, Yugoslavian, Turk, Lebanese, Syrian, Czech, Greek, Albanian, Hungarian, Tunisian . . . "

"And everybody gets along?" I ask.

"Not really," says Mohamed Mohamed.

"I think you find discrimination everywhere you go," notes Mr. Emam.

"You find that everywhere, but here it's clear," says Mr. Mohamed.

"You know everybody," Mr. Emam adds. "But he doesn't show his feelings to you until he gets mad."

The United Taxi Co. of Inuvik, NWT is owned by a Sudanese named Abdul Mohamed, a distant cousin of Mohamed squared. Its radio dispatch desk is in a corner of a small grocery shop, which he also owns, midtown on Mackenzie Road. Abdul Mohamed says that his three children "fight every day to go back to Africa," but he has found success in the North, and success is not an easy thing from which to walk away.

"In the South," the businessman says, "when they see a new immigrant coming to a job, they look at you and they say, 'You do not know the system.' And they use the system, whatever it is, to keep you at the bottom.

"Here, I am struggling and working to (ital) be (end ital) the system."

The owner suggests that I speak with another of his drivers, universally known as Crazy John. Crazy John drives car number 2, which under all the dust turns out to be a twenty-year-old,powder-blue Cadillac Brougham as long as a twelve-dog sled team.

Zivojin Jovanovic, the driver's true name, is a Serb from south of Belgrade who has been in the Arctic for thirty years. He allows that this is "much too long," but our interview proceeds no further.

"They call me Crazy John, the bastards," he says, as I step out of the Caddy. "If they think (ital) I'm (end ital) crazy, let them come get tested with me."

While the Muslim men attend to their prayers, I flip through the Holy Koran. One thousand, seven hundred and eight pages in, I notice Sura LXXXIV:

Like the sunset Glow or the shades of Night, Or the Moon's ever-changing light, man's life Never rests here below, but travels ever onwards, Stage by stage.

"How long do you think you will stay up here?" I ask the men, when their obeisance concludes and we are sharing tea and fruit.

"I feel that I could leave at any time," says Ebaid Emam, who has a diploma in electronic maintenance, and could certainly find work further south. "But I have said that for eight years."

"It is a fascinating place," says Mohamed Mohamed. "You have the Northern Lights. You think of the Eskimos and how they lived."

"What did they eat?" Mr. Emam wonders. "There is nothing green."

"In Grade 4 or 5, we learned about them in Sudan," says Mr. Mohamed. "They were small people who rode on the dogs and they don't have farms."

Now they were living in the same vast land of sunset Glow and shades of Night.

"What do you miss the most?" I ask.

"To sleep in the desert, by the river," says Mr. Emam.

"You try that here, the mosquitoes pick you up and carry you away," interjects Hassan, the Lebanese, who has been here for five and half years.

"Last winter, it was minus 45 for six weeks straight," says Mohamed Mohamed. "It's good for business, but you get depressed. Like now -- I'm tired of this daylight."

"Put garbage bags on your windows," counsels the Upper Egyptian, Wa-Il.

"How did you figure out which way was Mecca?" I inquire. It is a requirement that praying Muslims face their holy city.

"In Toronto, there is no problem -- just face East," says Mr. Emam. "But here, we're almost halfway."

I look out the window where the dipping sun has set the clouds on fire.

"We used to face the other direction," smiles the world's most northerly Sudanese. "But it is not a question of the compass. Your heart tells you where to pray."


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