KOTA KINABALU: Night never falls over this frozen land. With no night, there is no dawn.
So how does an observant Muslim know when to break fast during Ramadan? One intrepid Malaysian now knows.
Spending Ramadan and Hari Raya far from your family in the middle of subzero nowhere would not appeal to most people but a young Sabahan is loving it inside the Arctic Circle.
That’s about as far as anyone can get from tropical Malaysia in so many ways.
Khairul Fuad Junaidi says he prefers to be where he is right now, on the Arctic Ocean island of Svalbard, as it is one of only a small number of places on earth totally free from the ravages of Covid-19.
It’s also one of the few places to have no form of lockdown.
Khairul has traded home in Kampung Silad in Ranau, Sabah, for Longyearbyen, Norway, where he’s one of a population of just over 2,300 humans. Surrounded by roughly 4,000 marauding polar bears.
Now 24, and holding down two jobs, Khairul feels very much at home on top of the world.
“Svalbard is probably the safest place on Earth right now – we have had zero Covid-19 infections here,” he tells FMT.
But he does wish he could be with familiar faces during Ramadan and at Hari Raya.
“I shall miss celebrating with my family and friends, but I decided not to go because of the pandemic. I don’t want to risk it, for myself and my family back home.”
He’s obviously happy with his own company, which is just as well.
“There are only three other Muslims here and we seldom meet. I’m the only Malaysian. So my Raya here will be the same as any other day. I long for home-cooked meals like my favourite buntut ayam – chicken tail.”
He loves the outdoor life there.
“There are lots of things to do here: I like hiking, snowmobiling and sledding. And the auroras are stunning.
“The temperature drops to minus 32 during winter. But I’m used to it by now.”
He explains that right now is the season of the midnight sun. It’ll be daylight constantly until August.
“Most people here are Christians. Not many have heard of Ramadan or know that Muslims fast during this period.”
Yet he has experienced no difficulty in finding halal food. But fasting under the midnight sun is not easy.
“I had problems fasting here at first because you can’t tell the time of day from the sun so I need to check the time to break my fast according to Mecca,” he says.
Every day, fasting takes about 21 hours. He eats his Sahur pre-dawn meal at around 1am local time. Morning prayers are at 1.40am. He breaks fast at 10.30pm.
Although far from home, he takes his family responsibilities seriously.
“My parents are no longer with us, so it is up to me as the eldest to work hard for my younger sister and brothers.
“I am constantly worried about them, especially during the pandemic,” he says. “But fortunately our grandmother is taking care of them and so far they’re fine.”
The family has a small clothes shop in Ranau but he feels he can earn more by staying where he is right now.
This is why his first priority is always work and earning money. So he holds down two jobs. He is a head waiter during the day and a chef at night.
“How I got here is a long story. I first came with a relative from the US but he left,” he says vaguely.
Despite the hard work and the worry, he is enjoying his life at the top of the world.
“I like it very much here and I may stay until I retire.”
If Khairul’s story has you yearning to see the northern lights and risk close encounters with polar bears, it may be easier to relocate there than you think.
It’s a visa-free zone. Anybody can live and work in Svalbard indefinitely, regardless of country of citizenship. After seven years you can qualify for Norwegian citizenship.
One of the reasons it’s free from Covid-19 is that it’s been closed off to everyone since mid-March. It’s being reopened on June 1, but only to tourists from Norway.
If you ever make it up there, be sure to take a stroll to the Coal Miners’ Cabins guesthouse and restaurant for a chat and a hot beverage with Khairul.
And do keep an eye out for polar bears.
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