SHAFAQNA -Â Iqaluitâ€™s tiny Muslim community is rallying to build the first mosque in Nunavut. Work has continued even during Ramadan â€” which looks different in the land of the midnight sun.
Syed Asif Ali grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, where temperatures occasionally top 40 C. Ten years ago, the mechanical engineer immigrated to Canada. After a few years in Toronto, he moved to Iqaluit, Nunavut, where temperatures fall below -40 C.
â€œItâ€™s a different world,â€ Syed laughed this week in an interview with the Star. â€œIt feels like the first time I really immigrated was when I moved out of Toronto.â€
The man does not shrink from a challenge.
His latest was helping launch construction of Nunavutâ€™s first mosque, an Islamic community centre expected to open â€” â€œit might be wishful thinkingâ€ â€” in late fall or early winter.
Syed has a fine sense of humour, as befits a fellow who applied for a job as an inspector of boilers and heating systems in Nunavut in 2009 â€œwithout realizing where Nunavut is.â€
He got the job. Then he learned the shocking co-ordinates of Iqaluit. Then he had to tell his wife.
Syed had developed misgivings. There wasnâ€™t even a mosque there. To his surprise, when he broke the news to his spouse, Syeda Aliya Asif, she said maybe he was intended to go there and establish one.
â€œIt stuck in my heart. I said, â€˜Sheâ€™s right! Weâ€™re going to do this.â€™â€
At first there wasnâ€™t a lot of enthusiasm among the 100 or so local Muslims. â€œPeople said, â€˜A mosque is not required here, weâ€™re a transient society, we come and go.â€™ I said, â€˜We go, but somebody else comes.â€™â€
So in 2009, the Islamic Society of Nunavut was established, fundraising began and negotiations started with the territorial government over land acquisition and zoning.
Things moved slowly for a few years. But money was eventually raised (with a target of almost $200,000), land was acquired and support was obtained from the same Winnipeg Islamic foundation that a few years earlier had shipped a prefab mosque to Inuvik, N.W.T.
As Syed explains, the construction in Iqaluit began in 2014 with the laying of a foundation. This year, work was contracted out around the local community.
â€œWe wanted to integrate everyone in this project. This is not just a mosque for Muslims,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s kind of a community place where everyone should come. The basic purpose is to do good for the community.â€
Syed, now 56, has since moved to Regina, but he remains president of Nunavutâ€™s Islamic Society and through his work travels frequently across the Canadian North.
In Iqaluit, support has been gratifying, he says. When the mosqueâ€™s first wall was to be raised on a particularly windy day this spring, the supervisor said he wouldnâ€™t do it without 24 people. The usual crew was just a handful of workers. In short order, Syed says, 28 volunteers from around town were at the site.
â€œThe whole community got together behind us. Theyâ€™re so excited. Everyone has participated and rallied around. Our aim is to integrate everyone, get to know each other better, value each otherâ€™s faith.â€
Even this week, work continued during Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast between sunrise and sundown â€” which in the Far North at this time of year means almost an entire 24-hour day.
Muslims get used to it, explains Syed, who has three grown children. Some clerics have ruled that in remote locations, where there is not an established Muslim community, the faithful can govern themselves according to the sunrise and sunset in the nearest big city â€” which in this case, happily, is Ottawa.
â€œItâ€™s a matter of faith, you know. You believe in something and (the practice) just becomes part of you.â€
In any event, itâ€™s easier in Nunavut than in Pakistan to keep the fast, Syed adds. The cooler temperatures help keep thirst under control.
â€œYou donâ€™t get dehydrated as much.â€