I was on a small cargo plane heading for the Arctic. The plane was scheduled to touch down 330 miles inside the Arctic circle on a landing strip near Point Barrow. We were told that there will not be an airport and the airfield will be next to a heated shed. After getting off the plane we will have to make a dash to the heated shed and our luggage will be transported there later. This was the only way to get to Barrow, the northern most part of Alaska and our flight back home could get delayed for a week due to blizzard conditions.
Barrow was a small community of 3000 people most of whom were Inupiaq Eskimos. Until then, my only introduction to Barrow was through the vampire movie “30 DAYS OF NIGHT” by David Slade. The film was based on a comic book in which vampires come to haunt the Arctic community of Barrow as it is experiencing 30 days of pitch dark. Since there is no sun for a month to keep the vampires in hiding, they come out and wreak havoc on this small town with virtually nothing to stop them except for a brave on-duty Sheriff. Interestingly the Barrow shown was a made up-replica as the film was shot miles away from the Arctic in the much more hospitable terrain of New Zealand.
The actual conditions in Barrow were nowhere like what were shown in the movie. Instead of 30 dark days, Barrow would experience over 2 months of darkness. The temperature would drop to -70 degrees with wind chill and that made living conditions dangerous. If you exposed fingers for 5 minutes, they would freeze and would have to be amputated. Unlike Hollywood directors, us TV journalists do not have the luxury of arranging our shoots in more convenient locations. We are paid to go where the story is so here were on a small plane heading towards Barrow.
Once the plane landed, we could not see much outside. I could not tell whether it was a blizzard or dark fog but everything appeared grey! There were not a lot of passengers as the plane was carrying essential cargo. Besides myself and my cameraman there was a team of scientists and the flight crew of three. We were told that once the door of the plane opens, only one passenger will be allowed outside into the cold. They will have to run straight towards the heated shelter and the second passenger will not be allowed outside until the first one reaches inside.
It was a thrill!
A few minutes later I was inside this shelter pulling my luggage. Besides our winter gear and survival essentials, we had a lot of television equipment like cameras, tripods, lights and batteries. My greatest fear was that the camera lens would crack due to the cold and this highly expensive trip would become useless. But on shoots like these, nothing is really guaranteed. Once I was fully geared up to go outside the shelter, I stepped out and looked for a transport. “So this is the Arctic.” I said to myself as I looked around for a vehicle. There was snow for miles and even in the Arctic night, I could see the white snow against the dark sky fairly clearly. The blizzard had died down into a strong wind and white snow was shining in the night. It was 4 in the afternoon.
Every time a flight landed, the Inupiaq people would bring their cars and trucks to transport the cargo and passengers. It was one of the ways in which extra-money could be earned when you are miles away from everything else. There were some trucks and pick-up vans and I was thinking which one would be big enough to take all our gear to the Guest house. It was then that a blue truck with cracked windshield pulled right next to me. “You need a truck?” said the young man who was in the driver’s seat. I could not see his face as he wore a coat with hood made of animal skin. It was a heavy fur coat but I could not tell which animal it had come from.
“Yes. We have a lot of gear and luggage.”
His name was Abraham and over the next few days that we went around filming the stories and news reports, he became our designated transport. He was quick to learn which boxes had cameras and which ones could be thrown violently on the snow without anything breaking. This was a skill that we needed from our loader and I was glad to have him.
I was the first Muslim Abraham had met so it was no wonder that he was intrigued. Since a Muslim and an Eskimo were communicating for the first time in history, it was an interesting conversation that was enlightening to both of us. It showed that if a man met Muslims for the very first time what questions would pop in his mind. I was visiting as an explorer instead of a conqueror or colonizer so relationship dynamic was very different.
It was in 1890 that the first Christian missions were established north of Bering Strait to Christianize the Arctic Eskimo. By 1910 the whole region had converted to Christianity but Christianity had to undergo certain cultural as well as ideological transformations to survive the Arctic. It had to tolerate ritualistic Shamanism and accept the influence of the ancient gods that took away the spirits of the dead people. These beliefs were totally alien to Christianity but they were so fundamental to the Inupiaq people that the newly arrived Christianity had to share Churches with them.
On the second day of our arrival we were driving towards the spot from where the sun was expected to come out after over two months of night. The exact hour of the run rise was communicated to us by the weather research facility but the sun was rising only for half an hour. I wanted to get the shot! It was the shot for which I had been sent in the middle of this savage winter and there was no way I was going to miss this shot. The road was bumpy and we were keeping our eyes open for polar bears since this was totally their territory. Suddenly Abraham wanted to know who was my God?
I could get into theology and metaphysics but I thought I would give him a simple answer. I asked him, “When shit happens, who do you pray to?” He was a bit surprised because he was expecting me to get philosophical. “When serious shit happens who do you pray to?” I asked him. “Do you pray to Jesus whom you were introduced to a hundred years ago or do you pray to the Shaman gods whom you have believed in before you saw the first white man?” He looked outside as if he was thinking about an honest answer. Co-incidently we were driving right next to the Arctic ocean and it had frozen solid. The whole sea was nothing but chunks of ice for miles.
Abraham was a whale hunter and he was actually the harpooner on an Inupiaq whaling boat. It was his job to shoot the darting gun with an explosive warhead to take the whale out. Earlier he was telling me how, in the same ocean during a summer whale hunt, his boat got bumped by a 45 foot bowwhale and the impact had caused him to get thrown into the sea. It was chilling water and he wanted to scream for help but the cold water caused him to inhale air so strongly that he found it impossible to exhale. Neither air nor sound would exit from his mouth. Instead he prayed to a God who was watching all this and would understand him without any sound or language. Then he was pulled into the boat by the rest of the crew.
“When you got hit by the whale and was thrown off the boat, who did you pray to?” I asked him and he just laughed.
“When shit happens we all just pray to God man.” He told me shaking his head.
“Which God?” I asked him. “Is it the God of the white man that you see in Church paintings? The God who is fundamentally a Caucasian male with blue eyes? Or do you pray to Inupiaq gods who resemble your ancestors in facial features and are portrayed wearing fur hats?” I was referring to the faces of Shamanic spirits that were carved by the Inupiaq peoples. These were made centuries ago and resembled the facial features as well as attire that Eskimos themselves had. Since Inupiaq had rarely encountered anyone other than themselves it was perfectly logical for them to make spirit-gods that resembled their own selves.
“This is all ceremony and cultural ritual but when you fall into a sea of pack-ice you pray to just one God.” Abraham told me.
“I believe you man.” I told him. “That is the God that I pray too as well. The living, the self-subsisting the eternal. The one who does not beget nor is he himself begotten. The originator of time and space and the one who will wrap up all time and space. The one who is bigger than what cultures of the world have made him out to be. The only one you instinctively call to without any religious teaching or doctrinal when serious shit happens.”
He understood and smiled. Then he said something that has stayed with me since. He said “If all the humanity was thrown into the ice cold waters of the Arctic ocean and if they were to make a prayer at that moment of absolute desperation then they will forget culture and pray to that one God that everyone deep-down secretly believes in. The rituals and customs are what people all over the world collectively profess to in order to create acceptance for themselves among their cultures, nations and their tribal ancestors.”
I could not agree more. After all, this man was saying exactly what Allama Iqbal had said when he wrote “The purpose of religion is to convince man that he is not any less than the mute idols that he inherits.”
“Why did it take you so long to come here? Do Muslims not travel like the Europeans? Do you not like to meet people other than your own?”
I wanted to give him an honest answer. I wanted to tell him “No because we present day Muslims are inward looking people. We build Islamic schools solely so that we can prevent our children from interacting with those outside our belief system. We are terrified that our children will grow up and marry a “GORI.” This every Muslim mother’s nightmare is enough for us to erect thousands of Islamic schools all over. Furthermore, we only migrate to cities and townships that have halal-meat shops with signs that read “100% HALAL!” If the sign does not say “100%” then we just assume that it is 99% HALAL and move to the other meat store. While European explorers could stay away from their families by eating raw whale and fornicating with the natives, we can’t do that. We have to marry within our culture and it is vital that our wives make dahi barray and biryani to impress our mothers. Since Inupiaq women don’t know how to cook cholay ki chaat and samosay we can not have them as wives. We are a people crippled by our cultural values and we are so proud of our paralysis that we rarely have the vision to see that the values we embrace is the very disease that cripples us. Given our values, Christopher Columbus is not possible. Neither is Marco-polo, Daniel Boone or Alexander Baranov. After all, it is no co-incidence that all recent exploration is done, not by the spineless, mother-obedient, arranged-marriage accepting Muslims but by the beer drinking, swine eating nations of post-renaissance fornicators. You need a different right and wrong to produce these men.” I also wanted to tell him, “We were not always this pathetic though. There was a time when we could produce Ibn-e-Batuta and those famous Muslim saints who settled in India, Pakistan, Bengladesh, China and as far east as Indonesia and Malaysia. They married native women and absorbed values from the native lands as much as giving back to them. They were armed with this divine element called ‘self’ and never needed the compromise we call “culture.” Being a Muslim today is all about killing your ‘self’ for the sake of cultural conformism. This is why the first Muslim who has ever come to meet you today is a shalwar-burning, value questioning, gharara-trampling, cultural outcast who will have no problem eating raw whale blubber.”
Instead of this brutally honest reply, I chose to give him a dishonest and politically correct answer. I told him, “Muslims are a new minority in USA and we are still in the process of reaching out to other communities in America.”
The rest of our time was well spent. In four day period we filmed sixteen hours of Arctic footage, took over 400 pictures and conducted twelve television interviews. When I was about to fly out, Abraham gave me a small Inupiaq boat. It was made in China. “I am not going to tell you that I made this. We do not make small boats like this anymore.” He explained. “Most of the Alaska stuff you see being sold in Anchorage airport is actually made in China. It is easier for us to give it to visitors instead of making it ourselves.”
I left the Arctic thinking there really is no such thing as culture. These are imagined communities that exist nowhere else except within our minds. People are the same everywhere and they have always done what they needed to do to survive. For those who disagree, I still have that Eskimo boat that says “Made in China” and it was presented to me by a real Inupiaq whale hunter.
Abdul Aziz Khan