David Abuobaid is an active leader in Anchorage’s Muslim community. He said that Alaska is the most accepting state in this country of Muslims.
“People are independent thinkers here,” he said in between some bites of food he took to break his fast. “The same feel for this place is like the pioneering spirit of the 1800s, everybody comes here with a story. There’s no tribal mentality here because everyone can appreciate where you’re coming from.”
My journey to Anchorage began in early July. I attended the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention in Chicago, where I met Lamin Jobarteh, another stalwart of the community. I told him about the 30 Mosques roadtrip and stayed in touch with him since then to facilitate the visit. He told me there’s not a single mosque in the entire state and I was eager to learn what life is like without one.
Lamin has lived in Anchorage for about 17 years. He runs a halal meat shop in the city and described what life was like back then as he prepares a gyro sandwich for a customer.
“In the Muslim community, you could count each other,” he said . “There had to be less than 100 people.”
Now the community is rapidly growing. New opportunities in fishing and the oil industries have rapidly grown the Muslim community in recent years from 100 to around 3,000 today. The community rents out a storefront for prayer space as they try to build a mosque. It’s been a struggle though.Why? The desire is there but apparently there aren’t many wealthy Muslim doctors/lawyers/engineers (basically the major three stereotypes for most Muslim) to finance the project, Lamin said. I had to do a double take when he told me that, not many Muslim doctors, lawyers and engineers?
Can’t Fight the Moonlight
Lamin hails from the African nation of Gambia. Beneath his mustache is his subtle smile that oozes comfort when you’re in his presence.
I picked his brain with more questions I was dying to find the answers to. Muslims determine their prayer and fasting schedules based on the positions of the sun and moon. Since it seems like the sun is shining constantly during the summertime in Alaska, how on Earth do they figure out how to fast?
The answer isn’t so simple because there are two answers to this that are both right. During Ramadan, there are some Muslims in this community that fast according to Alaska’s local time, meaning a fast from sunrise to sunset could be anywhere from 19-22 hours. But most Muslims here follow Saudi Arabia’s schedule, which has prayer and fast times that are reasonably spaced apart like the rest of the U.S. I was curious to see what it was like to do a 20-21 hour fast so I decided to pray and fast according to local time. So as everyone was breaking their fast at the mosque Monday at around 7 p.m., I sat in the corner staring at the clock knowing I had at least 4-5 hours to go before it was time for me to do the same.
But going without food is no big deal for me. What was tougher was how alone I felt in such a welcoming gathering. Not only could I not enjoy the food prepared by the people here, I sat in the back of the room as everyone prayed shortly after because technically it wasn’t time locally for me.
I kicked back with a man named Reggie, an African American man who embraced Islam recently while stationed at a military base here.
Last year was his first time fasting and decided to follow local time.”It was brutal,” he said as he shook his head with a chuckle.
I told Reggie going the extra hours without food wasn’t the tough part for me. It was sitting there and not being able to pray alongside my fellow brothers and sisters. I felt like a little kid at a birthday party that was sitting at the table by himself while everyone else was having a blast beating up a pinata.
“Man, I feel you,” he said. “Last year I had to do the same thing. I’d sit back and just wait as I watched everyone eat their food and pray. I ended up just going home each time to do my prayers. It just didn’t feel like I was getting the whole Ramadan experience.”
Lamin said the whole local vs. Saudi time could have potentially been a divisive issue in the community but he and several other leaders were careful not to let that be the case.
“We are not stopping anybody that comes to the mosque to do (prayer),” he said. “The door is always open, no matter what time you want to do the prayer or the fast.”
I don’t want to dwell on this whole prayer/fasting time thing too much, but it is something that I haven’t really seen before in any community. It gets better though. To determine the beginning and end of Ramadan, it is required to spot the moon, whether it be spotted in the local community or on a broader geographical area done by ISNA or Saudi Arabia. What’s interesting to me is the people who pray and fast according to local time, have no problem determining the start/end of Ramadan by having ISNA or Saudi Arabia spot the moon.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Lamin is one of the major leaders in this community and what’s fascinating to me is his sense of level headedness. He’s got so much on his plate but no matter what kind of challenge is thrown at him, there’s a sense of “It’s ok, I’ve got this.” that even shines in his smile. It’s not cockiness, but rather a sense of preparedness he has that makes him ready to tackle any challenge. He left a cushy finance job at Wells Fargo to open the halal meat shop. It’s a pretty big risk in this economic climate especially since he’s married with children so I asked him what that decision was like for him.
“People would tell me ‘Brother Lamin, you can’t leave banking for this,'” he said. “But I have a professional background and I’ve mentally prepared myself for this. It comes from being raised with family discipline. Obviously in life you face challenges and obstacles, but you always have motivation to succeed.
The Muslim community now is trying to build the first mosque in all of Alaska. That’s hard for me to grasp and I keep repeating it because I live in New York City, where we have over 150 mosques within a 10-15 mile radius.
But what Alaska has that I don’t think any community I’ve met are visionaries like David, Lamin and a countless list of other people I’ve met. You can have all the money you want to build mosques, but it’s visionaries like them that bring will bring that building to life.
I got to spend a lot of time driving through Alaska’s breathtaking backdrop of mountains, pristine waters and free-roaming wildlife. Seeing all these sights is second nature for me to drop my mouth wide open and utter words praising God for what he’s created here.
But those words of praise didn’t tremble with meaning in my heart until I was spending my last few moments with the people here.