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Last updated: 19 february, 2010 - 13:20 GMT

Polar Bear Kebabs

Polar bear on Svalbard

On Svalbard, polar bears outnumber people

The small town of Longyearbyen is situated high in the Svalbard Archipelago - making it one of the most northerly human settlements on the planet.

It is, metaphorically, almost at the end of the world - a harsh environment that only the hardiest can survive in.

Polar bears outnumber its 2,000 citizens, and no roads connect it to any other community. The only means of transport is by boat or plane.
One of Longyearbyen's number is Kazem Ariaiwand, a 48-year-old man from Iran. He has set up business here selling kebabs to an appreciative clientele of locals and the occasional tourist - in temperatures that regularly plummet to -30 degrees Celcius and where the sun vanishes entirely for three long months each year.

It is the most northerly kebab shop in the world.

This inhospitable location, some 300 miles above the northernmost tip of Norway, is Ariaiwand's home because of an open-door immigration policy. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 states that citizens from all treaty nations shall enjoy the same right of access to and residence in Svalbard.

As a consequence the Immigration Act does not apply.


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Alternative kebab


Ariaiwand left Teheran 12 years ago, leaving a job in a government-run publishing house because of personal circumstances which led him to believe his life was endangered.

After fleeing to Sweden and then moving on to Norway, he moved to Longyearbyen in 2003 after his application for asylum in Norway failed - although his son and ex-wife were granted permission to stay.

But Svalbard is not a utopian polar paradise. Finding work and making a living here is difficult.

Because it is remote, virtually everything is imported, and the cost of living is expensive. For Ariaiwand to stay, he needed a job.

After working in a grocery store, he hit upon the idea of selling kebabs as an alternative to local delicacies like seal and whale meat.

Ariaiwand bought a decommissioned US military field kitchen truck from Germany, which he painted bright red and opened for custom. He calls it the Red Polar Bear or Roede Isbjoern.

During the summer months he is to be found most nights in the centre of town, but limits his business to weekends in the winter because of extreme weather.

The hope of seeing his son again sustains him through these hardships.

But intriguingly, he is not the only foreign national to live here. Thirty-five other nationalities have also come to the end of the world to make Svalbard their home, including a community of 60 Thais.

In Polar Bear Kebabs, travel journalist Nick Maes follows Ariaiwand through a typical day.

We hear him recount his flight from Teheran to setting up shop near the North Pole and explore his hopes of seeing his son once more. We contrast this vivid narrative with remarkable stories from some of Ariaiwand's immigrant friends who have also sought to live in this frozen and all but secret society.


First broadcast 19 February 2010

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