Escaping icebergs on Greenland's public radio

Kalaallit Nunaata Radioa is a fisherman's friend.

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Something you might not know about icebergs: they can escape. In the small coastal city of Ilulissat, western Greenland (human population: 4,893; sled-dog population: 6,000), all the talk is of an iceberg “escaping” from the mouth of the nearby Kangia glacier last week, releasing an immense tide of floes and slush directly into the iceberg bank, which makes it impossible for the local fishermen to manoeuvre in their small boats. Several panic-filled days later, the bank clears a little and the vessels are again on the move.

On KNR – the national broadcasting corporation of Greenland – there’s a discussion about the rising number of fishing licences and the decrease in the catch. “There are more and more fishermen but no more fish!” is the theme of a well-worn, ratty exchange. And yet by 4pm the boats in the harbour are passably full: large halibut scoured and hung to dry on lines also pegged with blue overalls; a minke whale, cut into small pieces and bagged, the decks of the six-metre boat that towed it here flecked with blubber. Four severed harp seal flippers line up sadly in the cold sun. Everywhere, radios blast.

Don’t you get lonely? I ask Pavia – 36 and fishing in a one-man craft since his teens – out there all day? He sweeps the deck of blood, half considering my question. Impossible not to feel lonely in that world of ice, surely, sitting for hours at a time among the floes as they make their melancholy moans and creaks. “Yes,” he nods. And then, “But not with the radio.” All the fishermen listen to KNR. One of the regular shows features a freewheeling discussion between two elderly women who stop talking now and again to play Hank Williams. Then back to the conversation, not in Danish but the gorgeously polysynthetic Greenlandic, stringing together roots and suffixes so languorously that a single word can read as though someone fell asleep on the keyboard. Take aallariartortarfik, the word for Departures at the airport: it translates as “the place for the one who has the intention of going somewhere”.

“What are they talking about now?” I ask Pavia. “Stuff,” he shrugs, bored by my questions, “the old days.” Before long it’s Hank, and “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me” twangs down the busy pontoons. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism

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