Associated Press Writer

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) – New Icelandic citizen Bobby Fischer is volatile, uncompromising and defiantly eccentric. He should fit right in.

Tiny, wind-lashed Iceland has long drawn artists, loners and dreamers attracted by its remoteness, empty spaces and otherworldly, lava-strewn landscape – the very conditions that kept most migrants away and helped forge the proud, independent Icelandic character.

“What was it Buzz Aldrin said about the moon? ‘Magnificent desolation’ – that’s Iceland,” said Jose Tirado, a U.S.-born Buddhist priest who has lived near Reykjavik for four years. “Iceland affords the natural inspiration to spend as much time as you like in your head, formulating ideas.”

As a result, he said, “Everybody here has a guitar or a poem, some artwork or a play.”

Chess icon Fischer, who spent nine months in Japanese detention fighting extradition to the United States, was granted citizenship last week by the country that was the site of his greatest triumph – a 1972 world championship victory in Reykjavik over Cold War rival Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union.

Chicago-born, Brooklyn-bred Fischer, wanted in the United States for playing a 1992 rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia in defiance of international sanctions, arrived in Iceland on Thursday. The next day, he told journalists: “I was crazy to leave.”

He may be right. If any country is willing to overlook Fischer’s erratic behavior and often extreme pronouncements, it’s Iceland.

The rugged volcanic island whose most famous exports are fish and flamboyant singer Bjork takes a forgiving attitude to personal eccentricity.

“There’s a respect for individual autonomy here,” said Tirado, 45, who writes, studies and teaches meditation classes to Icelanders. “In Iceland, you’re free enough to be rude. They tolerate anybody, though that doesn’t mean they approve.”

Fischer’s arrival has drawn attention to Iceland’s immigrants, a small but remarkably diverse group in a traditionally homogeneous country.

Large-scale immigration is a relatively new phenomenon for a country where almost everyone is descended from 9th-century Viking settlers.

The number of foreign-born residents has doubled in the past decade, but is still only 10,000 people, just more than 3 percent of the population. There are Portuguese construction workers building a major dam in the east of the country, Poles working in northern fish factories and Thai cleaners in Reykjavik’s hotels, as well as a smattering of young Europeans and North Americans attracted by the country’s coziness, strong social safety net and high standard of living.

“It was clean, peaceful, isolated – just what I wanted,” said Paul F. Nikolov, an American journalist who moved here six years ago. “Not at all like Baltimore.”

The downside is that immigrants often feel like a very visible minority. Many complain it is difficult to gain acceptance from Icelanders.

“Most people ask me why I am here,” said Mustapha Moussaoui, an Algerian who works as a chef in a Reykjavik cafe. “And when you work with Icelanders, they won’t treat you as a friend for the first year or two – until they get to know you and respect you.”

Then there’s the weather – “depressing, dark, icy.”

“To be honest, it’s a really hard life here,” said Moussaoui, who is married to an Icelandic woman.

The bill granting Fischer citizenship passed through Iceland’s parliament in just 12 minutes.

But for most others, it’s not easy to become an Icelander. Those who get a residence permit – usually conditional on a job offer – must wait seven years before they can apply for citizenship, a process that involves multiple forms, character references and often extensive medical tests.

Under tough new rules introduced in 2003 that have been criticized by some human-rights groups, immigrants married to Icelanders cannot apply for a residence permit if they are younger than 24, and relatives of naturalized citizens may not join their family in Iceland until they are 67.

“Twelve minutes!” said Kenyan-born waitress Sheba Wanjiku, shaking her head in disbelief at Fischer’s luck. “It’s taking me five years.”

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