x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Iceland: crazy names, crazy people

Having withstood plague, famine, the loss of their bishop's head and financial meltdown, the inhabitants of this island state could still see the funny side when their latest export, a volcanic ash cloud, brought havoc to Europe's air space.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Eyjafjallajökull. The name that has been on almost nobody's lips, but everyone's minds, unless, of course, you come from Iceland.

This tiny, turbulent chunk of island barely outside the Arctic Circle has been enjoying its place in the sun. An observation, by the way, that is literally the truth. The volcanic ash cloud that grounded millions of air travellers has passed well to the east of the Icelanders. Planes have been landing and taking off from Keflavík International Airport like clockwork all week. Many Icelanders find all this quite amusing and think that it serves certain people right. A popular joke right now - "We said 'send cash', not ash!'" - owes its origins to an attempt by the British government to use antiterrorist legislation to recover money that UK institutions lost in the 2008 banking scandal. Another one goes: "The last wish of the Icelandic economy was to have its ashes scattered over Europe."

Interviewed by The New York Times, the country's foreign minister, Össur Skarphéðinsson, attempted, not very successfully, to keep a straight face about this situation by throwing up his hands and asking: "What should I say, 'I'm sorry'?" Other Icelanders have made fun of the world's media stumbling attempts to pronounce the erupting volcano. Eyjafjallajökull means something like a glacier on a mountain which looks a bit like an island, which is easier done than said. Attempts by everyone from the BBC to CNN to get it right have merely made their reporters sound as if they have just finished an advanced session of root canal work.

Al Jazeera was reduced to importing a blonde pixie songstress called Eliza Geirsdottir, who strummed an explanation on a ukulele with the lyrics: "Eyjafjallajökull is a long, long name/ For such a small glacier, with such notorious fame." Anyone with a passing knowledge of recent Icelandic history will understand why its citizens have found the misery of countless others so amusing. For so long the subject of mockery and satire, following the collapse of its economy, suddenly the joke is no longer on Iceland.

Still, even now, there are plenty of reasons to find Iceland funny. Mjólkursoðinn lundi, for instance, which is a national dish of puffin cooked in milk. To prepare, it is necessary to skin or pluck your puffin and then remove its intestines. Then there is kæstur hákarl, which is fermented shark buried in sand for three months. Kæstur hákarl is served as part of Þorramatur, a midwinter feast whose other dishes include súrsaðir hrútspungar, which are ram's testicles pressed in blocks, and selshreifar, or seal flippers preserved in lactic acid (traditionally the seal is first beaten to death by the man of the house).

Are these people serious? Þorramatur sounds like a practical joke played on tourists, while the locals all scarf down a Big Mac. But the evidence that Iceland is the world's nuttiest country is beginning to stack up. There are the Huldufólk, or hidden folk, who everyone in Iceland believes in, but no one has ever seen. Huldufólk are elves who live inside rocks, and their well-being is such that in 1982, three coach loads of protesters went to an American airbase to protest against Awac reconnaissance aircraft they claimed were keeping the little people up at night. In Reykjavik, there is an institution called Icelandic Elf School, whose headmaster, Magnús Skarphéðinsson, is part of the Icelandic band Mr Silla and Mongoose.

How much crazier can you get? How about Björking-mad? Björk is the world's most famous Icelander, with a huge career as a singer and actress, despite looking mostly like an explosion at a Mardi Gras costume factory and singing like a seal being prepared for selshreifar. And then there is the stuff that is not so funny, but still crazy. At the turn of the century, Icelanders, until then mostly a nation of fisherman, decided collectively to pursue new careers in the financial services industry. Between 2003 and 2007, the assets of Iceland's three largest banks grew to more than US$140 billion (Dh514bn) while the country's stock market rose ninefold. Gorging themselves on international credit allowed the average Icelandic family to increase their worth by 45 per cent, but when the crunch came in 2008, the losses were estimated at a staggering $330,000 for every man woman and child in a population of just 300,000.

Almost overnight, the Icelandic krona found itself ranked with the currencies of Zimbabwe and Turkmenistan. The three major banks were left effectively bankrupt, the result largely of grossly overstating the value of assets that included everything from the toy chain Hamleys to West Ham United of the English Premier League. Houses, bought on foreign exchange loans, collapsed in value and up to a third of the population said they would emigrate.

The odd thing about this pattern of behaviour is that there is nothing in the country's history to suggest anything but a life hard-earned. The first Norse settlers arrived from Scandinavia sometime towards the end of the 9th Century and found, thanks to the Gulf Stream, a surprising temperate land crossed by glacial rivers. (There is a theory they called it Iceland to put off outsiders, the reverse being true for Greenland, which is mostly ice and hardly green at all.)

For the next 500 years, the island faced a series of disasters, both man-made and natural. The Black Death twice wiped out much the population, as did smallpox, and a famine caused by the eruption of the Laki volcano in 1783. In the middle of the 16th Century, the country was converted to Lutheranism when King Christian III of Denmark cut off the heads of the Catholic bishop and his two sons. A century later, nearly 300 Icelanders were abducted by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery in Algeria. (On the plus side, the population is so isolated it is one of the most genetically pure in the world, and pretty good genes at that: three Icelandic women have become Miss World: Hólmfríður Karlsdóttir in 1985, Linda Pétursdóttir in 1988 and Unnur Birna Vilhjálmsdóttir in 2005.)

Despite these difficulties, the country gradually asserted its independence from Denmark, becoming a full sovereign state after the end of the First World War in 1918 and voting to become a republic in 1944. In the 1970s, Iceland's coastguard fought a series of "cod wars" with Britain over fishing rights, which included several ramming incidents by navy ships. This stubborn streak of independence expresses itself in the Althing, the legislative body which is one of the oldest parliamentary institutions in the world. The first leader of the Althing dispensed law to a general assembly of freemen while seated on the rocky outcrop around AD930.

The prime minister is Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, a social democrat who took office in elections held in 2009. Ms Sigurðardóttir lives with Jónína Leósdóttir, a playwright, and is the world's first openly gay leader. Earlier this year, her government banned striptease, leading the Guardian newspaper to declare Iceland "the world's most feminist country". Last week's eruption was a demonstration that Iceland's instability has usually been more geological than financial. It sits on one of the most active volcanic regions in the world, a by-product of which is a natural central heating system that lets geothermal power plants provide almost a quarter of the nation's energy needs, as well as almost all its heating.

Eyjafjallajökull is what happens when nature's central heating system goes wrong. The first minor eruptions began last month, before getting down to the serious stuff with a major explosion 10 days ago. Attention now turns to Katla, another, larger volcano which lies a little to east of Eyjafjallajökull and which has not erupted since 1918. Historically, eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull have led its neighbour to follow suit, but with an explosive potential 10 times greater. An eruption of Katla would be a joke neither for Iceland nor its neighbours. But at least the newsreaders will be able to pronounce it.