1989. The Berlin Wall comes down. Seinfeld starts its run. Minesweeper is released. Coming to America is one of the most popular movies. And on March 1, Iceland lifts its ban on beer.
We at Iceland Review are proud of our history as the oldest continuously-published magazine presenting Iceland in English. In the 57 years since the first issue hit the printers, many things about the magazine have changed, not least its design.
In January 1995, an avalanche hit the small town of Súðavík in the Westfjords. The town was decimated, and out of the 227 inhabitants, 14 people died. Some were rescued, including a teenage boy who spent 23 hours buried under the snow.
In October that same year, another avalanche hit Flateyri, a town of 350 people about a half an hour’s drive away. This time, 20 people were lost. The two avalanches were not only a blow to those affected, but to the nation as a whole. In the decades since, energy and funds have been spent building up anti-avalanche earthworks to prevent such disasters from happening again.
Steps above the crowded Laugavegur street, the workshop of Kormákur and Skjöldur Men’s Boutique provides a cushy haven: hefty rolls of fabric rise in piles, and fine suit jackets in various stages of completion line the walls. Sounds are dampened, but there’s plenty to see – and touch. In the middle of the room, tailors Birna Sigurjónsdóttir and Rakel Ýr Leifsdóttir share a high table. They’re making a bespoke suit for artist Ragnar Kjartansson.
Herrafataverzlun Kormáks og Skjaldar, as it is known in Icelandic, has only been dressing men in Iceland since 1996, but their timeless selection of menswear suggests a much longer tradition. Pick up any one item – a wool suit, a Barbour jacket, or a plaid accessory (there is no shortage of plaid on offer) – and the first adjective that comes to mind is “classic.” Yet the suit lying on the table in this workshop is the first fruit of a remarkably innovative project – a quest to make high-quality tweed out of Icelandic wool.
I’d wager you’ll sit down at a toilet today. Who knows what you’re doing in there, but if you’re in Reykjavík – you’ll flush the remains. But have you ever wondered what happens after the flush? Where all of it goes? The short answer: out to sea. For the longest time, that was the long answer, as well, as sewage went untreated into the ocean.
Iceland’s rich creative culture demonstrates that no place is too small or remote to start up a business, manage a company, or to make a difference from. But given the country’s high wages, production, and shipping costs, outsourcing abroad is frequently the only way to ensure a company’s profitable growth.
A walk down memory lane in the heart of Reykjavík.
I sit down with photographer Yiwei Li at a café in the city centre. Blizzards have been ravaging the country, but today is a calm day, although another storm is on its way.
It’s Monday morning. Katrín wakes up and gets her daughter ready for school. After dropping her off, she heads to the local library, where she does freelance work. On her way there, she notices the progress in the apartment housing being built across the street: she’s renting now but has put a down payment on an apartment there. During her lunch break, Katrín drives out of town for a walk at her favourite hiking spot. Since it was designated as a protected area several years ago, it’s been getting more popular. She works until 5.00pm. Her daughter participates in an after-school program until then. After picking her up, they head to the local pool for a bit of fun before dinner. One organisation has had a hand in every aspect of Katrín’s day, as well as her daughter’s: her local council.
In March 2019, Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð Jóhannesdóttir, better known as GDRN, was called up to the stage at the Icelandic Music Awards.
Then she was called up again.
Then a third time.
Then a fourth.
In a single night, less than a year after releasing her debut album Hvað ef (What If), the 22-year-old musician had snagged four awards: Best Female Singer, Best Pop Album, Best Pop Song, and Music Video of the Year. In her acceptance speech, she encouraged upcoming artists: “Let yourself dream. Dream really big.” But dreaming alone is not what put those awards in Guðrún’s hands: it was also hard work, a go-getter attitude, a commitment to honesty, and a bit of luck.
It may be not seem so remarkable for a single artist to be awarded four times in one ceremony in a country of 350,000. But this is Iceland: what the music scene lacks in size, it makes up for in might. Its ranks are filled with international legends and local ones (interestingly, with very little overlap); self-taught rockers and highly-trained virtuosos; veterans who have been taking to the country’s largest stages for decades and teenagers releasing their first singles, freshly produced in their bedrooms. Perhaps the most exciting among all of these groups are the rising stars: those artists, like GDRN, whose first ventures into the spotlight – though confident, and capable – make you excited for what is yet to come.
When we arrive on the third floor, the press conference has already started. My shoes make horrible squeaking noises on the parquet and people turn around to look at me. I lean against the nearest wall as if it were an old friend, assuming an attitude that is at once outwardly cool and inwardly neurotic.
In front of me, seated at the table – along with his coach, a fellow teammate, and a representative of the Icelandic Handball Association, I’m guessing – is my subject. He is staring down at the table and fidgeting incessantly with his pen. Remaining silent for almost the entirety of the news conference, he interjects only once, when head coach Guðmundur Guðmundsson fields a question about the team’s video analysis of opponents.
“We watch more than enough videos,” my subject says, grinning. “There’s nothing that we … that we don’t get to see,” he concludes, in a statement that seems almost lecherous – accidentally full of sexual innuendo.
Hilmar Snorrason doesn’t care what you think.
Last December, he attended a Christmas buffet with his family, and as the dinner was set relatively close to home, he suggested they walk. Adorning himself in his most elegant suit, thrusting his toes into his polished dress shoes, Hilmar stepped into the foyer, where, in the eyes of his family, he proceeded to ruin an otherwise fashionable ensemble – with the addition of a bright-yellow safety vest.
“Fashion, to us Icelanders,” Hilmar muses, from inside his office on the ship Sæbjörg on the Reykjavík harbour, “is often synonymous with the colour black, but I’m not going to walk in the dark wearing dark clothes.”
It’s not an unreasonable statement to make – in a country where December affords four hours of daylight – especially not if one is the headmaster of the Maritime Safety and Survival Training Centre.
The Icelandic highland is one of the largest uninhabited, uncultivated areas in Europe. Almost all of Iceland’s population lives near the coastline, owing both to the barrenness and the coldness of the highland, and to Iceland’s fishing-based economy. The government is now planning to designate the entirety of the Icelandic highland as a national park, which would make it one of the largest national parks in the world, covering 30% of the country. But not everyone is on board with the idea.
About a year ago, Helgi Seljan, pictured above, had had enough of his job. After more than 15 years with the state-run broadcaster RÚV, he was one of the nation’s best-known reporters, but he had worn himself out and was about to take some sick leave. He toyed with the idea of going to sea. Though a fisherman’s work is physically taxing – with long hours and rough conditions – he still considered it more restful than working as a journalist.
But Helgi never got his vacation. Instead, he landed himself in another fishy situation: uncovering allegations of Icelandic seafood company Samherji bribing government officials in Namibia in order to obtain lucrative fishing rights. A former Samherji high-up who had himself participated in briberies told Helgi he was willing to be a whistleblower, and that he had files and emails to back up his story.
The Samherji scandal was big news. The kind of story every young journalist dreams of working on. According to Helgi, it’s the kind of news journalists could be reporting if they spent less time “shovelling their work into the perpetuum mobile that is the internet,” and more time sorting the wheat from the chaff. So why aren’t they?
One of the biggest news stories to break last year alleged that one of Iceland’s largest seafood companies, Samherji, had bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds, while also taking advantage of international loopholes to avoid taxes. The story was reported collaboratively by Kveikur, Stundin Newspaper, and Al Jazeera Investigates, after months of investigations sparked by the confessions of whistleblower Jóhannes Stefánsson, a former project manager for Samherji in Namibia. The following report is based on their extensive research.