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Question time

Gotthard Tunnel: dancing haystacks not whirling dervishes

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Nightmare fuel? An 'ibex' surrounded by dancing haystacks (Keystone)

Nightmare fuel? An 'ibex' surrounded by dancing haystacks


The recent opening ceremony for the world’s longest rail tunnel has had an amusing epilogue: a politician from the Swiss People’s Party, spying what she reckoned were Islam-connected whirling dervishes, has complained to the cabinet about a lack of basic Swiss values. 

The theatrical production staged on June 1 for the opening of the 57km (35.4 mile) tunnel certainly generated a lot of attention. International media reaction ranged from euphoric to hysterical, with the British newspaper Daily Mail concluding that the Swiss “have put on one of the most bizarre opening ceremonies in history”. The paper highlighted some of the more esoteric elements of the gala such as “a winged baby, semi-naked dancers and a man with a bird’s nest on his head”. The BBC headline was “Switzerland tunnel: The oddest moments of the opening ceremony” and Buzzfeed went with “The World’s Longest Rail Tunnel Had A Creepy AF Opening Ceremony”. 

It’s not surprising that archaic traditions can appear exotic to outsiders. Swiss media are also not infrequently irritated by foreign habits and customs. What is astonishing, however, is when a member of the House of Representatives announces she is irritated by the wild goings-on on the “Gotthard catwalk”. 

This is the question raised by politician Sylvia Flückiger to the cabinet during parliamentary question time on June 6:

The cabinet's reply to the dervish question (swissinfo.ch)

The cabinet's reply to the dervish question


The inauguration of the Gotthard Basis Tunnel at the heart of our country should be respected by our fundamental Swiss values. Whirling dervishes have no place there. By featuring whirling dervishes, which, according to the encyclopaedia of Islam, signify an approximation of Allah, we are betraying our basic values. Does the cabinet share these popular concerns.” 

And the cabinet’s succinct response: 

“The artistic production, with its concept ‘Gotthard myths’, used figures and legends exclusively from Alpine culture. The aforementioned figures are not dervishes but dancing haystacks.” 

Switzerland has countless traditions in which people dress up in old-fashioned and wild costumes and express their “dark side”. In Appenzell, for example, singing “Uglies” wrapped in bristly fir branches have been ringing in the new year for centuries. 

Two "Uglies" in Appenzell (Keystone)

Two "Uglies" in Appenzell


Then there’s the “Eierleset” in various northwestern towns which is based on a medieval fertility ritual and features, well, characters like this:

The Straumuni (Keystone)

The Straumuni

A Schnäggehüsler (left) and a Hobelspänler (eierleset.ch)

A Schnäggehüsler (left) and a Hobelspänler

A Hobelspänler in action (eierleset.ch)

A Hobelspänler in action

The Straumuni getting involved with a Stechpälmler (Keystone)

The Straumuni getting involved with a Stechpälmler


And finally, for the sake of clarification, some real whirling dervishes:


Are there any customs in your country which might be considered bizarre? Let us know!

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Adapted from German by Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch


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