Impromptus

Oslo Journal, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

Norway begins in the airport — I mean, your airport at home. I’m in Newark, in the departure lounge. There are all these Vikings and Vikettes. One woman’s blue eyes burn right through me. What are all these people doing here?

Then you remember: You’re going to Oslo. (And they’re going home.)

On the plane, there are more natural blondes than I have seen, maybe, in the last three months . . .

When you arrive at the Oslo airport, there are yet more Norwegians. (Imagine.) I’m reminded of a story. I’ve told it in this space before, but I’d like to retell it: first, because it’s enjoyable, and second, because we surely have newcomers, right?

Friend of a friend went to business school in Switzerland. (If I remember correctly.) He was an American. He met a Norwegian girl — a typical beauty — and they were soon engaged.

They traveled to Norway for the first time together, to meet her family. They got to the airport and he looked around. “Hey!” he said. “You were holding out on me. You’re nothing special. They all look like you!”

Somehow, the engagement survived and they got married. This airport episode became a running joke between them.

I’ve mentioned this before, too, but I’m going to mention it again: The urinals at the Oslo airport are very high. Like, NBA-high. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the heavy stuff — the torture, enslavement, and murder — soon enough.) In the Oslo men’s room, many American adults would have to go sort of tippy-toe.

This August, National Review will take a cruise leaving from Amsterdam. In Holland, they have the tallest people in the world. Yes, including even East Africa. Some guys might want to bring stilts . . .

People from all over the world are converging on Norway to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum, the fifth annual. OFF is the premiere human-rights conference in the world. In fact, it may be the only genuine one: the only one not tainted by the involvement of tyranny.

You have heard me rail against the U.N. “human rights” panel many times. It is a panel that has included Qaddafi’s Libya, Communist China, Saudi Arabia, the Castros’ Cuba, genocidal Sudan, and on and on.

I offer a definition of the standard human-rights conference: an event at which tyrants from all over denounce Israel.

In Oslo, I run into Tutu Alicante, the democracy leader from Equatorial Guinea. (His outfit, based in Washington, is EG Justice.) He has a hankering for whale. So do I. When in Rome . . .

Hard by the Oslo Fjord, we find a restaurant with two kinds of whale. You can have it smoked or you can have a steak. We have both. The smoked version is gloriously fishy. The steak version is like — well, meat. Game. (And very good.)

We also have a Northern Norwegian Sampler, which includes reindeer tongue and reindeer heart. I thought I’d have just a little, for adventure’s sake. There’s nothing adventurous about it: The tongue and heart are delicious, and you wolf down as much as you can.

I have a question for myself: If I had been born into an unfree country, as Tutu was, what would I do? Would I try to live as normal a life as possible within that country? Would I try to live a normal life elsewhere? Would I devote myself to freeing, or improving, the country, whether at home or in exile?

We who were born into free countries are very lucky.

Running around Oslo are young people in red pants — sort of sweatpants. They have white writing on them: “2013,” for example. These youngsters are high-school seniors, or the equivalent, about to graduate. The red pants are their symbol.

In Norway, national cohesion is very important. I imagine the pants contribute to that cohesion: a sense of solidarity. “Social solidarity” is a byword here.

This has its upside and downside, of course. I have been over the subject before. I’ll just say now that these red pants strike me as kind of a fun rite.

I say hello to Alfred Nobel — to his bust, outside the Norwegian Nobel Institute. It’s like greeting an old friend. I wrote a book about him and his peace prize. I enjoyed getting to know him.

“Parked” by the opera house is a big ol’ cruise ship: the Ryndam. We National Review types have sailed on it. Not in Norway, though. Where, I can’t remember.

In the hallway the next morning, I see Chen Guangcheng walking toward me. I say to him, “My hero.”

I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, to someone I’ve never met. People used to say it to Bill Buckley all the time. Let me give you a memory, please.

We were at the Metropolitan Opera together. Between the time we collected our tickets at the window and the time we entered the house, three people came up to him and said, “My hero” (or something similar). (One said, “You changed my life.”)

Bill had heard it almost as often as “Hi, how are you?”

Back to Chen: I say, “My hero.” His wife understands me and tells him.

At the Freedom Forum press conference, I’m sitting about four yards away from him. It’s hard for me to believe. A year and a half ago — in November 2011 — I wrote a piece about him that began,

Last month, there were reports that Chen Guangcheng was dead. That they had at last killed him. “They”? China’s ruling Communists, who have tormented Chen for years. Other reports said, No, he is not dead: just in very bad shape. Any report about Chen is now impossible to confirm or deny. The authorities are not letting anyone from the outside see or talk to him.

Many people in the world regard Chen as one of the greatest men we have known in the last decade. These admirers work on the assumption that Chen is alive. A furious international campaign is under way to save him.

Here he is, right in front of me.

I ought to give you a quick reminder of who he is. Chen is the “blind peasant lawyer,” as we all said — sometimes “blind barefoot lawyer” — who blew the whistle on China’s forced abortions and sterilizations. For his troubles, he was brutalized for about six years. They almost beat him to death.

They brutalized his wife, Yuan Weijing, too. And they continue to beat up and torture Chen’s family back in China.

In April 2012, Chen Guangcheng and Yuan Weijing managed to escape to the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

By the way, America can take satisfaction in the fact that its embassies are still the ones people flee to. I wonder how long that will last.

I have referred to Chen as “my hero.” The title of my 2011 piece was “A Hero of Us All.”

The international campaign to save him had a sunglasses component: a “sunglasses campaign.” People donned sunglasses, in solidarity with Chen. (He wears such glasses, of course, owing to his blindness.) Participants in the Oslo Freedom Forum did this very thing, as I recall.

Here at the press conference, 2013, several people walk up and snap pictures of him. Is that fair to do, to a blind man? To anyone else, we would say, “May I take your picture?” We would, wouldn’t we?

And we should be saying that here: “May I take your picture?” But it is a press conference, I suppose.

Anyway . . .

I can’t believe I’m sitting in front of Ali Ferzat. He’s the famous Syrian cartoonist who drew one too many cartoons for the dictatorship’s taste: They beat the hell out of him, breaking both of his hands. He lived to tell the tale — and to draw again.

(More about Ferzat, and many other participants, of course, later.)

I can’t believe I’m sitting in front of Berta Soler. She’s the leader of the Ladies in White, the Cuban human-rights group. In all likelihood, her predecessor, Laura Pollán, was murdered by the regime. And this lady, Berta Soler, was willing to take her place.

Amazing.

This is her first time out of Cuba (and she is 49). Never has she been off that island. I think, “How many times have you, Jay, been able to go abroad?”

Thor Halvorssen presides over the press conference. He is the founder of this forum, and of the Human Rights Foundation, which produces the forum. (HRF is in New York — in the Empire State Building, in fact.) Halvorssen is an impresario of human rights. He is a dynamo, a phenomenon — known as “Thor,” the way Cher is known as “Cher,” and Newt “Newt.”

Someone in the Norwegian government, I believe, has said to him, “Is there anyone controversial coming to your forum?” Well, they’re all controversial — certainly with the dictatorial regimes they oppose.

With that 2011 piece in National Review, we published a photo of Chen, Yuan Weijing, and their son Kerui. I am able to show Yuan Weijing this photo on my iPhone. The look on her face — well, worth the trip to Oslo all by itself.

Thanks for “tuning in” to this first installment. There’ll be more in coming days. 

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