Editor’s Note: Last week, the Oslo Freedom Forum took place. It is the annual human-rights conference in the Norwegian capital. Jay Nordlinger is touching on sundry matters in this journal. The previous parts are at the following links: I and II.
Here in Oslo, you find Acne Studios. Not the most appealing name, at least to English-speakers (which is everyone in Norway, virtually). Something to do with dermatology? Actually, we’re talking about a clothing store, to the best of my knowledge.
Speaking of the Internet: Onstage at the Nye Theater, addressing the Oslo Freedom Forum, is Jimmy Wales, a co-founder of Wikipedia. Not everyone can use Wikipedia. Wales tells us that it’s blocked in China, among other places.
The speaker has a foundation, the Jimmy Wales Foundation, which is dedicated to freedom of expression, especially online. They highlight cases — specific human-rights cases, involving real and persecuted people — which is gratifying: It’s better to talk about individual cases than about human rights in general.
One question the Wales Foundation asks is, “Where is Bassel?” That would be Bassel Khartabil, who once led Creative Commons Syria. He was seized by the Syrian dictatorship in 2012. A few years later, they disappeared him.
To read about his case, go here.
Also, what about Roya Saberinejad? She is a British citizen of Iranian origin who went back to her native land to visit family — and was imprisoned. Why? On Facebook, she had written a few critical words about the Iranian regime. She has since been subjected to the worst that that regime has to offer, which is hellish.
To read about her, go here.
I’m glad, to say the least, that Wales and his foundation are doing this work.
Incidentally, he says something amusing. He says, “People often tell me, ‘I’d like to write you, but I can’t get a hold of you.’ I’m the easiest person in the world to get a hold of. Just Google ‘Jimmy Wales’s e-mail address.’”
One of the most extraordinary people at the Oslo Freedom Forum is Abdalaziz Alhamza. That’s saying something: “one of the most extraordinary people.” This conference is stocked with them.
Twenty-four years old, he is the co-founder of, and spokesman for, a group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.” Raqqa is a city in Syria. Alhamza has a price on his head: He is wanted by ISIS. He is extraordinarily, ridiculously, mind-bogglingly brave.
To watch his presentation in Oslo, go here. (Let me warn you that it contains images of brutality, because it contains images of Syria.)
Sometime after Alhamza’s presentation, I see him on a sidewalk. I shake his hand and just say “Thank you.” I can hardly believe he exists. Will he live to a ripe old age? Will he live to, say, 25?
Spare a thought for Alhamza and his peers.
Roya Mahboob is an admirable lady. She is, as her bio says, “an Afghan tech entrepreneur and founder of Citadel Software, a software development company based in Herat.” I will quote some more: “In addition to being one of Afghanistan’s first female tech CEOs, Mahboob founded the Digital Citizen Fund, a nonprofit that aims to increase women’s technological literacy and provide employment and educational opportunities for girls in Afghanistan.”
At the Nye Theater, she tells us a little about her girlhood: She, along with other girls, could not imagine a life beyond the service of husband and home. The broader world was a blank to her.
Then someone told her about a “box” that you could talk through, and learn about people from, and ask questions of, etc.: a computer. It was to change everything for her.
Listening to Roya Mahboob talk about girls and women in Afghanistan, I could not help thinking of a couple in Texas: George W. and Laura Bush. The Bush Center in Dallas has published a book, We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope. Mrs. Bush wrote the introduction to it.
I interviewed her husband earlier this year, about human rights, freedom, and democracy. This interview resulted in a five-part series, online. Let me quote from my final installment:
“This is going to be an issue for a long time,” says Bush. By “this,” he means freedom and dictatorship. The struggle. He means more particularly, I think, the War on Terror.
“And the same excuses, the same reluctance to be a kind of bulwark of free societies is going to be around forever. ‘None of our business.’ ‘We’re imposing our values.’ ‘Who cares?’”
Bush says that, when he gives speeches, he sometimes asks the audience, “Does it matter whether young girls suffer again in Afghanistan?” And he sees people nodding their heads, especially women. They’re saying it does indeed matter to them.
I doubt that George W. Bush would win many votes here at the Oslo Freedom Forum — among the Westerners, I mean. Among others, I think he’d do pretty well. I have known otherwise intelligent and sensible people who lose their minds on the subject of America’s 43rd president. It is a phenomenon.
Now onstage is Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1986. He is one of the most interesting-looking people you’ll ever see. He looks like a wizard — or a professor out of Harry Potter or something. And he has a beautiful speaking voice. And he knows what to say.
In fact, his talk is mainly about words. He is obviously a man obsessed with words and the proper use of them (as a writer probably should be).
He talks about Boko Haram, the jihadist terror group that plagues his homeland. That name means (something like) “The book is anathema.” “The book is forbidden.” “Liberal education is forbidden.” If I have understood correctly, these jihadists call themselves something else — something pompous and grandiose. They don’t like “Boko Haram.”
All the more reason to use it, says Soyinka (again, if I have understood correctly).
On to a related topic: “ISIS,” or “ISIL,” or “IS.” Those initials stand for the most grandiose and self-flattering things. These jihadists should really be called “Daesh,” says Soyinka: That’s the name they don’t like, a name that is derogatory. To call them by names of their choice is “an act of insidious collaboration with the agenda of unlimited violence.” We must take care, says Soyinka, “not to lose even small battles.”
I love it. He is singing my song. I’d like to quote for you everything he says. And if I acquire a transcript of the speech, I will pass it along.
By the way, his speech is decidedly un-high-tech, which I also love: He reads the speech from paper, with his glasses perched on his nose. It might as well be 1960 or something. The speech does not have accompanying pictures or videos. No music. Just the music of Soyinka’s voice, and his prose.
A final thing: Maybe a famous independence figure, and national symbol, such as Soyinka would not like to hear it — but I regard him as a glorious product of the British Empire. I can hear it in the way he speaks, and the way he thinks, for that matter.
Some people would take that as an insult. So be it. From me, it’s a high compliment.
I don’t know much about Western Sahara, and its struggle against domination by Morocco (and other powers). But I do know this: Aminatou Haidar, a Western Saharan human-rights activist, gives one of the most harrowing presentations I have ever seen or heard. The rape, the torture, the depravity, the ever-crueler forms of murder — the whole imagination of evil …
Details, I will leave aside, but be acquainted with this lady, whose bio is here. She has been through a lot. And she keeps going.
So does Shui-Meng Ng, from Laos. Her husband was snatched by the government of that country. They did it in 2012. They have disappeared him. His name is Sombath Somphone, and he was — I’m not sure what the right tense is — a civil-society leader. They snatched him out of his car.
His wife, Shui-Meng Ng, tells the whole story. She is campaigning for him, campaigning for him — has done so for years. She wants him back. She wants to know about him. She wants to know where he is.
I’m thinking, “Can’t some government turn the screws on Laos — the financial screws — until they cough this man up? Should it be that hard? It doesn’t require an invasion or the breaking of diplomatic relations or anything, does it? How about a little financial pressure, à la the Magnitsky Act? Anything!”
At a later dinner, I talk with Shui-Meng Ng. She had part of her education in my hometown: Ann Arbor, Mich. (at the University of Michigan). She seems weary — understandably. But she has not curled up to die. She is on her feet, traveling around, doing what she can for her husband.
She sets an example, really.
So does Rosa María Payá, of whom I spoke previously in this journal. She is the Cuban democracy leader, the daughter of another Cuban democracy leader, Oswaldo Payá, who was killed by the Castro dictatorship in 2012. My podcast with Rosa María is here. To see her presentation in Oslo, go here.
Toward the end of that presentation, she shows a picture of President Obama and Raúl Castro, all warmth and delight. She says that such scenes mislead the world: by suggesting that positive change is going on in Cuba.
“I ask you to engage with Cuba,” she says, “but to engage with my country with the same approach that my father proposed a few years ago: ‘If you want to extend a helping hand to the Cuban people, you must first ask that the Cuban people have their hands untied.’”
Rosa María says, “Please. Ask for the Cubans the same freedom, the same rights, that you enjoy today.”
No one will do that. Americans, and others, just want to visit the island, look at the old cars, do business with the dictatorship, celebrate anti-“imperialism,” wear their Che shirts, and spit in the eye of bad old anti-Communists. But the sentiment is nice.
Let’s end this installment on a Norwegian culinary note. I like a good whale steak myself — especially when it’s smothered with a delicious sauce or sauce-like accompaniment. But what is really good is smoked whale.
“Everything is better smoked,” a friend of mine points out. True.
See you later for Part IV. Thanks.