National Security & Defense

Oslo Journal, Part I

Rosa María Payá
Notes from the Norwegian capital and a freedom forum

The Oslo airport is a festival of wood. This wood is both natural and classy. The older I get — has this happened to you? — the more I like wood. Not long ago, I was in Passau, Germany: and took a picture of wooden garage doors. Weird. But I just liked them.

‐The immigration officer says, “What are you doing in Norway?” I say, “Attending the Oslo Freedom Forum.” “Ah,” he says, “human rights.” He says this with respect and appreciation.

‐What’s going on outside the National Theater? It’s loud. And Eastern. It turns out to be a Vesak festival, marking Buddha Day. There is music blaring. Participants are dressed ceremonially. They are walking slowly, and purposefully, down a red carpet. They come face to face with a statue of Johan Halvorsen (a Norwegian musician who lived from 1864 to 1935). He’s like a minor deity or something. (The pigeons have done him no favors.)

So, multiculturalism in Oslo …

‐Next to my hotel, there’s a Subway. A Subway sandwich shop. Smack next door. At home, I have to go about two blocks. At work, I have to go about a block and a half.

They are rarely far away …

‐Over the years, I have made a couple of points in my Oslo journals. Please bear with the repetition. (1) Green apple juice. What a good idea. Do we have this at home? I don’t really see it. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we make green apple juice? (2) Chocolate at breakfast. How civilized.

‐The road to the royal palace is lined with lilac bushes. They are in bloom and fragrant. What a royal way. And the king’s gardens are delightful: orderly, peaceful, inviting, beautiful.

Geese are enjoying the ponds. Why wouldn’t they?

‐I have noticed this in a variety of European countries, and elsewhere: Boys and girls who are no longer little kids — who are 12, 13, 14 — hold their mom’s or dad’s hand. They do so without embarrassment.

Not so at home, right? I remember trying to hold my nephew’s hand when he was about 11 or something, as we crossed the street. He tolerated it, barely — but I knew that we had reached the end …

‐There is Gypsy begging here — organized Gypsy begging, as elsewhere. I see it in Salzburg every summer (when I work at the music festival). They have meetings in the morning. Then they disperse. They have regular posts. I sometimes see these people “off duty” — in their civilian life, when they’re not begging. Remarkable.

What a racket, generation after generation. When will it end? Ever?

‐A beautiful young woman — the kind they specialize in, here in Norway — tries to give me a copy of Klassekampen. The Communist newspaper (whatever they’re calling themselves these days). (Their name means “Class Struggle.”) I think, “What’s a nice girl like you doing involved with the Communists?”

‐I see a sign for a business establishment: “XXL.” At first, I think the place is a porn palace. Then I think, “No, it must be a clothing store for very big people.” But the windows suggest neither kind of establishment.


‐As I have done countless times before — over the past many years — I walk into the Grand Hotel. Hang on, I’ve made a mistake: It’s not the Grand. I walk back out onto the sidewalk. How could I have missed the entrance? I’m out of practice. But, to tell you the truth, the doors look familiar. I walk back through them.

It is the Grand Hotel. Completely redone. It used to be … well, a grand hotel. True to its name. A grand, traditional Continental hotel, built in the 1870s. But now the lobby is glitzy, mod. Trump-like, Vegas. I also think of Miami Beach. There is cool-cat music playing. The new lobby — the entire ambience — strikes me as utterly incongruous. Incongruous with Oslo, or at least its center. Incongruous with everything.

But it’s none of my business. It’s not like I own the place. And I’m glad to be here …

‐It is especially gladdening to interview Rosa María Payá — for a podcast. She is a democracy leader in Cuba, and throughout Latin America. Her father was a great Cuban democracy leader: Oswaldo Payá. The Castro dictatorship killed him in 2012. She, bravely, is carrying on his work.

She is a lovely young woman, wearing a cross. She is soft, feminine, poised, and sweet-voiced — but intense, and obviously determined. Rosa María is extraordinarily compelling.

To hear her — to hear this interview, or podcast — go here.

‐I also do a podcast with Omar Sharif. Omar Sharif Jr. He is a grandson of the late actor. He’s an actor himself. He is also a model and a gay-rights activist. A few years ago, he came out as gay. And half-Jewish, to boot. “Big deal,” you might say. “Who isn’t gay and/or half-Jewish?”

Ah, but for Omar Sharif Jr. it was a very big deal. He is Egyptian. His grandfather was one of the biggest stars in the whole Arab world, and so was his grandmother (Faten Hamama). He was a favorite son of Egypt — a Kennedy, if you will.

And then he made his revelations. And finds it imprudent, to say the least, to return to Egypt. Omar did a very, very gutty thing.

To hear that podcast, go here.


‐Among the attendees at the Oslo Freedom Forum is Martín Guevara. Any relation? Oh, yes: nephew. Nephew of the famous, infamous, murderous T-shirt man. He has written a book, Shadow of a Myth: The Story of Che’s Nephew in Cuba.

‐I meet a man from the Middle East. Charming fellow. Equally charming wife. Let me tell you a story. A true story. You may have a good imagination. But can you imagine this?

You are from a family well established in the country. A business family. A family long helpful to the government. You are a patriotic citizen.

Then your wife, a doctor, treats people wounded in democracy protests. One night, while you are sleeping, 40 masked men enter your house. They pull your wife out of bed. Then they “disappear” her for three weeks.

You don’t hear anything about her. You can’t find her. You call relatives, everyone you know. They’re all afraid. They say, “We can’t help you. We know nothing.” They are in denial about the character of their government. “Maybe it was this foreign government who did this, abducting her and taking her to their land.”

Meanwhile, your wife is being tortured. At one point, a torturer’s mask slips. He is literally wearing a mask, and it literally slips. Your wife recognizes the man: He was a patient of hers once. She helped him get well.

Can you imagine this? Can you imagine being in the husband’s shoes? (To say nothing of hers!) It’s hard.

After this experience, the woman did not slink away to curl up and die. “I was a butterfly. They turned me into a dragon.”

Thank you for joining me today, ladies and gentlemen, and I’ll see you tomorrow for Part II.

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