Speaking Out: An Oslo Journal, Part I

Nury A. Turkel, a Uyghur-American attorney and a spokesman for the Uyghur cause, at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May 2019
Notes on a freedom gathering and the Norwegian capital

Readers of my Oslo journals over the years are accustomed to certain observations — yearly, quasi-ritualistic ones.

Man, are there a lot of blonds on the plane from New York to Oslo. Not dyed ones either (although they are present too).

Man, does the Oslo airport have wood — miles and miles of beautiful wood. That’s a nice touch in an airport, or anywhere.

Man, are the urinals high. No, really, they are. And the Norwegians are not particularly tall, in my observation. Still, they like the kind of urinals that might be appropriate in an NBA locker-room.

This year, I notice something else about the urinals (maybe I’m looking too hard?): They are made by Villeroy & Boch. “The same people who made my wedding china,” I think. Pretty classy, to whizz into V&B. But a little disturbing, or awkward, too.

I mean, I eat off this stuff.

• Have you had enough of the light observations? Are you itching to get to the tyranny and torture? Don’t worry …

• They are an advanced people, the Norwegians. Technologically, not least. You don’t buy a train ticket, or at least I don’t. You swipe your credit card at a turnstile. And then — well, you just go. To whatever stop.


• Back to toilets (did you miss them?). In some places around Oslo, there are pay toilets. It would be good to have a coin on you — just the right coin. But say you are new in town, and have only foreign currency and credit cards. What then? Rob someone? Pick a pocket?

No, you can just swipe your credit card. No amount is too small.

• Out near the National Theater, in the center of town, music is playing. The performers are a pan flutist and a steel drummer. Their music is “Dancing Queen,” by ABBA (who are Swedish, but close enough).

Don’t you wish you had the royalties to “Dancing Queen”? Even if the pan flutist and the steel drummer aren’t paying?

• When in Norway — or indeed, in Scandinavia — you are struck by the sheer orderliness of the place. There is something calming, or reassuring, about it. I’m tempted to use the word “centering.” An absence of chaos can be nice. There is enough inward trouble to deal with in life, without having to cope too much with the outward.

I could spell this out, but you probably get what I’m saying, and I am zipping through …

• As always, I am grateful to have been born into the lingua franca of the world. We Americans, or other Anglophones, are Romans in the Roman Empire. This does not keep us from learning other languages if we want — even as the Romans did (especially when not in Rome?).

• I have my ritualistic meal at Rorbua, alongside Oslo Fjord. It is a Norwegian restaurant — I mean “Norwegian” as in whale, reindeer, and other such fare. Have a look at this platter. The smoked whale is at top left.

And this dessert? Classically Norwegian, or Scandinavian, almost comically so, especially at this time of year. Fresh and delicious.

• Enough food porn — back to bathrooms. At Rorbua, there is one bathroom, fairly large. Four stalls: two marked “Women” (in Norwegian), two marked “Men.” Common sinks, etc.

I don’t like it. This suggests I am a dinosaur, but who didn’t know that?

• Bonil is a regular guest at the Oslo Freedom Forum. OFF, as you know, is the annual human-rights gathering here in the Norwegian capital. Bonil, as you may remember, is the nickname of Xavier Bonilla, the Ecuadorean cartoonist (and dissident, really). He is a very brave guy — but he covers his bravery with humor and modesty. Bonil has ample charm.

I tell him, “You disguise your bravery with jokes, but I can still see it, and so can others.” He tells me something interesting: “When a saint is in trouble, he says, ‘Oh, my God!’ When I am in trouble, I say, ‘Oh, my humor!’” That is how he handles it.

• You remember that the Burmese government is ravaging the Rohingyas, an ethnic and religious minority. I’ve written about this case many times. (For an overview, go here.) Others — real experts on the case — have written a lot more. Esther Htusan is one such expert. (You pronounce her last name TOO-sahn, like the city in Arizona.) A Burmese reporter, she was part of the Associated Press team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016. After threats, she had to leave her country.

I have done a Q&A podcast with her, here. A delightful, capable woman, who has gone through much, unsought by her.

• Nury Turkel is a headliner at the Forum — though “headliner” is too Vegas a word for such a person, and for the situation at hand. Nury is a Uyghur American, an attorney in Washington. I did a Q&A with him a year ago, here. I wrote about the Uyghurs — rounded up and terrorized by the Chinese government — here.

Onstage in Oslo, Nury delivers the following point: The world knows what is happening to the Uyghurs. No one can plead ignorance. The problem is not lack of awareness or lack of information. The problem is lack of action.

Well, what can outsiders do, given the immense power of the Chinese state?

For one thing, we can demand that the state release the Uyghurs — or forfeit the Winter Olympic Games in 2022, which are scheduled for Beijing.

We can decline to invest in China. We can sic Magnitsky acts on them. We can sound alarms. We, the outside world, are not helpless.

You know that Niemöller statement that we’re all tired of, or mock? First they came for the dah-dah-dah, and I did not speak out, because I was not a dah-dah-dah? Nury Turkel quotes this statement — and it has new life, new freshness, to my ears.

The word “Rohingya” and the word “Uyghur” may be weird to many people around the world. But they should really be as familiar as our own names.

Nury tells the audience, “If my parents die,” back in Xinjiang Province, or East Turkestan, “will I even know it?”

• Readers, and listeners, will remember Felix Maradiaga — he is a Nicaraguan refugee and human-rights defender. I did a Q&A with him here, and a piece on the Nicaraguan situation here.

What’s the “situation”? A horrific crackdown, by Daniel Ortega, the jefe. (He was in power when I was in junior high, which was not yesterday. After a blessed hiatus, he came back.)

Here in Oslo, Felix is giving a talk, laying out the basics. He also has pictures, which are terrible to behold: people mauled by government forces. I look away, but at least my head isn’t in the sand, if you know what I mean.

• Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, now out of the country. They don’t like her much. By “they,” I mean the Iranian dictatorship and its supporters. There are many such supporters, and not only in Iran.

Masih tells us that she was “attacked by a pro-regime guy in London,” who called her an “ugly woman” and said she was ruining the image of Iran. No, Masih replied. “I’m ruining the image of our oppressors.”

They have called her a “whore,” a “prostitute,” an “ugly duckling.” As Masih says, “They don’t know how the story of the ugly duckling turns out!” She does not think you should have to wear a hijab. She is all too much for the regime — the way she puts it is, “Too much hair, too much voice, too much of a woman.”

Bless her.

• In Hong Kong, and beyond, Denise Ho is a celebrity: a singer. I have not heard of her until now, but then, I have not heard of a lot of American celebrities. I was in my late twenties, I think, when I started not to recognize people on the cover of People magazine …

As a celebrity, Denise was counseled to stay neutral. To stay out of politics. But the Umbrella Movement pushed her into the fray, as I understand it. This is the democracy movement in Hong Kong that got its name when government forces responded to demonstrators with tear gas: Demonstrators used umbrellas to shield themselves from it.

Many participants in this movement have been imprisoned. I have been writing about them from time to time.

When the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to the Chinese Communist Party in 1997, the CCP promised “one country, two systems.” That was always a crock. Yet maybe the following is true: The more Hong Kongers protest, the looser the noose will remain, for longer.

Will the noose eventually choke Hong Kong and its people altogether? That seems sure, as long as the CCP remains in power. That’s what they do.

• Let’s end on something lightish. Back to food? Sure. If I opened up a vegan restaurant, it might well be called this:

• Isn’t this an attractive façade, here in Oslo?

That’s the national mapping agency, as I understand it.

• I have a little Slovenian intel for you. I ask a friend, “What do they think of Melania? Are they proud? Is she a big deal? The American First Lady from Slovenia?” My friend says, “The Slovenians aren’t too pleased with people who go away and make a success, of whatever kind.” That is terribly human, I think — and sucky.

• One more photo, before I say, “Thank you, and see you for Part II”? Okay. Here’s Sonja Henie, fresh as a daisy, as always:


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