Jul 262021

Have you noticed that some countries are simply unbearably smug? Take the United Arab Emirates, for instance, that have the gall to do exactly as they please, because they are rich. They don’t even pretend to care about such trifles as “freedom of expression”, for instance, because nobody will presume to castigate a country that is home to a futuristic paradise for the rich (Dubai). Nobody interferes, nobody even lifts a finger, although the emirates have, de facto, occupied Socotra, which is formally part of Jemen. And as for the press …. Have you even heard of Socotra?

By contrast, Norway’s complacency is too subtly disguised to attract much negative attention, but what lies behind the country’s cleverly manicured self-promotion?

It is true, you don’t often hear of people getting arrested in Norway for publicly making rude comments about the King or Prime Minister. But then again, people rarely do (publicly make rude comments, that is), because Norwegians don’t seem prone to get seriously angry. Are they too well-fed, too busy watching Netflix?

Norway claims to be committed to defending human rights all over the world, but has important arms industry or, as the Government terms the exported goods, “defence-related products”. A 2020 press release gives a favourable impression. But does it present the full picture?

In 2018, it became clear that Norway had been selling arms to the UAE, despite “concerns they could be used in the war in Yemen“. Note Reuters’ courtesy in the choice of the term “concerns”, although every informed adult knew perfectly well that the goods were certainly being used in Jemen. Of course, the Government was disconcerted over even the remotest possibility of such misuse of innocently exported goods, and immediately prohibited all export of arms to the Arabian Peninsula.

Yet, just a couple of weeks ago, there was a new “shocking” disclosure of arms sales to the UAE. Again, the Government promptly prohibited export of arms to the Arabian Peninsula. Nobody seemed to remember that they already had done so back in 2018.

Norway claims to be committed to reversing climate change, and if you run a search on the web for “Norway + climate”, sure enough, you will find plenty of results with the key words “climate fund” and “… invests in green energy” – all bollocks, of course, because, Norway has not even started to reduce its CO2 emissions and continues to peg its future to hydrocarbons. Mind you, the country also invests heavily in “promotion”, “public relations” and image building, so the truth of its carbon footprint is not immediately evident.

You may not know, for instance, that the state-owned company Equinor has, since 2007,

…. invested around 40 billion USD in the USA, mainly in offshore and onshore oil and gas exploration and production. Through a series of acquisitions, totalling over 10 billion USD, Equinor built a substantial business in US shale gas and oil, or so called “unconventionals”.

Equinor report 09.10.2020

You won’t find many articles calling into question Norway’s commitment to the “forces of good”. I believe Norway, like the UAE, is so rich that it can pay to have the world look the other way when it behaves badly. It pays liberally for reconstruction of Gaza every time Israel bombs Gaza back to the Stone Age and kills a sizeable proportion of the Gazan population. At the same time, Norway is one of the few nations that never condemns Israel’s concerted efforts to exterminate Palestinians. Norway is best-friends with everybody. Norway can pay and Norwegians sleep well: They have Netflix, plenty of space and social security.

Not everybody living in Norway is Norwegian, however. The country reluctantly admits a trickle of political refugees, though every attempt has been made over the past decades to curtail immigration. An acquaintance of mine ended up in Norway after 9/11 1973. That’s right: 9/11 nineteen seventy three. When he was arrested in his home country during the US-assisted dictatorship there, many of his friends and contacts had already been tortured and/or killed. Thanks to a prisoner exchange program, he was exported to Europe, and he has lived and worked in Norway, and paid taxes to Norway for over 50 years. 50 years! He was granted permanent residency in Norway soon after his arrival, but has nevertheless since had to apply to the police every two years to have his ID card renewed. Every time, he has to go through a humiliating application process on the internet, answering all sorts of intrusive questions such has “how many days have you spent abroad over the past two years.” Now, with Covid, he has been informed that he will have to to wait for several months before he receives a valid ID card. After 50 years!

Norwegians love travelling. They might go shopping in London, spend a weekend or two on a beach in Spain, enjoy a safari in Africa, meet friends at a bar in Copenhagen, all in a single year, without a second thought. But my acquaintance must record each and every entry to and departure from the country. And now, without an ID card, he cannot travel at all. After 50 years!

Last year, the authorities finally allowed people to apply for naturalisation without relinquishing their original citizenship, so he spent a few hours filling out the forms on the Internet, clicking “Next” and “Next and “Next” each time he reached the bottom of a screen. The last screen he reached contained only one word: PAY. The fee, he learnt, was NOK 5500, (USD 642.22 or EUR 540). After 50 years!

That’s a lot of money. Maybe not for you, but for many people, yes, it is an insurmountable amount, certainly for immigrants. Even Norwegians would scream if asked to pay such an amount for anything other than a weekend at 5-star hotel.

Some countries are just simply indefensibly self-satisfied.

Jul 042021

During the period 1122–1133, Ari Froði (the Learned) wrote Íslendingabók “the Book about Iceland”. This remarkable piece of scholarly literature was written in Icelandic, or Norse, if you will, although the writer was probably much more fluent in Latin, at least when writing. In those days, Latin was the language of choice for European scholars, of whom there were embarrassingly few, most of them clergymen.

Parenthetically, I should add that in Spain there were lots of scholars at the time, not least Arabs and Jews, and lots of linguists. In the thirteenth century, Spain was even lucky enough to have a king (Alfonso el Sabio 1221–1284 ) who understood the potential of the country’s wealth of learned subjects. Under his reign, tomes and tomes of invaluable scientific literature from all over the world were translated into the vernacular and Latin. Had it not been for this tremendous effort to translate as much as possible of all available knowledge, goodness knows how long Europe would have continued to languish in darkness.

So, during Europe’s Dark Ages, a light shone in the South, in Spain, and in the far North, in Iceland. In the rest of Europe, almost nobody could read or write, and even the Bible was just abra-cadabra for almost everybody.

Ari Froði writes in the “Book about Iceland” that all of the island’s farmsteads date from the first 60 years after the initial settlers arrived in (according to Ari himself) 870. Each and every one of the settlers who reached Iceland’s shores during those first years, is accounted for in another truly iconic historic document, it too in the vernacular, Landnámabók, presumably also written during the first part of the 12th century; author unknown. Of course, the settlers must have had slaves, livestock, wives and children, though there is no mention of livestock, and only occasional mention of wives and children. (An infinitesimal proportion of the settlers were, actually, women!)

Landnámabók sometimes mentions slaves (mostly Irish), either because they were particularly deserving, or because they betrayed their masters, and in some cases, we learn how many slaves a settler brought. Please note that these slaves had been captured or ensnared, as wild animals are captured or ensnared, during their owners’ raids on the British Isles. In other words, the brave and supremely enduring settlers were, in most cases, the same brutes who killed left, right and centre, on their jaunts through Europe.

Yet, having reached Iceland, they almost all demonstrated extraordinary courtesy, asking previously arrived settlers for permission to go ashore. Iceland appears to have been, until about 1262, an anarchist’s wet dream. People (mostly men) occupied large tracts of an otherwise vacant island, respecting the rights of both prior and subsequent arrivals until the island was “fully settled”.

In other words, they were all miraculously governed by a system of common consent which soon evolved into a body of laws recited once a year at Thingvellir. “He who recites the laws” was elected at regular intervals from among the country’s wisest men. There was no army, no police, no king, no president.

What’s more, we must assume that many of them could read; otherwise, why would Ari the Learned have written his book in Icelandic? Not only that: many of them could write! They wrote the most wonderful stories, lots and lots of them, the Sagas.

They had their feuds, true; they sometimes killed a man or two and were driven from the land, as a result, but by and large, they took pride in doing the honourable thing, whatever that was, and were extremely civilised.

WHY? How come bloodthirsty bandits turned a country into a lighthouse on a dark and gloomy continent? I have a theory about that: Of course they had common sense, and common sense told them that unless they were able to cooperate, they wouldn’t survive.

Almost equally important, though, was their concept of honour (sæmd). They knew their actions were being recorded and would go down in history. They assumed that not only their offspring, but whole generations, followed by generation after generation, would know the name not only of every hero but also of every bastard that had ever lived on the island. They behaved well in the hope of immortalising their honour.

Alas, common sense is not our strongest suit. A human being will only be guided by common sense up to a certain point. The same sense of honour that prevented Golden Age Icelanders from misbehaving, would drive them to exterminate one another in a series of skirmishes, including an utterly ludicrous naval battle, during the first half of the 13th century (described in Islendingasaga by Sturla Þórðarson, written early in the 14th century.) Rather than live sensible lives, they died ludicrously honourable deaths.

The chieftain Kolbeinn Tumason allegedly offered up his prayer “Heyr himna smiður” the night before his ludicrously honourable death in 1208. The translation is literal and does not convey the musical beauty of the verse. (Source: Wikipedia as at 4/7/2021)

Hear, smith of the heavens,
what the poet asks.
May softly come unto me
thy mercy.
So I call on thee,
for thou hast created me.
I am thy slave,
thou art my Lord.

In the course of the following three centuries, Iceland would turn into a depressing blot on European maps. For hundreds of years, the godforsaken island would be inhabited by near-starving bedraggled primitives. WHY? How come these eminently civilised farmers in the far north lost everything?

For the same reason that those of us who live in wealthy countries in the twenty second century are soon going to lose everything: Common sense, I repeat, is not our strongest suit.

The nice part of this story is that even after Iceland was virtually wiped off the map, its people’s sagas would live on, translated into many languages. To this day, then, readers all over the world can enjoy compelling tales about how Icelanders dealt with greedy bastards. No doubt, in time to come, future generations will read about our scuffles with the greedy bastards who will have turned our beautiful planet into a wasteland and our young democracies into neo-liberal fiefdoms.