Tooji ready for action at Eurovision

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Norway’s entry at the annual Eurovision Song Contest was hoping to make both the finals and a difference during the annual, much-hyped event that’s playing out in Azerbaijan this week. In addition to rehearsing, the young man known as “Tooji” has visited an asylum center in Baku, sported a “Free Iran” arm band and been ready to speak out in favour of human rights, freedom and democracy.

Touraj "Tooji" Keshtkar, who grew up in Norway, has been experiencing what he called the Eurovision "circus" in Azerbaijan all week. PHOTO: EBU/Thomas Hanses

“This (Azerbaijan) isn’t just any normal country,” Touraj “Tooji” Keshtkar told newspaper Aftenposten before arriving in its capital Baku last week. “I have to think that I’m there to represent Norway musically, not politically. At the same time, I know what I’m like, and that it can be difficult to keep quiet.

“When my own parents have been political refugees (from Iran) and put their lives at risk to believe what they believe, it would be wrong to stay quiet about something so fundamental as human rights.”

Tooji, who will turn 25 on Saturday when the Eurovision finals take place, was only a year old when his family arrived in Norway from Iran to seek asylum. His parents had criticized the Iranian regime and felt they had to flee the country, so Tooji grew up in Norway. He firmly believes that democracy, equality and freedom “aren’t politics, they’re fundamental human values and needs. I can’t see for myself a society that’s not built on these values. I also believe I have a right to say what I think.”

Now, a week later, he’s ventured outside the confines of the flashy Eurovision world, met refugees and seen what he calls “the other side” of Baku. Both he and others in the Norwegian delegation were briefed by Norway’s foreign ministry and a former ambassador to Azerbaijan, and most agree they’ve been allowed freedom of movement and haven’t been harassed by local authorities. Even some local human rights activists in Baku think Eurovision has helped the situation in Azerbaijan as authorities have had to accept, even welcomed, an international media glare and made efforts to present Azerbaijan in the best possible light as hundreds of foreign journalists wander around.

The winner of Norway's own Eurovision preliminary, Melodi Grand Prix, was hoping to advance from Thursday's semi-final to Saturday's final, which also falls on his 25th birthday. PHOTO: EBU/Thomas Hanses

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was criticized earlier this year for initially failing to point out the restrictions on human rights in Azerbaijan. Several leading Norwegian human rights organizations also warned Norway’s Eurovision delegation against being a mouthpiece for the regime in Azerbaijan, and both NRK and other Norwegian media have since made efforts to report on the politics and repression that goes on in the country. Norway’s state oil company Statoil has major interests in the country, and that’s been criticized as well.

Berit Lindeman of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a major advocate of human rights, was keen to point out this week that Tooji himself shouldn’t feel any major responsibility to lead the struggle for improved human rights in Azerbaijan. While Lindeman was among NRK’s critics  earlier this years, she told NRK this week that Tooji should be free to concentrate on his music and his performance and enjoy the Eurovision experience, instead of being burdened by political issues.

He has been singing and dancing up a storm and was among the favorites in Thursday night’s semi-final to make it into the finals on Saturday. He’s been dubbed “Norway’s Persian Prince” on Eurovision’s official website produced in Baku, with his song Stay called “infectious Persian-inspired pop … jointly written by the man himself.”

The song and Tooji’s energetic performance won him Norway’s own Eurovision preliminaries, called Melodi Grand Prix. He was an unlikely candidate, since he’d never sung professionally on a stage before the run-up to Eurovision began. He still works full time for Norway’s child welfare agency Barnevernet and earlier has done modelling. He claims his top priority remains working with children, especially refugee children.

Tooji was scheduled to perform fairly late in Thursday’s second semi-final, in the 16th spot among 18 countries competing. Norway’s biggest Eurovision winner ever from 2009, Alexander Rybak, was also due to perform during Thursday’s competition. Rybak won by the biggest margin in the history of Eurovision with his song Fairytale, and was expected to play it again. NRK1 was carrying the action live from Baku, starting at 9pm.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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