Different Song And Dance

by Frank Kane

The National

March 13 2012

Normally at this time of year, I’m anticipating the finale of the
European football season, the racing at the Dubai World Cup and
at Cheltenham in England, as well as the other delights of spring
in Dubai.

The Eurovision Song Contest has been the furthest thing from my mind.

All that boombangabang nonsense, pink tutus (for the men) and
heavy-metal Gothic (for the women) has traditionally left me cold.

I usually arrange a night going through the balance sheets of the
GCC’s insurance companies when the Eurovision final is broadcast.

This year, it’s all different. May 26, the date of the final, has been
pencilled in with red felt-tip on my calendar, and the countdown in
the Kane household has excitedly begun.

The reason is that the “contest” is being held in Baku, Azerbaijan,
my wife’s hometown, and for Azeris it has assumed the proportion of
Olympics, World Cup and Nobel Prize rolled into one.

Azerbaijan’s successes on the international stage are, ahem,
infrequent. There have been medals in Olympic wrestling, and excellence
at chess, in both pre and post-Soviet days.

But the truer measure of the country’s renown in international sport
and entertainment is the fact that its best known “sportsman” of
recent years is Tofik Bahramov.

He was the linesman who in 1966 helped England win the Fifa World
Cup by allowing a controversial goal in the final against West Germany.

Stadiums are named after him, statues erected in his honour, postage
stamps bear his image.

When that is your yardstick, you can see why Eurovision is so important
to Azeris.

I was in Baku a couple of years ago when they came third in the
competition, and it was bedlam on the boulevard by the Caspian; at
home in Dubai last year, when Ell and Nikki won it for the Azeris,
the scenes of sobbing delirium among Azeri friends had to be seen to
be believed.

Much like the way a young child looks forward to Christmas, staging
it this year is a big thing for them, a big opportunity to showcase
Azerbaijan on the world stage, and demonstrate the progress and
modernity its oil wealth has brought. So you can equally expect
somebody to come along, Grinch-like, and try to spoil it.

“It’s the Armenians, they are jealous,” is my wife’s intuitive
reaction to the news that some Eurovision countries are considering
a Baku boycott over concerns about human right abuses in the country.

There were rumblings of discontent by organisations such as Human
Rights Watch and Amnesty International over allegations the Baku
authorities were pulling down people’s houses to make way for the
“Crystal Hall” where the final will be held, and further criticism
over Baku’s practice of locking up journalists for the slightest
criticism of the government of Ilham Aliyev, the president.

But it has reached a crescendo since Armenia decided not to participate
in the event at all, on the grounds of security.

Here is not the place for a detailed narrative of the poisoned
relationship between the two Caucasus neighbours.

“Intractable” is far too mild a word to describe the visceral fear
and loathing each bears for the other.

Armenia’s decision to pull out resulted from the fear that their
singers and supporters wouldn’t be safe on the streets of Baku.

I reckon they made a fair call.

But the protest has since swelled calls by some for a Eurovision-wide

Campaigners in Iceland, France, Holland and Ireland are calling for
Baku to be blacklisted.

Despite my family connections, I am not especially defending Azerbaijan

It has all the problems of the post-Soviet world, stretching from
Uzbekistan to Poland, of corruption, bureaucracy, lack of freedom of
expression and absence of basic democracy.

But take a look at the countries that have hosted Eurovision over the
years, and you will see such beacons of liberty as Russia, Ukraine
and Serbia.

Israel hosted it twice.

The geopolitical tensions over Eurovision have made it compulsive
viewing this year, and I’ll be glued to the box that night … unless
I get to the Crystal Hall for the real thing.


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