• Mideast Peace Play a Trump-Era Sensation

    When Donald Trump became president, he touted his plans to make many previously unthinkable deals—including the most elusive one of all, between Israel and the Palestinians. “There’s no reason there’s not peace between” them, he insisted this spring. “None whatsoever.”

    A few months later, the deal looks more predictably distant, and these days White House officials resort to anonymity to speak of “productive” meetings and plans to “continue our steady engagement.” Few of those who closely follow the issue think peace—or even a serious new round of negotiations—is at hand.

    Which may help explain why Oslo, a three-hour, serious-minded play about a few months back in 1993 when Middle East peace finally seemed to be within reach, is the unlikely Broadway hit of 2017, a critical success that just won this year’s Tony Award for best play and is soon to be made into a movie. Call it wish fulfillment, or a belated recognition of what could have been—especially at a moment when the Oslo dream of a permanent two-state solution is, if not dead, at best on permanent life support.

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  • My Mosul photos for free

    My name is Kainoa Little, and I am a Shoreline, Washington-based conflict photographer. I was in Mosul in April and May 2017, documenting Iraqi forces as they fought Islamic State militants to liberate the city.

    I tried and failed to find newspapers and wire services who would purchase my photos. But the soldiers had fed me and given me a seat in their Humvees, and the refugees had tolerated my presence on some of the worst days of their lives. They very rightly expected that I would tell their story.

    The worst uncertainty for me as a freelancer in conflict isn’t that I won’t be able to pay my rent; it’s that no one will see the story, and then I will have failed to give a voice to the voiceless. So I have tried to share them where I can, and hopefully people can imagine some of the human tragedy and triumph playing out in Mosul.

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  • Turkey’s indigenous culture fears extinction

    A legal battle over the ownership of dozens of churches, monasteries and other property in southeastern Turkey has embroiled one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

    Turkish authorities have seized approximately 50 properties, totaling hundreds of thousands of square meters, from the Syriac Orthodox Church on grounds their ownership deeds had lapsed, church and community leaders said.

    An appeal by the fifth-century Mor Gabriel, one of the oldest working monasteries in the world, against the confiscation was rejected in May by a government commission charged with liquidating the assets.

    Among the properties are at least two functioning monasteries erected 1,500 years ago, said Kuryakos Ergun, the chairman of the Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation. The loss of these monuments threaten the survival of one of Turkey’s oldest indigenous cultures.

    “Our churches and monasteries are what root Syriacs in these lands; our existence relies on them. They are our history and what sustains our culture,” Ergun said. “While the country should be protecting this heritage, we instead see our culture is at risk.”

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  • The Arab World’s Coming Challenges

    Fifty years after the Six Days War, the Middle East remains a region in seemingly perpetual crisis. So it is no surprise that, when addressing the region, politicians, diplomats, and the donor and humanitarian community typically focus on the here and now. Yet, if we are ever to break the modern Middle East’s cycle of crises, we must not lose sight of the future. And, already, four trends are brewing a new set of problems for the coming decade.

    The first trend affects the Levant. The post-Ottoman order that emerged a century ago – an order based on secular Arab nationalism – has already crumbled. The two states that gave weight to this system, Iraq and Syria, have lost their central authority, and will remain politically fragmented and socially polarized for at least a generation.

    In Lebanon, sectarianism remains the defining characteristic of politics. Jordan has reached its refugee-saturation point, and continued inflows are placing limited resources under ever-greater pressure. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no new initiative or circumstance on the political horizon that could break the deadlock.

    The Middle East is certain to face the continued movement of large numbers of people, first to the region’s calmer areas and, in many cases, beyond – primarily to Europe. The region is also likely to face intensifying contests over national identities as well, and perhaps even the redrawing of borders – processes that will trigger further confrontations.

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  • Who are the new jihadists?

    There is something new about the jihadi terrorist violence of the past two decades. Both terrorism and jihad have existed for many years, and forms of “globalised” terror – in which highly symbolic locations or innocent civilians are targeted, with no regard for national borders – go back at least as far as the anarchist movement of the late 19th century. What is unprecedented is the way that terrorists now deliberately pursue their own deaths.

    Over the past 20 years – from Khaled Kelkal, a leader of a plot to bomb Paris trains in 1995, to the Bataclan killers of 2015 – nearly every terrorist in France blew themselves up or got themselves killed by the police. Mohamed Merah, who killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, uttered a variant of a famous statement attributed to Osama bin Laden and routinely used by other jihadis: “We love death as you love life.” Now, the terrorist’s death is no longer just a possibility or an unfortunate consequence of his actions; it is a central part of his plan. The same fascination with death is found among the jihadis who join Islamic State. Suicide attacks are perceived as the ultimate goal of their engagement.

    This systematic choice of death is a recent development. The perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France in the 1970s and 1980s, whether or not they had any connection with the Middle East, carefully planned their escapes. Muslim tradition, while it recognises the merits of the martyr who dies in combat, does not prize those who strike out in pursuit of their own deaths, because doing so interferes with God’s will. So, why, for the past 20 years, have terrorists regularly chosen to die? What does it say about contemporary Islamic radicalism? And what does it say about our societies today?

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  • Al-Aswany: “Revolution, a human change”

    Those 18 days were the most beautiful days of my life,” Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany says of the January 2011 demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that swept his country into revolution, and forced dictator-president Hosni Mubarak to resign at the extraordinary, euphoric high point of the Arab spring.

    “When you live through such a big event, you are not able – or I am not able – to write a novel about it directly. You should have a distance. I have this distance now and I’m writing a novel about the revolution,” Aswany says in his deep-voiced, accented English, as we talk over glasses of hot chocolate in a cafe on Edgware Road, London.

    At first glance, his new novel – a belated arrival in its English translation, having been published in Egypt three years ago – looks like something quite different: a retreat, perhaps, from the maelstrom of Egypt’s present. Set in the 1940s, The Automobile Club of Egypt is a Middle Eastern upstairs-downstairs tale of servants and masters, Egyptians and colonials, decadent royals and family life.

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  • My Shattered Istanbul

    I’ve been told Istanbul is best at the winter, when a light snow coats its rooftops and skinny minarets reach into a dark sky, when the cobblestones are wet and the tourists are few. I do not know that place. Istanbul to me is a hot, relentless chaos that smells of salt and sour bread and fumes. Any possibility of a cold lingering fog over the strait dissolves under the loud summer sky; I cannot imagine it.

    I come here every summer. Upon landing at Ataturk Airport, after bullying my way through customs, baggage claim, and the general anarchy that is Turkish travel, I am always greeted by the innocence of June or the blanket heat of July, and then by a taxi driver.

    He’ll weave through the traffic in a way that inspires a futile desire for a seatbelt. He’ll use the exit lane and shrug that it really is just faster. He’ll ask where I’ve come from and why, if my mother is Turkish, she lives in the U.S. He’ll assume my father is American and he’ll be right. He’ll tell me then about his family of taxi drivers and the twenty-six-year-old son he lost to a car accident last month. He’ll show me his son’s photograph on a cracked mobile, rendering me a mumbling fool. He’ll shed a rogue tear. Then he’ll drive me in fits through the choked and tangled backstreets off the freeway, down through Besiktas on its main thoroughfare, left and past the old palace, and onto the winding road that borders that wide, historic strait, the Bosphorus.

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  • The trauma of facing deportation

    Georgi, a Russian refugee who came to Sweden with his family when he was five years old, could talk at length about the virtues of the Volvo. His doctor described him as “the most ‘Swedeified’ in his family.” He was also one of the most popular boys in his class. For his thirteenth birthday, two friends listed some of the qualities that he evoked: energetic, fun, happy all the time, good human being, amazingly kind, awesome at soccer, sly.

    Georgi’s father, Soslan, had helped found a pacifist religious sect in North Ossetia, a Russian province that borders Georgia. Soslan said that in 2007 security forces demanded that he disband the sect, which rejected the entanglement of the Russian Orthodox Church with the state, and threatened to kill him if he refused. He fled to Sweden with his wife, Regina, and their two children, and applied for asylum, but his claim was denied, because the Swedish Migration Board said that he hadn’t proved that he would be persecuted if he returned to Russia.

    Sweden permits refugees to reapply for asylum, and in 2014, having lived in hiding in central Sweden for six years, the family tried again. They argued that there were now “particularly distressing circumstances,” a provision that allowed the board to consider how deportation will affect a child’s psychological health. “It would be devastating if Georgi were forced to leave his community, his friends, his school, and his life,” the headmaster of Georgi’s school, Rikard Floridan, wrote in a letter to the board. He described Georgi as “an example to all classmates,” a student who spoke in “mature and nuanced language” and showed a “deep gratitude for the school.”

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  • The journey of a trafficked girl

    It was close to midnight on the coast of Libya, a few miles west of Tripoli. At the water’s edge, armed Libyan smugglers pumped air into thirty-foot rubber dinghies. Some three thousand refugees and migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, silent and barefoot, stood nearby in rows of ten. Oil platforms glowed in the Mediterranean.

    The Libyans ordered male migrants to carry the inflated boats into the water, thirty on each side. They waded in and held the boats steady as a smuggler directed other migrants to board, packing them as tightly as possible. People in the center would suffer chemical burns if the fuel leaked and mixed with water. Those straddling the sides could easily fall into the sea. Officially, at least five thousand and ninety-eight migrants died in the Mediterranean last year, but Libya’s coastline is more than a thousand miles long, and nobody knows how many boats sink without ever being seen. Several of the migrants had written phone numbers on their clothes, so that someone could call their families if their bodies washed ashore.

    The smugglers knelt in the sand and prayed, then stood up and ordered the migrants to push off. One pointed to the sky. “Look at this star!” he said. “Follow it.” Each boat left with only enough fuel to reach international waters.

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  • The Dirtbag Left’s Man in Syria

    Brace Belden can’t remember exactly when he decided to give up his life as a punk-rocker turned florist turned boxing-gym manager in San Francisco, buy a plane ticket to Iraq, sneak across the border into Syria, and take up arms against the Islamic State. But as with many major life decisions, Belden, who is 27 — “a true idiot’s age,” in his estimation — says it happened gradually and then all at once.

    For several years, Belden had been reading about Rojava, a large swath of northern Syria that had been carved out by a Kurdish political party and its military wing, the YPG (or People’s Protection Units), in the ruins of Syria’s civil war. The YPG had become one of the most effective bulwarks against ISIS, so much so that the Pentagon had offered support, and Western volunteers, many of them military veterans, had started enlisting. But Belden was less interested in the YPG’s battlefield victories than in what it was trying to build: a semi-autonomous region operating under a more or less socialist system. To Belden, who’d identified as a Marxist since he was a teenager, Rojava looked like Spain in 1936: Capitalism reigned supreme, and fascism was on the march, but here was an opportunity to halt the latter and foment revolution against the former. After several months of wondering whether he was truly prepared to kill for his political beliefs, and several more figuring out how to actually join a Kurdish militia, Belden told his girlfriend that he was going to Syria to do humanitarian work and got on a plane.

    When I first talked to Belden, in November, he had been in Syria for two months and was looking forward to his first shower in weeks. “Incredibly filthy right down to the bone,” he said via text message. It was Thanksgiving Day in America, but Belden wasn’t celebrating. His tabor, or platoon, had spent the past three weeks advancing on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, clearing villages of ISIS fighters along the way. They were resting in an abandoned grain silo near Ayn Issa, where a U.S. Navy officer had just been killed by an IED. “Part of me knew what I was getting into,” Belden said. “But when I got here, it sort of hit me: Oh, shit, I joined a Third World army that’s fighting ISIS.”

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  • Saga of a Cairo Novelist Imprisoned for Obscenity

    On a scorching Saturday morning in July, Ahmed Naji stood in the crowded cage of a Cairo courtroom. The 31-year-old author had been convicted six months earlier of “violating public morality” for publishing a piece of literature. In his novel, Using Life, an irreverent portrayal of youth culture on the cusp of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the protagonist performs cunnilingus, rolls hash joints and gulps from bottles of vodka. Censors had approved the book, which is also sometimes translated as The Use of Life, but when an excerpt appeared in Cairo’s premier literary review, Akhbar Al-Adab, an absurd series of events eventually led Naji to prison. Though he was released in December thanks to a high-powered team of Egyptian lawyers and campaigns from international arts communities, he lives in fear that anything he says or writes could land him back in Egypt’s most notorious prison. He described to Rolling Stone how self-censorship has entered into his considerations at the keyboard. “When you are writing, you are thinking… someone will read something or this could affect the case and so on,” says Naji. “It’s hard to move on and write.”

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  • Stories From Inside Solitary Confinement

    It is brutal. It is torture by definition. It destroys the mind, body, and soul, making rehabilitation next to impossible. It is also outrageously expensive, and it doesn’t work. Yet at the end of the Obama era, and the dawn of Trump’s, isolation is as widely used as ever in the American penal system. And this is what it feels like.

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  • Radio-Free Syria

    The overhead light in the blue Mazda 626 wasn’t working. Raed Fares, a Syrian activist whose video protests skewer ISIS and President Bashar al-Assad alike, reached up to fiddle with the light bulb before squeezing himself out of the driver’s side door. The street was in darkness. In the last few years, the Assad government cut most of the electricity (along with running water and mobile-phone service) to Kafranbel, the town in northwestern Syria where Fares lives. The only light came from an LED strip in his neighbor’s front doorway that was hooked up to a car battery. It was 12:45 a.m. on Jan. 29, 2014, and Fares, who often works until 4 a.m., had left the office early. As he fumbled to fit his key into the car’s lock, he heard the slap-slap of feed running toward him.

    Here they come, he thought.

    The feet stopped just in front of his car. The Czech pistol he usually carries was in his house, 15 feet away. In the watery glow of the light behind him, Fares could make out two ISIS soldiers. One, clad in a woolen mask, ammunition vest, windbreaker and unlaced boots, opened fire, spraying the car, the mud wall and Fares with bullets. Fares felt their heat seat through his canvas jacket and jean skirt and into the right side of his chest and shoulder. When he collapsed to the ground, a childhood nightmare returned: three black dogs, chasing him.

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  • Two Women, One Cause

    They make an unusual team. Amal Clooney is an Oxford-educated human-rights lawyer married to a film star. Nadia Murad was born in a poor Iraqi village and once aspired to become a teacher. Clooney is tall, dazzling and so recognisable that people walk up to her in the street and tell her they love her. Murad is small, shy and avoids eye contact. Yet among her people, the Yazidis, Murad is better known and more admired than any other woman on Earth. Murad is a symbol of survival for a minority threatened with extermination. She was once a slave of Islamic State (IS). And, almost alone among former prisoners of IS, she is willing to testify publicly and repeatedly about the terrible things the jihadists did to her.
    Clooney is Murad’s lawyer, and the two women are working to bring the leaders of IS before an international court for inflicting genocide on the Yazidis. The story of their campaign is an extraordinary one: a tale of pious savagery pitted against truth, law and the soft power of celebrity.
    It begins in August 2014, when Murad was a 21-year-old student. That month, IS fighters arrived in her village, Kocho, on the Nineveh plain. They were a terrifying mob, all of them heavily armed and many speaking languages that no one in Kocho understood.
    The jihadists saw Nadia and her neighbours as the worst sort of infidels. The Yazidi faith has no holy book, but draws on a mix of Mesopotamian traditions. Yazidis revere a peacock angel that temporarily fell from God’s grace; many Muslims regard this as devil-worship.

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  • The Muslim Brotherhood Today

    Islamist parties have been rocked by the dramatic political upheavals in the Arab world during the past five years. After a decade of patient political participation, outreach to the West, and careful positioning against al-Qaeda, several Islamist parties—all part of the broader Muslim Brotherhood movement—rapidly took over positions of political power in the wake of the 2010–2011 Arab uprisings. These parties won electoral victories in Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia, and they played key roles in Western-backed political coalitions in Syria and Yemen.

    However, these openings were just as quickly reversed. Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party stepped down from power in January 2014 in the midst of political turmoil, and Libya’s Islamists fared poorly when legislative elections were held in late June 2014. Most strikingly, the Egyptian military coup of July 3, 2013, overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who had been elected president in 2012, and triggered an intense crackdown against the organization across the region.

    These reversals not only undermined short-term political gains by Islamist political parties, but they also disrupted carefully cultivated gradualist political strategies, discredited long-held ideological and strategic convictions, and reshaped the terrain of Islamist politics. Prior to the Arab uprisings, most Islamist parties presented fairly stable and predictable political strategies, organizational structures, and ideological positions. Both the political openings of 2011 and the harsh reversals in subsequent years placed new demands on these movements. Hasty, erratic political maneuvering replaced cautious long-term political strategies as Islamists struggled to grasp new opportunities and respond to new threats. Today, most Islamist parties find themselves navigating in uncharted waters as they struggle with new forms of state repression, social polarization, organizational distress, regional rivalries, international hostility, and intra-Islamist competition.

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  • The children of Islamic State

    A couple of questions had taken me to that cold austere corner of war with its concrete, mesh and bars. The broken man seated before me had been a child recruit of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Under Islamic State he had grown old, though it seemed somehow as if the shadow of a boy still loitered somewhere in the room.

    “Did you ever, on any occasion before, during or after killing, have cause to regret or doubt your actions?” I wanted to ask him. “Did you ever have any suspicion that what you were doing might be wrong?”

    If I knew the answer to those questions, if I knew whether at some point – when as a teenager he had cut the heads from five prisoners who were lying face down, side by side, shoulder to shoulder – he had felt a sense of doubt or wrongdoing or remorse or regret, then perhaps I could better understand what might happen to the children of the caliphate the day Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s edifice finally crumbles to dust.

    Could they be somehow retrieved and rescued, or would they be for ever lost to the darkness of unquestioning, murderous intent?

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  • A Tale of Two Syrian Cities

    DAMASCUS and ALEPPO, Syria — In the upscale Damascene neighborhood of Mezze, Fadl al-Muhammad greeted customers enthusiastically. It was Nov. 7, the opening day of Yummy Falafel, his chic new restaurant, and glossy pictures of colorful spices and ripe carrots pulled from the earth covered the green walls. “Regardless of what you hear in the media, life has to continue,” the 43-year old management consultant said. “By opening this restaurant and two others, I’m trying to show that the crisis isn’t affecting us. That we are investing in our country.” 

    At the Tche Tche café just 200 miles north in Aleppo, work was far from Ali Shwahni’s thoughts. He and his friends were smoking water pipes in a gray, cloud-filled room with three television monitors screening a British soccer game no one was watching. Rebels seized his family-owned textile factory, which he has not seen in almost three years, leaving him unemployed. “Our family has suffered, just like everyone else’s,” the 30-year-old said.

    Regional rivalry among Syria’s four major cities has historically plagued the country, inhibiting the growth of a sense of national identity in the country. But it is the competition between Damascus and Aleppo, both of which have staked a claim to be Syria’s leading city, that has been most contentious. Though Damascus is the capital, Aleppo was Syria’s largest city before the war and its commercial hub. Before the Baath Party ended parliamentary democracy in 1963, each city had its own political party; rivalries between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Aleppo and Damascus factions, meanwhile, sparked an internecine conflict in the 1960s and 1970s that decimated the organization. According to a Catholic archbishop cited in U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, Damascus’s Sunnis even refused to accept the country’s most senior Muslim cleric because he hails from Aleppo.

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  • 4.1 Miles

    When I returned home to Greece last fall to make a film about the refugee crisis, I discovered a situation I had never imagined possible. The turquoise sea that surrounds the beautiful Greek island of Lesbos, just 4.1 miles from the Turkish coast, is these days a deadly gantlet, choked with terrified adults and small children on flimsy, dangerous boats. I had never seen people escaping war before, and neither had the island’s residents. I couldn’t believe there was no support for these families to safely escape whatever conflict had caused them to flee. The scene was haunting.

    Regardless of the hardship Greeks have endured from the financial crisis, for a long time my home country has by and large been a peaceful, safe and easy place to live. But now Greece is facing a new crisis, one that threatens to undo years of stability, as we struggle to absorb the thousands of desperate migrants who pour across our borders every day. A peak of nearly 5,0000 entered Greece each day last year, mainly fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.

    The Greek Coast Guard, especially when I was there, has been completely unprepared to deal with the constant flow of rescues necessary to save refugees from drowning as they attempt to cross to Europe from Turkey. When I was there filming, Lesbos had about 40 local coast guard officers, who before the refugee crisis generally spent their time conducting routine border patrols. Most didn’t have CPR training. Their vessels didn’t have thermal cameras or any equipment necessary for tremendous emergencies.

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  • The Chatbot Will See You Now

    In March of 2016, a twenty-seven-year-old Syrian refugee named Rakan Ghebar began discussing his mental health with a counsellor. Ghebar, who has lived in Beirut since 2014, lost a number of family members to the civil war in Syria and struggles with persistent nervous anxiety. Before he fled his native country, he studied English literature at Damascus University; now, in Lebanon, he works as the vice-principal at a school for displaced Syrian children, many of whom suffer from the same difficulties as he does. When Ghebar asked the counsellor for advice, he was told to try to focus intently on the present. By devoting all of his energy to whatever he was doing, the counsellor said, no matter how trivial, he could learn to direct his attention away from his fears and worries. Although Ghebar sometimes found the instruction hard to follow, it helped him, and he shared it with his students.

    The counsellor that advised Ghebar was called Karim—a psychotherapy chatbot designed by X2AI, an artificial-intelligence startup in Silicon Valley. The company was launched in 2014 by Michiel Rauws and Eugene Bann, an idealistic pair of young immigrant programmers who met in a San Francisco hacker house—a kind of co-op for aspiring tech entrepreneurs—and found that they shared an interest in improving access to mental-health services. For Rauws, in particular, the mission is somewhat personal. He suffers from several chronic health issues, and manages them by trying to keep his stress levels in check. After seeing a therapist for a few months, Rauws noticed that the conversations he was having were often formulaic: they followed a limited number of templates and paths. This suggested the possibility of automation. Bann, whose background is in computer science, was already writing emotion-recognition algorithms when he met Rauws. They soon joined forces to start X2AI.

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  • Lost and Found

    The wind is what struck Dim Niang in those first days—a constant dry wind that knew no boundaries, wind that could lift a stretch of road dust and seem to cast it up to Oklahoma, New Mexico, and beyond. Back home in Myanmar, the tropical humidity would have pounded dirt like this into submission. How different Amarillo was. Paved roads that did not buckle under monsoons. Grocery stores built like giant boxes. Big trucks with cowboys for drivers.

    Dim was more curious about Amarillo than she was intimidated by it. A slim beauty, the second oldest of six in a family that had farmed rice and cotton in Kalaymyo, a remote village on the southern edge of Chin State, she’d always been resilient. This was a quality of her people, the Zomi, a tight-knit ethnic group in the lush, green mountains that border India and Bangladesh. After moving from western China as late as the eighth century, the Zomi had staked out an existence in the isolated mountains, preserving their dialects and ceremonial dress even after adopting Christianity when American missionaries arrived, in the late 1800s. Dim had studied hard in school and eventually graduated from a local Bible college, an achievement that shaped her conditions for a suitor: he had to be Zomi, he had to be educated, and he had to be kind.

    Zam Kap was aware of these criteria. A bold young man from the same village, he had met Dim’s family as a teenager, and as he and Dim reached their mid-twenties, he began to court her openly, announcing to everyone in the neighborhood that he loved her. He was a handsome college graduate with a degree in psychology and a fondness for story who showed promise as a community leader, and his enthusiasm seemed boundless. Standing before Dim, he’d stretch his arms wide, flash a contagious smile, and say, “I love you. Do you love me?”—a candor that made a shy but flattered Dim laugh. She dropped enough hints with her family about her admiration for him that when Zam’s father approached hers about a wedding, the ceremony took place within a week.

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  • Trump’s warm welcome in Mideast

    Arab autocrats are gleeful. Islamic extremists seem ecstatic. Israel’s right-wing government is exuberant. Only Iran seems nervous about the election of Donald Trump, who has vowed to transform U.S. policy in a region with four wars (in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen), rising extremism, the return of authoritarian rule after the collapse of the Arab Spring, economic instability, and demographic challenges transforming almost two dozen societies.

    The first world leader to telephone Trump after his victory was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former field marshal who orchestrated a military coup, in 2013, against a democratically elected President from the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi then ran for the office himself a year later. Thousands were killed during the bloody transition, and more than fifty thousand have since been imprisoned in “one of the widest arrest campaigns in the country’s modern history, targeting a broad spectrum of political opponents,” Human Rights Watch reported this fall. In September, Sisi met with both Trump and Hillary Clinton in New York during the United Nations General Assembly. The candidates’ positions on Egypt—the Arab world’s most populous country, with more than ninety million people—reflected their widely divergent foreign policies. During a primary debate with Bernie Sanders, Clinton charged that Egypt had become “an army dictatorship.” Trump, after his meeting with Sisi, called him “a fantastic guy” and commended their “good chemistry.”

    With an apparent touch of envy, Trump added, “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.”

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  • Who murdered Giulio Regeni?

    When six senior Italian detectives arrived in Cairo in early February, following the discovery of the brutally battered body of 28-year-old Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni, they faced long odds of solving the mystery of his disappearance and death. Egyptian officials had told reporters that Regeni had probably been hit by a car, but clear signs of torture on his body had raised an alarm in Rome.

    The Egyptian authorities guaranteed “full cooperation”, but this was quickly revealed to be a hollow promise. The Italians were allowed to question witnesses – but only for a few minutes, after the Egyptian police had finished their own much longer interrogations, and with the Egyptian police still in the room. The Italians requested the video footage from the metro station where Regeni last used his mobile phone, but the Egyptians allowed several days to elapse, by which time the footage from the day of his disappearance had been taped over. They also refused to share the mobile phone records from the area around Regeni’s home, where he disappeared on 25 January, and the site where his body was found nine days later.

    One of the Egyptian chief investigators in charge of the Regeni case, Major General Khaled Shalaby, who told the press that there were no signs of foul play, is a controversial figure. Convicted of kidnapping and torture over a decade ago, he escaped with a suspended sentence.

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  • The Siege Starts Without Warning

    I woke up one morning 24 years ago to find a war all around me. The night before I had been at a concert for the Partybreakers, a punk band from Belgrade. I’d had too much beer and I had a headache. Bursts of gunfire were audible, along with the explosions of the mortar shells that would rain down on Sarajevo for the next three and a half years.

    I don’t know what it was like when the war first came to Aleppo, Syria. Only the people still living there do – thousands of men, women and children who have now been under siege for years. From the perspective of an ordinary citizen, let’s say a 25 year old with literary and musical interests, the siege starts without warning and comes out of nowhere.

    Yes, the papers and the TV have been reporting for months about how the situation in the country is growing more complicated, how conflict is brewing among political opponents, and how in the provinces there has already been fighting. But as long as a city continues to live its normal, placid life, which is the sort of life it lives up until the very last instant and the final quiet evening, war seems impossible. You look at your dog and your books, the spider in the corner of your room spinning a web that tomorrow will catch its first little fly, and you can’t imagine that the next morning all this, including the dog and the spider, will be caught up in war.

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  • Why the Arabs don’t want us in Syria

    In part because my father was murdered by an Arab, I’ve made an effort to understand the impact of U.S. policy in the Mideast and particularly the factors that sometimes motivate bloodthirsty responses from the Islamic world against our country. As we focus on the rise of the Islamic State and search for the source of the savagery that took so many innocent lives in Paris and San Bernardino, we might want to look beyond the convenient explanations of religion and ideology. Instead we should examine the more complex rationales of history and oil — and how they often point the finger of blame back at our own shores.

    America’s unsavory record of violent interventions in Syria — little-known to the American people yet well-known to Syrians — sowed fertile ground for the violent Islamic jihadism that now complicates any effective response by our government to address the challenge of ISIL. So long as the American public and policymakers are unaware of this past, further interventions are likely only to compound the crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry this week announced a “provisional” ceasefire in Syria. But since U.S. leverage and prestige within Syria is minimal — and the ceasefire doesn’t include key combatants such as Islamic State and al Nusra — it’s bound to be a shaky truce at best. Similarly President Obama’s stepped-up military intervention in Libya — U.S. airstrikes targeted an Islamic State training camp last week — is likely to strengthen rather than weaken the radicals. As the New York Times reported in a December 8, 2015, front-page story, Islamic State political leaders and strategic planners are working to provoke an American military intervention. They know from experience this will flood their ranks with volunteer fighters, drown the voices of moderation and unify the Islamic world against America.

    To understand this dynamic, we need to look at history from the Syrians’ perspective and particularly the seeds of the current conflict. Long before our 2003 occupation of Iraq triggered the Sunni uprising that has now morphed into the Islamic State, the CIA had nurtured violent jihadism as a Cold War weapon and freighted U.S./Syrian relationships with toxic baggage.

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  • The Coming Crisis in Mosul

    A humanitarian catastrophe is looming over northern Iraq. As many as a million people are expected to stream out of Mosul when Iraqi government forces, backed by the United States, move to retake the city from isis, which took control two years ago. The much anticipated military operation could begin as early as next month, but aid workers here say they do not have anywhere near the resources, money, or manpower to deal with the expected human tide.

    “It’s a nightmare—a disaster heading our way,’’ Alex Milutinovic, the director of the International Rescue Committee in Erbil, told me. “The Iraqi government is determined to destroy ISIS, but it is impossible to accommodate the number of refugees the military operation is going to produce.”

    The Iraqi and American governments have been planning to retake Mosul since isis invaded the country and captured the city, in 2014. The reasons for doing so are obvious and urgent: the people of Mosul are being held hostage by violent fanatics; last month, according to the Iraq Oil Report, which has correspondents inside the city, ISIS agents arrested ninety people on charges of spying for the Iraqi government and executed sixty of them.

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