• Coddling Arab strongmen to keep out refugees

    Much of Syria lies in ruins, but Bashar al-Assad’s bureaucracy of repression hums along. Earlier this year a pro-opposition website published a list of Syrians wanted by the regime. The database is both staggering in scope-1.5m people, or 7% of the pre-war population-and incomplete. Jamil Hassan, the head of the air-force intelligence service, is said to have told senior officers in July that he wants to arrest twice that number. On August 9th another regime official announced that 100,000 Syrians have died of “unknown causes” since 2017. Yet European politicians are debating whether to send refugees back to this bloody oubliette.

    Seven years ago, when Arabs revolted against their autocratic rulers, European leaders engaged in a collective mea culpa. Decades of working with dictators had not created a stable, prosperous Arab world. From now on, democracy and human rights would be the cornerstones of the European Union’s Middle East policy, they vowed. But the high-mindedness was short-lived. Driven by a fear of migrants, European governments have once again embraced strongmen.

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  • Clues in one of Syria war’s biggest mysteries

    Razan Zaitouneh earned enemies on all sides of her homeland’s civil war. One of Syria’s most well-known rights activists, she was bold, outspoken and defiantly secular. Perhaps most dangerously, she was impartial. She chanted in protests against President Bashar Assad, but was also unflinching in documenting abuses by rebels fighting to oust him.

    Then she vanished.

    Her fate has been one of the longest-running mysteries of Syria’s long conflict. There has been no sign of life, no proof of death since a cold December evening in 2013 when Zaitouneh, her husband and two colleagues were abducted by gunmen from her office in Douma, a rebel-held town on the outskirts of Damascus. Five years later, bits of clues are emerging: a handwritten threat vowing “I will kill you;” a log-on from her computer after the kidnappers stole it from her office; possible sightings by witnesses and reports of graffiti on a prison cell wall reading, “I miss my mother — Razan Zaitouneh, 2016.”

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  • Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?

    The malnutrition ward of the Al-Sabaeen hospital, in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, is a quiet place even when it is busy. Parents speak in murmurs and children are too weak to cry. In a room off a pink-painted hallway, a mother named Salami Ahmed sat cross-legged on a bed, resting her ten-month-old daughter Mateea on her knee. Each of the baby girl’s ribs pushed out from underneath a fine layer of skin. The child’s eyes stared wide from her gaunt face. Ahmed told me that her husband was a cobbler, and business was bad. “Some days he comes home with four hundred rials, another day five hundred or a thousand rials,” she said, amounts of local currency worth one and a half to four dollars. “Some days nothing if he has no work. We only buy sugar and tea. Before the war, we could buy other things but now no more. We were already poor and when the war broke out we became even poorer.

    In the room down the hallway, Mohammed Hatem stood over his baby, Shahab Adil, who is also ten months old. Shahab also suffered from malnutrition. Her body appeared much too small for her age. “It’s happening everywhere in Yemen,” Hatem told me. “Food prices were already high before the war, and since it started they went sky high.” Back in his village, several hours’ drive away, there were many more cases of malnutrition, he said. Few villagers can afford to take a taxi to the capital for treatment. For many, the cost of fuel puts even short bus rides beyond reach.

    The U.S.- and Saudi-backed war here has increased the price of food, cooking gas, and other fuel, but it is the disappearance of millions of jobs that has brought more than eight million people to the brink of starvation and turned Yemen into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. There is sufficient food arriving in ports here, but endemic unemployment means that almost two-thirds of the population struggle to buy the food their families need. In this way, hunger here is entirely man-made: no drought or blight has caused it.

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  • Where steam locomotives are still king

    Located on the side of a dusty road, Amman’s Hejaz Railway station is easy to miss. To get there, you must leave the labyrinthine streets that spiral through the city’s historical centre, swirling up hills and eddying around better-known sites like the ancient citadel or Roman theatre. The drive out to the station is about 5km; when there is traffic, as there often is in Jordan’s capital, it can feel longer. Step through the stone gate, though, and it feels like you’ve entered a different era. Here, steam locomotives are still king. The Ottoman sultan controls a swath of land from modern-day Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Black Sea and Basra to Beirut. And hopes are high that a railway can unite the Muslim world.

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  • How nations come together

    Why do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well? Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others? The current tragedy in Syria illustrates the possibly murderous consequences of failed nation-building. Outside of the media spotlight, South Sudan and the Central African Republic went through similar experiences in recent years. In some rich and democratic countries in western Europe, such as Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom, longstanding secessionist movements have regained momentum. Within our lifetimes, they might well succeed in breaking apart these states. On the other hand, there is no secessionist movement among the Cantonese speakers of southern China or among the Tamils of India. And why has no serious politician ever questioned national unity in such diverse countries as Switzerland or Burkina Faso?

    Before answering these questions, it is necessary to define nation-building more precisely. It goes beyond the mere existence of an independent country with a flag, an anthem and an army. Some old countries (such as Belgium) haven’t come together as a nation, while other more recently founded states (such as India) have done so. There are two sides to the nation-building coin: the extension of political alliances across the terrain of a country, and the identification with and loyalty to the institutions of the state, independent of who currently governs. The former is the political-integration aspect, the latter the political-identity aspect of nation-building. To foster both, political ties between citizens and the state should reach across ethnic divides.

    Such ties of alliance connect national governments with individual citizens, sometimes through intermediary political organisations such as voluntary associations, parties, professional groups, etc. Ideally, these ties link all citizens into networks of alliances centred on the state. In such countries, all citizens see themselves represented at the centre of power, even if their preferred party or political patron is not currently occupying one of the seats of government. Intellectuals, political elites, as well as the average individual will eventually see all citizens, irrespective of their racial or ethnic background, as equal members of the national community.

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  • Nazi war criminal reportedly died in Syrian dungeon

    A Nazi war criminal, believed responsible for the deaths of 130,000 European Jews during the second World War, died in a dungeon cell near the presidential palace in Damascus in late 2001 at the age of 89, the French quarterly review XXI revealed in its winter issue this week.

    Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” wrote in his memoirs that Alois Brunner “was my best man”. Brunner organised the deportation of 56,000 Jews from Vienna, 43,000 from Salonica, 14,000 from Slovakia and 23,500 from France to Auschwitz.

    Brunner, who was originally from Austria, was twice convicted of war crimes in absentia in Paris, in 1954 and in March 2001. As XXI’s investigation makes clear, he was still alive when his second trial took place. His fate had remained a mystery.

    Though Brunner’s presence in Damascus was for decades an open secret, he was protected and then imprisoned, by the late dictator Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar al-Assad. The Nazi hunters Simon Wiesenthal, who died in 2005, and Serge Klarsfeld, now 81, led futile searches for him.

    Klarsfeld was a boy when Brunner came to his family’s apartment in Nice in September 1943. While he, his mother and sister hid, they heard Brunner arrest their father and husband, who died at Auschwitz.

    When a journalist from XXI told Klarsfeld of its investigation, the first question he asked was whether Brunner had suffered.

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  • The Two Futures of the Arab World

    The Arab world is undergoing its most transformative change for a century. There are factors in this transformation that could plunge the Arab world into more disintegration, violence and chaos than what we have been seeing in the last five years. Yet, also within this transformation, there are changes that could salvage the Arab world, and usher it on a new trajectory of regeneration.

    Aside from the uprisings, regime-change, and civil wars, the key development that the Arab world has witnessed in the last few years has been the fall of the Arab state system of the past seven decades. The nation states in the Eastern Mediterranean that Britain and France created after the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire have been unravelling. In Iraq and Syria central state authority has collapsed. Lebanon’s various political factions have for over a year and half now been unable to agree on a president, leaving the country effectively a shell-state where the government undertakes administration and coordination, while its different religious and feudal communities retain their own political structures and foreign alliances. Eight years after the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas took control of Gaza and broke off relations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a cohesive Palestinian political entity remains elusive.

    For over two decades, Somalia, which commands a strategic location at the strait linking the Red Sea with the Indian Ocean, has been ruled by a coterie of war lords. The chaos there has given rise to multiple threats afflicting East Africa—violent Islamism, pirating, human trafficking. On the other side of the Arab periphery, close to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Sahara separating North and West Africa has effectively fallen under the control of violent Islamists, of which Boko Haram is the most famous. The region’s main economic activities now are trading in arms, drugs and humans.

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  • The Medicis in the desert

    When Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, visited New York earlier this year, the face of Ahmed Mater, the kingdom’s most celebrated artist, was beamed onto an enormous billboard in Times Square. In recent years, he has been feted at exhibitions in London, New York and Venice. He dominates the Saudi art scene so thoroughly that his peers struggle for attention. “He’s the only artist anyone writes about,” says one Saudi curator. In 2017 Mater was appointed as artistic director of the Prince’s cultural and educational foundation, entrusted to promote art across the kingdom and liberalise the school system. He plays a crucial role in the enormously ambitious plan for economic and social transformation, which aims to wean the country off reliance on oil revenues, strip down the power of clerics and dispel a reputation for medieval obscurantism and misogyny.

    Prince Muhammad has travelled the world to convince business leaders, tech titans and entertainment impresarios that Saudi Arabia is a place where both popular and high culture can flourish. For the first time in over 30 years, cinemas show films. For the first time ever, pop stars perform in concert halls. Mater has accompanied the prince on his pilgrimage as the epitome of the country’s artistic reawakening. When the Saudi Crown Prince met Xi Jinping, he brought Mater along and gave the Chinese president one of his paintings as a gift.

    The story behind Mater’s rise is more complex and ambiguous than his current pre-eminence suggests. It illuminates the unprecedented liberalisation that many of the country’s cultural elite are experiencing at the moment, as well as the compromises with power that they must still make. Mater did not reach the pinnacle without help. But some of his companions have fallen by the wayside. “Of course”, one Saudi artist tells me, “it wouldn’t have happened without Ashraf.”

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  • Cairo: A Type of Love Story

    Natasha was the first of our daughters to get bitten by a rodent. It probably happened while she was sleeping, but she was too small to communicate anything. As with Ariel, her identical-twin sister, Natasha’s early vocabulary was mostly English, but the girls used Egyptian Arabic for certain things—colors, animals, basic sustenance. Aish for bread, maya for water. If I twirled one of them around, she would laugh and shriek, “Tani!”: “Again!” And then her sister would pick up the refrain, because anything that was done to one twin had to be repeated with the other. Tani, tani, tani. They weren’t yet two years old.

    I noticed the mark while changing Natasha. To the right of her navel, there were two pairs of ugly red puncture holes: incisors. Perhaps the animal had been nosing around the top of her diaper. If Natasha had cried out, neither I nor my wife, Leslie, heard.

    We had moved to Cairo in October, 2011, during the first year of the Arab Spring. We lived in Zamalek, a neighborhood on a long, thin island in the Nile River. Zamalek has traditionally been home to middle- and upper-class Cairenes, and we rented an apartment on the ground floor of an old building that, like many structures on our street, was beautiful but fading. Out in front of the Art Deco façade, the bars of a wrought-iron fence were shaped like spiderwebs.

    The spiderweb motif was repeated throughout the building. Little black webs decorated our front door, and the balconies and porches had webbed railings. The elevator was accessed through iron spiderweb gates. Behind the gates, rising and falling in the darkness of an open shaft, was the old-fashioned elevator box, made of heavy carved wood, like some Byzantine sarcophagus. The gaps in the webbed gates were as large as a person’s head, and it was possible to reach through and touch the elevator as it drifted past. Not long after we moved in, a child on an upper floor got his leg caught in the elevator, and the limb was broken so badly that he was evacuated to Europe for treatment.

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  • Egypt Holds a Farcical Election

    From modern downtown bookstores to dusty street-corner bookstands where venders peddle Xeroxed copies of international best-sellers, one new release has proved popular this winter in Cairo: translated copies of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” Ahmed, a thirty-one-year-old bookseller in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, told me that Egyptian readers found the bluntness of America’s new President entertaining. “Trump is funny,” Ahmed said, declining to give his last name. “He says what he thinks.”

    For Egypt’s democracy and human-rights activists, Trump is something far different: an enabler of repression who has embraced Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as he carries out the most repressive crackdown in the country in decades. Three days after taking office, Trump phoned Sisi and effusively pledged his support for the authoritarian ruler. When Sisi visited Washington last spring, Trump warmly welcomed him to the White House, reversing an Obama Administration policy of declining to meet the former general because of his government’s sweeping human-rights abuses.

    Five years ago, Sisi seized power and jailed the country’s democratically elected President in a popularly backed military coup that led to the massacre of thousands of supporters of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood. Under Sisi, the government has arrested at least sixty thousand people, handed down hundreds of preliminary death sentences, and tried thousands of civilians in military courts, according to human-rights groups. Torture, including beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and sometimes rape, has been systematically employed. After a pair of church bombings by the Islamic State killed forty-seven people last April, Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency that gave the government sweeping powers to arrest people, seize assets, and censor the media. Trump has made no mention of the repression, called Sisi a “fantastic guy,” and even complimented the Egyptian leader on his shoes. Sisi, in turn, has praised Trump for being “a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible.” Trump’s embrace of Sisi is not unusual: he has praised authoritarian leaders around the world, but his backing of autocratic regimes is perhaps nowhere more visible than in Egypt.

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  • The ISIS Files

    Weeks after the militants seized the city, as fighters roamed the streets and religious extremists rewrote the laws, an order rang out from the loudspeakers of local mosques.

    Public servants, the speakers blared, were to report to their former offices.

    To make sure every government worker got the message, the militants followed up with phone calls to supervisors. When one tried to beg off, citing a back injury, he was told: “If you don’t show up, we’ll come and break your back ourselves.”

    The phone call reached Muhammad Nasser Hamoud, a 19-year veteran of the Iraqi Directorate of Agriculture, behind the locked gate of his home, where he was hiding with his family. Terrified but unsure what else to do, he and his colleagues trudged back to their six-story office complex decorated with posters of seed hybrids.

    They arrived to find chairs lined up in neat rows, as if for a lecture.

    The commander who strode in sat facing the room, his leg splayed out so that everyone could see the pistol holstered to his thigh. For a moment, the only sounds were the hurried prayers of the civil servants mumbling under their breath.

    Their fears proved unfounded. Though he spoke in a menacing tone, the commander had a surprisingly tame request: Resume your jobs immediately, he told them. A sign-in sheet would be placed at the entrance to each department. Those who failed to show up would be punished.

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  • How a secret Russian airlift helps Assad

    In a corner of the departures area at Rostov airport in southern Russia, a group of about 130 men, many of them carrying overstuffed military-style rucksacks, lined up at four check-in desks beneath screens that showed no flight number or destination.

    When a Reuters reporter asked the men about their destination, one said: “We signed a piece of paper – we’re not allowed to say anything. Any minute the boss will come and we’ll get into trouble.

    “You too,” he warned.

    The chartered Airbus A320 waiting on the tarmac for them had just flown in from the Syrian capital, Damascus, disgorging about 30 men with tanned faces into the largely deserted arrivals area. Most were in camouflage gear and khaki desert boots. Some were toting bags from the Damascus airport duty-free.

    The men were private Russian military contractors, the latest human cargo in a secretive airlift using civilian planes to ferry military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his six-year fight against rebels, a Reuters investigation of the logistical network behind Assad’s forces has uncovered.

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  • The Useful Village

    There is no cinema in Sumte. There are no general stores, no pubs, gyms, cafés, markets, schools, doctors, florists, auto shops, or libraries. There are no playgrounds. Some roads are paved, but others scarcely distinguish themselves from the scrub grass and swampy tractor trails surrounding each house, modest plots that grade into the farmland and medieval forests of Lower Saxony. There is no meeting hall. All is private and premodern. You can’t quite hear the eddying rills of the Elbe—the river lies a few miles to the west—but in the cathedral silence of an afternoon in Sumte you might easily imagine you hear flowing water, or a pan flute, or the voice of God. You’re in the great European nowhere, where cows outnumber people and the darkness at night is as unalloyed and mysterious as a silent undersea trench.

    One day in October, after a thousand years of evening gloom, a work crew arrives and lines the main avenue with LED streetlamps, which cast a spearmint glow over the chicken coops and the alien corn. The lights are a concession to the villagers—all 102 of them—from their political masters in the nearby town of Amt Neuhaus, who manage Sumte’s affairs and must report to their own masters in Hannover, the state capital of Lower Saxony, who in turn must report to their masters in Berlin, who send emissaries to Brussels, which might as well be Bolivia, so impossibly distant do the villagers find that black hole of tax dollars and goodwill. It’s this vague chain of command that most alienates the people of Sumte. They are pensioners and housepainters. They are farmers, subsistence and commercial. They are carpenters, clerks, and commuters who cross the Elbe by ferry every morning, driving to jobs in Lüneberg or Hamburg, ninety minutes away. More than a few are out of work. Nobody tells them anything.

    Which is not to suggest anyone here is unaware of what’s going on in the world in 2015. The people of Sumte are not hicks (or hinterwäldler, as the Germans say). Word has reached Dirk Hammer, the bicycle repairman, and Walter Luck, the apiarist, about the capsizing trawlers, the panic in Lampedusa. Sumte’s mayor, Christian Fabel, has read in the Lüneburger Landeszeitung about the bivouacs at Austrian border towns. They watch the nightly news. They’ve heard of this crisis, the so-called Flüchtlingskrise. And they wonder where these people—more than a million migrants, displaced from the world’s bomb-cratered imbroglios and forsaken urban wastelands—are headed. The streetlights, a long-standing request now mysteriously granted, make them suspicious.

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  • Steele: the Man Behind the Trump Dossier

    In January, after a long day at his London office, Christopher Steele, the former spy turned private investigator, was stepping off a commuter train in Farnham, where he lives, when one of his two phones rang. He’d been looking forward to dinner at home with his wife, and perhaps a glass of wine. It had been their dream to live in Farnham, a town in Surrey with a beautiful Georgian high street, where they could afford a house big enough to accommodate their four children, on nearly an acre of land. Steele, who is fifty-three, looked much like the other businessmen heading home, except for the fact that he kept his phones in a Faraday bag—a pouch, of military-tested double-grade fabric, designed to block signal detection.

    A friend in Washington, D.C., was calling with bad news: two Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley, had just referred Steele’s name to the Department of Justice, for a possible criminal investigation. They were accusing Steele—the author of a secret dossier that helped trigger the current federal investigation into President Donald Trump’s possible ties to Russia—of having lied to the very F.B.I. officers he’d alerted about his findings. The details of the criminal referral were classified, so Steele could not know the nature of the allegations, let alone rebut them, but they had something to do with his having misled the Bureau about contacts that he’d had with the press. For nearly thirty years, Steele had worked as a close ally of the United States, and he couldn’t imagine why anyone would believe that he had been deceptive. But lying to an F.B.I. officer is a felony, an offense that can be punished by up to five years in prison.

    The accusations would only increase doubts about Steele’s reputation that had clung to him since BuzzFeed published the dossier, in January, 2017. The dossier painted a damning picture of collusion between Trump and Russia, suggesting that his campaign had “accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” It also alleged that Russian officials had been “cultivating” Trump as an asset for five years, and had obtained leverage over him, in part by recording videos of him while he engaged in compromising sexual acts, including consorting with Moscow prostitutes who, at his request, urinated on a bed.

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  • Iran’s Leader ‘Makes Hitler Look Good’

    This much, at least, can be said for Mohammed bin Salman, the putatively reformist crown prince of Saudi Arabia: He has made all the right enemies. Among those who would celebrate his end are the leaders of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and the entire clerical and military leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a bonus, there are members of his own family, the sprawling, sclerotic, self-dealing House of Saud, who would like to see him gone—or at the very least, warehoused at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, where the 32-year-old prince recently imprisoned many of his enemies and cousins during an anti-corruption sweep of the kingdom.

    The well-protected Prince Mohammed does not seem particularly worried about mortal threats, however. He was jovial to the point of ebullience when I met him at his brother’s compound outside Washington (his brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.). Prince Mohammed (who is known widely by his initials, MbS) seemed eager to download his heterodoxical, contentious views on a number of subjects—on women’s rights (he appears doubtful about the laws that force Saudi women to travel with male relatives); on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is, in the prince’s mind, worse than Hitler; and on Israel. He told me he recognizes the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state; no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.

    Prince Mohammed, who is on a seemingly endless pilgrimage to the nodes of American power (he is in Hollywood this week) is an unfamiliar type for Middle East reporters accustomed to a certain style of Saudi leadership, which is to say, the functionally comatose model of authoritarian monarchism. Prince Mohammed’s father, the 82-year-old King Salman, is not overly infirm, but it is clear that his son is already in charge. And if the prince, his many handlers, and his partisans on Wall Street and in the White House (especially his fellow prince, Jared Kushner) are to be believed, he is in a genuine hurry to overturn the traditional Saudi order.

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  • French Company Pushing Limits in Syria

    PARIS — Mostafa Haji Mohamad, a medical worker, was just starting the morning shift at a cement factory in Syria when gunfire rattled across the desert. The air was stifling, and he and the other employees were on edge.

    For months, they had worked to the percussion of distant fighting as the Islamic State waged fierce battles in the autumn of 2014 to seize territory in Syria’s rapidly escalating civil war. Their employer, one of the world’s largest cement makers, Lafarge, didn’t want to abandon the plant, but aimed to keep it running so it would be well positioned when the civil war ended. And the men, all local workers, had few other options for employment in a country where conflict was ravaging the economy.

    Security managers urged the workers not to worry. Safety was a priority, they insisted. If the fighting got too close, Lafarge had an evacuation plan that included buses to get them out in case of danger.

    As the men gathered that morning in a sweltering hall, Mr. Mohamad’s supervisor, the factory’s doctor, called with a frantic warning. ISIS had just taken the village closest the factory. “You’ve got to get out of there,” the supervisor said. “ISIS is coming!”

    Mr. Mohamad and the rest of the employees ran outside. The evacuation buses were not there.

    So they piled, one on top of the other, into two small cars and a delivery van. Mr. Mohamad jumped onto a rickety scooter and puttered nervously across the desert as explosions rang out.

    They all got away. By nightfall, ISIS had captured the factory.

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  • Made-up beautiful. Sent out to die.

    Falmata is getting a full beauty treatment – a thick paste of henna, with its delicate pointed swirls, adorns her feet.

    While it dries, a woman is battling with her hair. Comb in hand she’s stretching and straightening Falmata’s tight curls.

    “We were allowed to choose any style for the hair and the henna,” remembers Falmata. “We got the henna to dye our hands, legs and sometimes even the neck.”

    Falmata knows she is going to look beautiful. But there’s a deadly consequence.

    Once she’s been made up, a suicide bomb will be attached to her waist.

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  • The American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS

    At dawn on a warm September morning in 2013, a minivan pulled up to a shattered villa in the town of Azaz, Syria. A long-bearded 29-year-old white man emerged from the building, along with his pregnant British wife and their three children, ages 8, 4, and almost 2. They had been in Syria for only about a month this time. The kids were sick and malnourished. The border they’d crossed from Turkey into Syria was minutes away, but the passage back was no longer safe. They clambered into the minivan, sitting on sheepskins draped on the floor—there were no seats—and the driver took them two hours east through a ravaged landscape, eventually stopping at a place where the family might slip into Turkey undetected.

    They disembarked amid a grove of thorny trees. Signs warned of land mines. The border itself was more than an hour’s walk away, through the desert. They’d forgotten to bring water. Tania dragged the puking kids along; Yahya carried a suitcase and a stroller. Midway, Tania had contractions, although she was still several months from her due date. They continued on. At the border itself, while the family squeezed through the barbed wire, a sniper’s bullets kicked up dirt nearby.

    Yahya had arranged for a human trafficker to meet them, and when the trafficker’s truck arrived, Yahya pressed a few hundred dollars into the man’s hand. Yahya and Tania had been married for 10 years, but they did not say goodbye. Satisfied that his family would not die, Yahya turned and ran across the border, back into Syria—again under gunfire—without even a wave.

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  • ‘Migrants more profitable than drugs’

    Joy, a young Nigerian woman, was standing in the street outside the sprawling, overcrowded Cara di Mineo reception centre for asylum seekers in central Sicily, waiting for someone to pick her up when I met her. It was late summer 2016, and the weather was still hot. She said she was 18, but looked much younger. She was wearing a faded denim jacket over a crisp white T-shirt and tight jeans, and six or seven strings of colourful beads were wrapped around her neck. A gold chain hung from her left wrist, a gift from her mother.

    As we spoke, a dark car came into view and she took a couple of steps away from me to make sure whoever was driving saw her, and saw that she was alone. There were a handful of other migrants loitering along the road. The approaching car didn’t slow down, so Joy came back over to me and carried on our conversation.

    The oldest of six children, Joy (not her real name) told me she had left her family in a small village in Edo state in Nigeria at the age of 15, and gone to work for a wealthy woman who owned a beauty salon in Benin City. She had since come to suspect that her parents had sold her to raise money for their younger children. “They probably had no choice,” she said as she looked down the road toward the thick citrus groves that hid the coming traffic.

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  • The American Climbing the Ranks of ISIS

    At dawn on a warm September morning in 2013, a minivan pulled up to a shattered villa in the town of Azaz, Syria. A long-bearded 29-year-old white man emerged from the building, along with his pregnant British wife and their three children, ages 8, 4, and almost 2. They had been in Syria for only about a month this time. The kids were sick and malnourished. The border they’d crossed from Turkey into Syria was minutes away, but the passage back was no longer safe. They clambered into the minivan, sitting on sheepskins draped on the floor—there were no seats—and the driver took them two hours east through a ravaged landscape, eventually stopping at a place where the family might slip into Turkey undetected.

    They disembarked amid a grove of thorny trees. Signs warned of land mines. The border itself was more than an hour’s walk away, through the desert. They’d forgotten to bring water. Tania dragged the puking kids along; Yahya carried a suitcase and a stroller. Midway, Tania had contractions, although she was still several months from her due date. They continued on. At the border itself, while the family squeezed through the barbed wire, a sniper’s bullets kicked up dirt nearby.

    Yahya had arranged for a human trafficker to meet them, and when the trafficker’s truck arrived, Yahya pressed a few hundred dollars into the man’s hand. Yahya and Tania had been married for 10 years, but they did not say goodbye. Satisfied that his family would not die, Yahya turned and ran across the border, back into Syria—again under gunfire—without even a wave.

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  • The Devil’s Henchmen

    A stone skitters down the hillside, clips a tangle of cloth, and stops short of a human’s lower vertebrae. Next to it, strewn in the dirt and grass of a sun-swathed wadi—one of thousands of small desert valleys scattered across northern Iraq—are a coccyx, femur, humerus, and elbow joint. Ribs soak in a puddle nearby. Each bone is a dirty, decalcified umber, like a masticated chew toy.

    Hasan, a 24-year-old enlisted in the Iraqi Federal Police, stands on the sandy road that snakes along the wadi’s eastern edge. The air is thick with the smell of burnt rubber, bloated rigor, and oil fires. Hasan, who gives me only his first name, has stubble on his chin. He wears blue and gray fatigues and black combat boots, one of which he used to kick the stone that now rests near the scattered remains of a dead man. They are a fraction of what the ravine holds: A short distance away, near the hood of a destroyed Humvee, is another body, stripped of flesh but still braided with the scraps of a brown shirt worn at the moment of death.

    That moment came in February, when it was much colder in Albu Saif, this village on a bend in the Tigris River a few miles south of Mosul. Iraqi forces swept through en route to reclaiming their country’s second-largest city from the Islamic State. Two months later the village is quiet. The northward view of Mosul, bisected by the Tigris, is dark, halting, and handsome. Lofted train tracks traverse Albu Saif before terminating on Mosul’s western side, where Islamic State militants are making their last stand. Some 340,000 people have been displaced in the past six months, fleeing the most intense urban warfare waged since World War II; another 100,000 will join them by mid-summer. Mosul’s main railway station is gutted. Concrete rubbish recalls where buildings once stood. Those that still do, and the people who’ve taken shelter inside them, hang on like corporeal tissue unwilling to decompose.

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  • The Killer-Nanny Novel That Conquered France

    A year ago, I picked up a book, “Chanson Douce,” that I’ve thought about pretty much every day since. I was initially drawn to it because I’d read that its author, Leïla Slimani, had been inspired by a news item about a New York nanny who killed the two children in her care. The murders happened in 2012, but I remembered them in all their excruciating particulars: that the mother had been at a swimming lesson with a third sibling; that they came home and found the boy and the girl bleeding in the bathtub; that the nanny, who tried to slit her own throat, said she was upset at having been asked to take on cleaning duties; that the couple has since had two more kids. Once in a while, someone else’s misery penetrates the carapace of self-absorption under which you scuttle around and gets deep into you. Feeling somehow protective of the story, I was both beguiled and a little shocked by Slimani’s audacity in laying claim to it.

    Slimani had just won the Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, which counts among its laureates Proust and Malraux. “Usually, the Goncourt Academy rewards books of the past,” the president of the jury had declared. “This year, we elect a book that speaks of the present, of the everyday and of its problems, such as the question of delegating authority and love to a person outside the family. Many will recognize themselves in this book.” The Goncourt has, more often than not, gone to a middle-aged white man, and so the committee had also broken from history in consecrating Slimani as the face of French literature. At thirty-five, she was the second Moroccan and the twelfth woman to receive the award (and the first to do so four months pregnant).

    “Chanson Douce,” her second novel, sold six hundred thousand copies in its first year of publication, making Slimani, who lives in Paris, the most-read author in France in 2016. Elle put her on the cover, in red lipstick and a jumpsuit: “leïla slimani superstar.” Politicians of varying persuasions clambered to reheat themselves in her glow. Launching his bid for the Presidency, Manuel Valls paid tribute to the French language, “that of Rabelais, of Hugo, of Camus, of Césaire, of de Beauvoir, of Patrick Modiano, and Leïla Slimani.” Emmanuel Macron, now France’s President, reportedly invited her to be his minister of culture. “I love my freedom too much,” she told me when I asked about it.

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  • Filiu: No Stability without Liberty

    In the latest installment of our interview series, Al-Jumhuriya speaks to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French historian, Arabist, and professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs.

    “It has to be crystal-clear that, for the Assad regime, the so-called “reconstruction” is the continuation of its merciless war against its own people, now using other means. There is absolutely no possibility for a credible, sustainable, and inclusive reconstruction if operated under the sponsorship of such a dictatorship. First, because this regime will treat as hostile the populations in the areas formerly held by the opposition, prevent their return home, and coerce the remaining inhabitants. Second, because the so-called “reconstruction” is the only way for the Assad regime to pay part of the colossal debt it has accumulated towards its Russian and Iranian patrons. Criminal networks connected with the centers of power in Moscow (or Grozny, for the Chechens) and Tehran (or Beirut, for Hezbollah) are already active in this very profitable business. Donors have to understand once and for all that the Assad regime is not a state interested in the welfare of its citizens but a regime obsessed by its own logic of predation and suppression. Such a regime would never hesitate to refuse any international aid that would come with even a minimal string attached. There should be no hope of using the “carrot” of reconstruction money to extract any concession from the Assad regime. Contributing to the so-called “reconstruction” of Syria in those circumstances means collaborating with a dictatorship accused of the worst crimes against its own people.”

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  • Thubron in Damascus after 50 years

    The city that comes into view is of course bigger than I remember – its population must have quadrupled. Since I was here its suburbs have swamped the Old City that I loved, and even inside its walls a rash of restaurants and boutique hotels has appeared.

    But they’re all closed now, or empty. It’s a city at war. Whole streets are fenced off by tank blocks and razor wire. Less than a mile away from my empty hotel I can see burnt-out tenements still in rebel hands.

    This is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. In the Muslim world it had grown open and tolerant. A quarter of its people belong to Christian and other minorities, including Alawites, a sub-sect of the Shia, who dominate the government and army. However reluctantly, the Damascenes cling to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Islamist alternative, just outside the walls, might be fatal to them.

    Fifty years ago I was almost alone here, because tourists hadn’t yet come. Now I’m alone because they’re gone. Yet I see an Old City miraculously intact. It’s escaped the devastation of Aleppo.

    But late every night the regime’s artillery opens up on the enemy suburbs. It sounds like far-off thunder. In the dark I stand outside my hotel, listening, wondering how this can continue. Once a week a defiant mortar-shell flies the other way.

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  • The House of Trump & the House of Saud

    You might say it is a match made in heaven. With their taste in gold elevators, the Trump family and the House of Saud were destined to alight at the same penthouse. But the affinity between Donald Trump, US president, and Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto monarch, goes beyond a shared aesthetic for “dictator chic”. It is chiefly transactional. The US-Saudi relationship is the quintessence of Trumpian diplomacy. Its flowering symbolises the decay in the US-led global order.

    Mr Trump’s approach to foreign relations is a blend of family and money and a weakness for flattery. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe pledged $50m to the Ivanka Trump-inspired Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative — the World Bank’s effort to seduce America’s first family. Mr Abe, whose first gift to Mr Trump was a gold-plated golf club, hosted Ms Trump in Tokyo shortly before her father turned up. Six months ago, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates became the first donors to Ms Trump’s scheme with a $100m grant. Now it is China’s turn to host Mr Trump. Its president, Xi Jinping, approved a flurry of Ivanka Trump trademarks shortly before he first met her father in Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.

    Governments the world over are vying to catch the US first family’s eye. But it is the Saudis who perfected the art. It is no coincidence that Riyadh was Mr Trump’s first foreign destination after becoming president. His motive was obvious. The Saudis had agreed to unveil a $110bn arms contract with the US — exactly what Mr Trump was seeking. The fact that it consisted of letters of intent, most of which had been signed years earlier, was beside the point. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to pay for any of the big items. These include US naval vessels that have yet to be built and an anti-missile defence system the Saudis can no longer afford.

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