Category Archives: Reportages

The Mystery of People Who Speak Dozens of Languages

Last May, Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia, a doctoral candidate at the Max
Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in the Dutch city of Nijmegen,
flew to Malta for a week to learn Maltese. He had a hefty grammar book
in his backpack, but he didn’t plan to open it unless he had to. “We’ll
do this as I would in the Amazon,” he told me, referring to his
fieldwork as a linguist. Our plan was for me to observe how he went
about learning a new language, starting with “hello” and “thank you.”

is a twenty-seven-year-old Peruvian with a baby face and spiky dark
hair. A friend had given him a new pair of earrings, which he wore on
Malta with funky tank tops and a chain necklace. He looked like any
other laid-back young tourist, except for the intense focus—all senses
cocked—with which he takes in a new environment. Linguistics is a
formidably cerebral discipline. At a conference in Nijmegen that had
preceded our trip to Malta, there were papers on “the anatomical
similarities in the phonatory apparati of humans and harbor seals” and
“hippocampal-dependent declarative memory,” along with a
neuropsychological analysis of speech and sound processing in the brains
of beatboxers. Rojas-Berscia’s Ph.D. research, with the Shawi people of
the Peruvian rain forest, doesn’t involve fMRI data or computer
modelling, but it is still arcane to a layperson. “I’m developing a
theory of language change called the Flux Approach,” he explained one
evening, at a country inn outside the city, over the delicious pannenkoeken
(pancakes) that are a local specialty. “A flux is a dynamism that
involves a social fact and an impact, either functionally or formally,
in linguistic competence.”

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Posted by on August 13, 2019 in Reportages


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In Jemen ontdekte ik de Arabische wereld die ik alleen kende van Europese borreltafels

Zij kan hier niet blijven slapen.’ De beheerder van de kazerne, die ons een paar uur eerder vriendelijk had ontvangen, is onverbiddelijk. We zijn in een kazerne in Mokka, een havenstad aan de Rode Zee in Jemen. Na een dagje aan het front, waarbij we op sleeptouw zijn genomen door qat kauwende strijders, ons konvooi zich schietend een weg naar de oorlog baande en de frontlijn zich onverwacht snel aandiende langs een strand met mijnen links en de vijand in de struiken rechts, is het te laat om nog veilig terug te rijden naar ons hotel. Wij –  mijn chauffeur, mijn fixer, een intelligente dertiger die fungeert als mijn gids, vertaler en lokale toeverlaat, en ikzelf –  blijven daarom slapen op twee uur rijden van het front, in de kazerne van Mokka.

Ik ben niet dol op overnachtingen in Arabische kazernes. Dat komt omdat ik een vrouw ben. Daar is in mijn beroep niets bijzonders aan. In de conflictjournalistiek zijn de tijden van Martha Gellhorn voorbij. Was een vrouwelijke journalist aan een Arabische frontlijn begin jaren negentig nog reden tot verwondering, tegenwoordig geldt dit als het summum van doorsnee. Meer dan de helft van de Midden-Oosten-correspondenten in mijn standplaats Beiroet, Libanon, is tegenwoordig vrouw, becijferde een Amerikaanse collega vorig jaar. Dat heeft een praktische reden. In Arabische landen, waar het voor een man cultureel vaak ongepast is om lokale vrouwen aan te spreken, is het voor een vrouw gemakkelijker werken. Zij kan in tegenstelling tot een man met iedereen praten. Met een hoofddoek om valt een vrouw ook nog eens minder op, wat in onveilige gebieden een voordeel is.

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Posted by on August 13, 2019 in Middle East, Reportages



Do Animals Have Feelings?

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

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Posted by on August 13, 2019 in Reportages


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How to move a masterpiece: the secret business of shipping priceless artworks

Early one morning last summer, I stood inside a museum in Antwerp and watched as a painting was hung on the wall. When I walked in, the gallery was empty. To one side, there was a crate about a metre square. Royal blue, it was unmarked apart from a code number and a yellow stencilled sign reading “Lato da Aprire / Open this Side”. Although its home is nominally Florence, the painting inside was a seasoned traveller: it had arrived the night before from Sicily, by road and under armed guard. The box looked entirely unremarkable. That was the point, I was told.

Abruptly, there was a commotion: the curator of the exhibition, a visiting curator, a translator, an expert in Renaissance art, plus a clutch of hangers-on, burst through the doors. Two art handlers wearing gloves and sober expressions strode over to a table; on it, pliers, tape measures, and an electric screwdriver had been placed with a precision that would not have been out of place in an operating theatre.

While the group noisily exchanged paperwork and air kisses, the visiting curator – who had accompanied the painting on its journey – gave the handlers sotto voce instructions. The crate was laid flat on the floor, its lid unscrewed and the foam packing lifted out. The screws that would attach the painting to the wall were held up for inspection; she gave a curt nod of assent. The only sound was the squeak of one handler’s trainers on the floor.

As the final layer of foam came off, there was a flash of gold reflected on the gallery ceiling. Craning my neck, I glimpsed the edge of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten By a Lizard, one of the artist’s most sensational early masterworks – a young face contorted in shock and pain, body twisted, eyes dark and cheeks flushed. Gently, the handlers placed the painting, one of two authenticated versions, on the table. There was a scattering of applause. It was though a celebrity had materialised in our midst.

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Posted by on August 13, 2019 in Reportages



Destroyer of worlds

On 27 April, before he burst into a San Diego synagogue and opened fire, killing one worshipper and injuring three more, the gunman said goodbye to the community that radicalised him. “It’s been real dudes,” he posted on the far-right politics board, /pol/, on the image-posting site 8chan. “I’ve only been lurking for a year and a half, yet what I’ve learned here is priceless.”

Why this story?
There’s no room for argument about whether hate-filled internet message boards encourage real-world violence: they do, and none more so than 8chan. It normalises racism, misogyny, and extremism – and helps turn nightmarish, loud-mouthed talk of action into reality. What kind of person would set up a site like 8chan?

The question matters if we’re serious about trying to regulate it, or prevent similar sites coming into being. We might assume that the brains behind 8chan would belong to a committed, hard-line ideologue; someone, perhaps, we could identify and deal with. But what if other impulses are in play? How do we deal with the motivating power of poverty, disability, anger and self-loathing? Meet Fredrick Brennan. Ceri Thomas, editor
The story was familiar. Six weeks earlier, a 28-year-old had killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Before starting his attack, he, too, had posted on 8chan’s /pol/ board. “It’s been a long ride,” he had written. He signed off his post: “Meme magic is real.” The first response from an anonymous 8chan user urged him to “get the high score”.

From its effect on the world, 8chan could be ranked as one of the internet’s most dangerous sites. Some have even compared it to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. The pattern is similar: men – and it is always men – find their way there, and get radicalised into an extreme ideology which drives some of them to violence.

Ahmed Al-Mahmoud, centre, survived the attack on the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. The perpetrator posted on 8chan /pol/ beforehand

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Posted by on August 12, 2019 in Reportages



No One Is Safe: How Saudi Arabia Makes Dissidents Disappear


Prince Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud sat in one of the few safe locations he frequents in Düsseldorf and ordered each of us a cup of coffee. With his close-cropped goatee and crisp gray suit, he looked surprisingly relaxed for a hunted man. He described his constant fear of being abducted, the precautions he takes when venturing outside, and how German law enforcement officials routinely check on him to make sure he is all right.

Recently, bin Farhan, who rarely grants interviews to Western reporters, had incensed the kingdom’s leaders with his calls for human rights reforms—an unusual grievance for a Saudi prince. What’s more, he spoke openly of his desire to establish a political movement that might eventually install an opposition leader, upending the kingdom’s dynastic rule.

As we sat over coffee, he relayed a story that at first sounded innocuous. One day in June 2018, his mother, who lives in Egypt, called him with what she thought was good news. The Saudi Embassy in Cairo had contacted her, she said, and had a proposal: The kingdom wanted to mend relations with the prince and was willing to offer him $5.5 million as a goodwill gesture. Since bin Farhan was struggling financially (reportedly due, in part, to a dispute with the ruling family), his mother welcomed this chance for a reconciliation. But as tempting as the overture was, he claimed he never considered it seriously. And when he followed up with Saudi officials, he realized the deal had a dangerous catch. They had told him he could collect his payment only if he personally came to a Saudi embassy or consulate. That immediately set off alarm bells. He declined the offer.

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Posted by on August 12, 2019 in Middle East, Reportages



We hired the author of ‘Black Hawk Down’ and an illustrator from ‘Archer’ to adapt the Mueller report so you’ll actually read it

Editor’s note

It feels as if nobody read the Mueller report. That’s a shame, because it’s an important document, depicting possible crimes by a sitting US president.

But not reading it makes sense. As a narrative, the document is a disaster. And at 448 pages, it’s too long to grind through. For long stretches, it reads less like a story and more like a terms-of-service agreement. The instinct to click “next” is strong.

And yet, buried within the Mueller report, there is a narrative that reads in parts like a thriller, like a comedy, like a tragedy — and, most important — like an indictment. The facts are compelling, all the more so because they come not from President Donald Trump’s critics or “fake news” reports, but from Trump’s own handpicked colleagues and associates. The story just needed to be rearranged in a better form.

So we hired Mark Bowden, a journalist and author known for his brilliant works of narrative nonfiction like “Black Hawk Down,” “Killing Pablo,” and “Hue 1968.”

Our assignment for him was simple. Use the interviews and facts laid out in the Mueller report (plus those from reliable, fact-checked sources and published firsthand accounts) to do what he does best: Tell a story recounting Mueller’s report that’s so gripping it will hold your attention (and maybe your congressional representative’s).

We also hired Chad Hurd, an illustrator from the art department of “Archer.” We asked him to draw out scenes from the report to bring them to life.

Here’s what Bowden and Hurd gave us …

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Posted by on August 12, 2019 in North America, Reportages



Against ‘natural’ parenting

Motherhood has never felt natural to me. I wasn’t very good at understanding my babies’ needs or what their cries meant, something that other parents seemed to know without giving it too much thought. ‘She’s just tired,’ they would say. Or: ‘This sound means he’s hungry.’ And I had no idea, and felt like a failure.

Even worse, I didn’t like the feeling of my baby attached to me. I felt ambivalent about nursing her; I didn’t hate it and sometimes I enjoyed it, but I felt burdened by the intensity that raising a child required.

It’s a cliché that parenting is hard but what is even harder is the judgment from other members of society – parents and nonparents alike. When I talked about my experiences in articles and blog posts, one word often came up to describe mothers like me: unnatural.

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Posted by on August 12, 2019 in Reportages, Uncategorized



Rainforest on Fire

The river basin at the center of Latin America called the Amazon is roughly the size of Australia. Created at the beginning of the world by a smashing of tectonic plates, it was the cradle of inland seas and continental lakes. For the last several million years, it has been blanketed by a teeming tropical biome of 400 billion trees and vegetation so dense and heavy with water, it exhales a fifth of Earth’s oxygen, stores centuries of carbon, and deflects and consumes an unknown but significant amount of solar heat. Twenty percent of the world’s fresh water cycles through its rivers, plants, soils, and air. This moisture fuels and regulates multiple planet-scale systems, including the production of “rivers in the air” by evapotranspiration, a ceaseless churning flux in which the forest breathes its water into great hemispheric conveyer belts that carry it as far as the breadbaskets of Argentina and the American Midwest, where it is released as rain.

In the last half-century, about one-fifth of this forest, or some 300,000 square miles, has been cut and burned in Brazil, whose borders contain almost two-thirds of the Amazon basin. This is an area larger than Texas, the U.S. state that Brazil’s denuded lands most resemble, with their post-forest landscapes of silent sunbaked pasture, bean fields, and evangelical churches. This epochal deforestation — matched by harder to quantify but similar levels of forest degradation and fragmentation — has caused measurable disruptions to regional climates and rainfall. It has set loose so much stored carbon that it has negated the forest’s benefit as a carbon sink, the world’s largest after the oceans. Scientists warn that losing another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest will trigger the feedback loop known as dieback, in which the forest begins to dry out and burn in a cascading system collapse, beyond the reach of any subsequent human intervention or regret. This would release a doomsday bomb of stored carbon, disappear the cloud vapor that consumes the sun’s radiation before it can be absorbed as heat, and shrivel the rivers in the basin and in the sky.

The catastrophic loss of another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest could happen within one generation. It’s happened before. It’s happening now.

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Posted by on August 12, 2019 in Reportages, South America


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Why the Greens should stop playing God

The state of the planet is forcing itself into the centre of the human mind. For increasing numbers of people, climate change is a palpable fact. Island communities and coastal cities are suffering the effects of rising sea levels, and all of us experience extreme weather and disjointed seasons.

Centre-ground politicians have accepted that some kind of action, more radical than any that has been implemented so far, has become urgently necessary. Everyone but the most stubborn climate denialists realises that an unprecedented change is taking place in the world that humans have inhabited throughout their history.

At the same time, as T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and thinking on the subject is increasingly delusional. A by-product of worldwide industrialisation based on fossil fuels, the shift that is underway was set in motion by human beings. It does not follow however that humans can stop it.

Why the Greens should stop playing God

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Posted by on August 9, 2019 in Reportages, Uncategorized


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