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This week, we’re sharing stories from Rebecca Solnit, Robert F. Worth, Margaret Talbot, Porochista Khakpour, and Frank Bures.
At The New York Times Magazine, Robert F. Worth reports from Aleppo, a city in ruins. Speaking with residents about the current state of existence, Worth also examines the social and political seeds of the Syrian War, now in its sixth year. The war has been supported by a cast of foreign sponsors on both sides. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have backed the Assad regime, which dropped bombs and chemical weapons on its own citizens, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have aided the rebels attempting to overthrow Assad. With Aleppo firmly back into the hands of the Assad regime, Syrians and exiled expats are starting to wonder whether backing Assad is their best chance at ending the war so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
I wanted to wind back the clock and make sense of how a city that seemed so averse to politics — of any kind — had been torn apart.
Even Syrians have trouble answering that question. In March, I met a lawyer named Anas Joudeh, who took part in some of the 2011 protests. Joudeh no longer considers himself a member of the opposition. I asked him why. “No one is 100 percent with the regime, but mostly these people are unified by their resistance to the opposition,” Joudeh told me. “They know what they don’t want, not what they want.” In December, he said, “Syrians abroad who believe in the revolution would call me and say, ‘We lost Aleppo.’ And I would say, ‘What do you mean?’ It was only a Turkish card guarded by jihadis.” For these exiled Syrians, he said, the specter of Assad’s crimes looms so large that they cannot see anything else. They refuse to acknowledge the realities of a rebellion that is corrupt, brutal and compromised by foreign sponsors.
All the same, Aleppo was a turning point, and in some ways an emblem of the wider war. Its fall appears to have persuaded many ordinary Syrians that the regime, for all its appalling cruelty and corruption, is their best shot at something close to normality.
All this may sound awfully precarious for Assad. But in a sense, it is just a more extreme form of the game Assad and his father have played for decades. The Assad regime arose after an unstable period during the 1950s and ’60s, when Syria was shaken by coups and countercoups. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, triumphed in part by managing a constellation of rivals who hated one another but were all dependent on him. They knew that without him at the center, chaos would return, and that would be bad for business. This is truer than ever today. And it has a secondary effect, not unimportant: Many ordinary people now see Assad as their only hedge against a far more toxic kind of chaos.
Robert F. Worth reports from Aleppo, a city in ruins. Speaking with residents about the current state of existence, Worth also examines the social and political seeds of the Syrian War, now in its sixth year. The war has been supported by a cast of foreign sponsors on both sides. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have backed the Assad regime, which dropped bombs and chemical weapons on its own citizens, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey have aided the rebels attempting to overthrow Assad. With Aleppo firmly back into the hands of the Assad regime, Syrians and exiled expats are starting to wonder whether backing Assad is their best chance at ending the war so they can begin to rebuild their lives.
With Qaddafi’s former guards now in prison, one man leads the interrogation of his brother’s killer:
Nasser called Marwan’s father and invited him to come see his son. For the last six months, the family stayed away out of fear that the thuwar would take revenge on them all. On the following Friday, eight of them showed up at the base in Tajoura. Nasser greeted them at the door and led them downstairs. ‘It was a very emotional moment,’ Nasser said. ‘You can imagine how I felt when I saw my brother’s killer embracing his brother.’ The two brothers hugged each other for a long time, sobbing, until finally Nasser pushed them apart, because he could not bear it anymore. Later, he took one of the cousins aside and asked him if he knew why Marwan was being held. The man said no. ‘I told him: “Your cousin killed six very qualified people whom Libya will need, two doctors and four officers. One of them was my brother.” ’ The cousin listened, and then he hugged Nasser before the family left.
On the encouraging signs of change in Burma—from the end of press censorship to the release of some political prisoners. A report from inside, and questions about why the government is doing it:
Ever since the country’s longtime dictator, Than Shwe, stepped aside early last year, a remarkable thaw has appeared to be underway in Burma—and journalists have been among the prime beneficiaries. In June 2011, the government announced that magazines focusing on sports, technology, entertainment, health, and children’s topics no longer had to be submitted for censorship. Later, publications covering business, economics, law, or crime were also exempted. In October, U Tint Swe, head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, made a mind-boggling statement during a rare interview with Radio Free Asia (RFA). ‘Press censorship,’ he said, ‘is nonexistent in most other countries as well as among our neighbors, and, as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future.’ For the head of the censorship board to say this at all was astonishing, but for him to say it to a news organization like RFA, which is funded by the U.S. government and has been banned in Burma, was unthinkable. (Until recently, state media spouted melodramatic slogans about RFA and other external radio services running Burmese-language programs, calling them ‘killers in the airwaves’ and accusing them of producing a ‘skyful of lies.’)
Kate Abbott | Longreads | July 2017 | 11 minutes (2,730 words)
My 8-year-old son Henry believes in Santa but not in God. I frequently question when to break the news about Santa, but I’ve never worried about his religious beliefs, or lack of them. He is so young; surely existential questions can wait. At least that’s what I thought before the Cub Scouts required him to choose between his own beliefs and a desire to go camping with newfound friends.
Friends are a problem in his life right now. Henry has had to jump from school to school in his short scholastic career, and since we’ve moved to a new town, he’s had trouble making new pals. My friend is a Girl Scout leader, and her daughters enjoy Girl Scouts, so after a particularly lonely day for my kid, I thought, why not try Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts for younger kids? I imagined boys in uniforms with caps and kerchiefs, huddled around a campfire after a day of hiking and learning to tie knots. I had visions of Scouts helping an old lady cross the street. I thought of Henry learning the names of plants and constellations and, most importantly, the names of other boys in the pack. I emailed the nearest den leader right away.
Convincing my shy, reluctant joiner to go to a den meeting exhausted me, but when we finally got there he played with the other boys during free time near the end of the meeting, which was more playtime than he’d spent with any kids recently at all. He ran into the living room where I had been talking with the den leader and his wife, all smiles and out of breath. “We’d love to join,” I said.
We were all in: we drove 40 minutes to the closest “Scout store” and the adult Scout employee picked out all of the required bits of clothing and ornaments, down to official Cub Scout socks. I didn’t even blink when the register totaled $148.66. I handed over my credit card and told Henry he was going to have so much fun. He even seemed to think so. His enthusiasm increased and I didn’t flinch when I met with the pack leader later in the week to officially register him. I signed off on the forms freely, not reading them carefully enough, and gladly wrote a check for $100 (the fee for registration and a pack t-shirt). As I saw it, I was paying for more than stuff; I was paying for instant companionship and camaraderie.
At the next meeting, Henry balked at wearing the uniform, but I reminded him that Grandma had spent four hours sewing on all his starter patches and all the other boys would be wearing it too. He deemed the uniform “hideous” but put it on. He really wanted to try because he knew I wanted him to try.
We joined Scouts midyear, so we started off already “behind” what the other kids in the den had done and we would need to work at home to “catch up” on requirements before April. (Feeling slightly contrary already, I asked “Or what?” but I didn’t really get an answer.) Still, we had committed, so we taught ourselves how to tie a square knot by watching YouTube and I signed off as we sped through the basic requirements in the official Cub Scout handbook (spiral-bound edition, because it was far superior to the paperback edition, the guy at the Scout store had assured me). We were going to do this right, down to the spiral-edition book.
Henry has had to jump from school to school in his short scholastic career, and since we’ve moved to a new town, he’s had trouble making new pals.
When we got to the next requirement on the list, though, I had to pause. This one was called “Duty to God” and consisted of several parts. We would have to complete part 1 and choose some of the options from part 2.
Jeremiah Moss | Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul | Dey Street Books | July 2017 | 28 minutes (6,876 words)
As someone who was evicted from her East Village apartment in 2005 — and who now finds herself worried about losing her place in gentrifying Kingston, New York — I was excited to see that Vanishing New York blogger “Jeremiah Moss” (the pseudonym for psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury) had a book coming out.
Since 2007, Moss’s blog has catalogued the shuttering of one New York City institution after another, and staged demonstrations (which he himself didn’t attend, for fear of outing himself) to try and save them. Where his blog has tended to focus mainly on the East Village and lower Manhattan, his book, Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost its Soul, is more comprehensive, looking at the city as a whole, one borough and neighborhood at a time. It traces what he’s labeled today’s “hyper-gentrification” to the Koch era, and explores the problem in historical, economic, sociological, psychological, and personal terms.
Although Moss has been making his living for years as a shrink, he came to the city more than twenty years ago with the hope of becoming a writer. Having garnered glowing endorsements from veteran New York chroniclers like Luc Sante — not to mention the rare earnest blurb from Gary Shteyngart — it seems he’s now truly arrived.
Below, the first chapter, “The East Village.” — Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor
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This story is co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with Topic, which publishes an original story, every other week. Sign up for Topic’s newsletter now. Sarah Laskow’s story is part of Topic’s State of the Union issue.
Ronald Rewald and Richard Craig Smith did not appear to have much in common. The founder of an investment firm in Hawai’i, Rewald lived like a Master of the Universe, traveling the world in expensive cars, staying in expensive hotels and throwing expensive parties. Smith, by contrast, lived in Utah, with a wife and four children. A former case officer in intelligence with the United States Army, he had resigned from his job at the start of the 1980s to spend more time with his family. He sought to make a new life for himself as an entrepreneur; when VHS tapes were still cutting-edge, he began a service to make video diaries and testimonials for families to pass down from one generation to the next.
What brought Rewald and Smith together was espionage. In the early 1980s, legal troubles tangled the two men in a similar narrative of spying and betrayal. First charged in August 1983 in state court with two counts of theft, Rewald was eventually indicted, a year later, on 100 counts of fraud, tax evasion, perjury and other federal crimes. In April 1984, Smith was accused of much more serious offenses—conspiracy, espionage, and transmission of secret material, charges that, were he convicted, could lead to a death sentence. The two men were represented the same lawyer, the bombastic Brent Carruth, and they had the same defense for their alleged crimes: The CIA made me them do it.
Rewald and Smith’s assertions sometimes seemed preposterous, as if lifted from a convoluted spy novel. The cartoonish stories they told involved fake names, fear of assassination, and envelopes full of cash. (They certainly seemed fictional to government prosecutors, who dismissed the tales as fabrications.) But in the Reagan era, as now, the news was full of undisclosed meetings and clandestine plots to swing elections. Americans were being inundated with reports about the secrets of the intelligence community: the Watergate revelations about the CIA’s domestic surveillance, the assassination attempts on foreign leaders, and the Iran-Contra scandal, for starters.
Suddenly, anything seemed possible.
On paper, the government’s success in Smith’s case was all but assured. Americans have little tolerance for disloyalty. There have been more than 110 Americans arrested on espionage charges since the 1950s and those who didn’t defect before they were sentenced to years, sometimes decades, in prison.
But though Rewald and Smith’s stories sounded wild, their juries weren’t entirely willing to trust the veracity of the government’s narrative, either. In the end, one of the two men would be sent to jail, the other set free. Read more…