Longform's Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

The Expendables, by William Langewiesche. Vanity Fair.

Life in the French Foreign Legion, a motley fighting force unlike any other.

What man has not considered climbing onto a motorcycle and heading south? The Legion can be like that for some. Currently it employs 7,286 enlisted men, including non-commissioned officers. Over just the past two decades they have been deployed to Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, both Congos, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, and Somalia. Recently they have fought in Afghanistan, as members of the French contingent. There is no other force in the world today that has known so much war for so long. A significant number of the men are fugitives from the law, living under assumed names, with their actual identities closely protected by the Legion. People are driven to join the Legion as much as they are drawn to it. That went for every recruit I met on the farm.


The Last Laughing Death, by Jo Chandler. The Global Mail.

A 50-year medical riddle in Papua New Guinea, the man who made solving it his life's work, and the medical breakthroughs -- including insights into mad cow disease, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's -- this work made possible.

Alpers remembers the tragedy all too well. In medical literature, the investigation of this "extraordinary disease... will continue to have long-standing significance for neurology, infectious disease and public health", as papers to the landmark Royal Society kuru meeting in London in 2008 observed. But for Alpers it is a story populated by individuals with names and faces, children and mothers he tended and held in his arms in the days and weeks before they died, some of whom he cut open within hours of their deaths, searching for the truth of the powerful agent that had claimed them.


Going Souterrain, by Will Hunt. Intelligent Life.

Traversing Paris's parallel universe of tunnels, caverns and catacombs with six urban explorers.

Parisians say their city, with all of its perforations, is like a wedge of Gruyère cheese and nowhere is so holey as the catacombs. They are a vast, earthy labyrinth, 320km (200 miles) of tunnels, mainly on the Left Bank of the Seine. Some of the tunnels are flooded, half-collapsed, riddled with sinkholes, others are finished with neatly mortared brick, spiral staircases and elegant archways. These were the quarries that supplied the limestone blocks that make up the grand buildings along the Seine, 18 metres (60 feet) above our heads. The oldest had been carved to construct the Roman city of Lutetia, traces of which can still be found in the city's Latin Quarter. Over the centuries, as the city expanded, quarrymen brought more limestone to the surface, and the underground warren spread like the roots of a great tree.


Last Champions of the Third Reich, by Noah Davis. SB Nation.

The story of the 1944 German national soccer championship game.

As Schön prepared to lead his club on to the field, Olympic Stadium -- a massive monolith that seated up to 100,000 screaming fans -- remained an important symbol, the only place left in the crumbling empire that could hold the match and provide a measure of symbolism for the country's leadership, linking it to a time when the future of the Third Reich seemed limitless. Hitler had opened the 1936 Games with a rousing speech in the hulking structure designed for the event by the architect brothers Werner and Walter March. Now, for propaganda purposes, the government needed to have the final played in the same place it had been held since 1936, for even as the iron grasp of the Third Reich loosened around Europe, Nazi ideals still held strong inside the stadium's 40-foot tall limestone walls. The grand setting allowed an alternative narrative to exist, a fantasy, one where things were not as bad as they seemed.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Think Again: The BRICS, Antoine Van Agtmael. Foreign Policy.

On the financial influence of BRICS-an economic association between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- who collectively claim 40 percent of the world's population, and 20  percent of global GDP.

Until the beginning of the 1990s, Russia was still behind the Iron Curtain, China was recovering from the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square unrest, India remained a bureaucratic nightmare, and Brazil experienced bouts of hyperinflation combined with a decade of lost growth. These countries had largely muddled along outside the global market economy; their economic policies had often been nothing short of disastrous; and their stock markets were nonexistent, bureaucratic, or supervolatile. Each needed to experience deep, life-threatening crises that would catapult them onto a different road of development. Once they did, they tapped into their vast economic potential. Their total GDP of close to $14 trillion now nearly equals that of the United States and is even bigger on a purchasing power parity basis.



Egyptian Idol

The Salafi threat to blow up the pyramids is nothing new: Egypt's ambivalence toward its past dates back centuries.

In March 2001, Mullah Omar and the Afghan Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, exploding the statues and reducing to rubble some of Afghanistan's most important cultural relics. That act seemed to epitomize the cultural intolerance of the Taliban regime but also drew attention to the ways in which cultural heritage preservation has become used as a measure of civilized behavior of states in an era of global cosmopolitanism. For those concerned about the future of the world's antiquities, this week another threat emerged on the horizon. In an interview with Egyptian Dream TV over the weekend, Salafist leader Murgan Salem al-Gohary called on Muslims to destroy the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx as a religiously mandated act of iconoclasm. "The idols and statutes that fill Egypt must be destroyed. Muslims are tasked with applying the teachings of Islam and removing these idols, just like we did in Afghanistan when we smashed the Buddha statues," said Gohary, who claims to have participated in the destruction of Buddhas in Afghanistan and was arrested on several occasions under the Mubarak regime.

Forget for a minute the gross improbability of Gohary's threat to destroy millions tons of sheer rock and stone, monuments that have survived foreign invasions, rapacious pillagers, and environmental threats. It is a move almost guaranteed to draw media attention, particularly with the high level of anxiety surrounding the new political clout of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of the Salafist al-Nour party as a significant force in both the government and the charting of a new constitution. Fears over how Islamists might fare in post-Mubarak Egypt have only intensified amid a roiling debate over issues such as the role of women, the inclusion of minorities, and the country's position toward Western interests. Amid this debate, Egypt's Pharaonic remains have now become the latest touchstone for controversy.

At first glance, this latest conflict might appear to boil down to a clash between conservative and liberal strands of Islam, but the debate over Egypt's antiquities dates back centuries. Medieval Islamic scholars worked assiduously to understand the relics, with some attempting to decipher the hieroglyphic inscriptions. By the late 19th century, Egypt's archeological sites were the center of a nationalist struggle that became crystallized in the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb and how to partition its treasures between the state and the site's excavators. But that conflict was but a variation on a theme in Egypt's history. During the era of Egypt's entanglement with European imperialism following the Napoleonic conquest in 1798, the new field of Egyptology would emerge to dominate the representation of Egypt and assert control over the country's heritage. That heritage has also become an important political symbol in Egypt's more recent history -- both Anwar Sadat and Mubarak were derided as latter-day pharaohs for their authoritarian tendencies.

In early 2011, demonstrators tried to protect the Egyptian Museum adjacent to Tahrir Square from criminals who sought to use the chaos of the protests as a cover for looting its treasures. At the same time, illicit dealing of Egyptian antiquities continues, despite the tough rhetoric of the Supreme Council for Antiquities and its longstanding efforts to repatriate artifacts that found their way into foreign museums in an era when such transfers were either legally sanctioned or laws restricting their sale poorly enforced.

But Egypt's archaeological heritage and the remarkable monuments of the Giza Plateau are no strangers to threats. In recent decades, the steady encroachment of the urban metropolis of Cairo and its toxic air has prompted calls for Egypt, its antiquities authorities, and international organizations to come to the rescue of the country's cultural heritage. In previous centuries it was the work of largely European and American antiquarians, adventurers, and tourists who took their toll on these fabled structures and their potential riches. These early Egyptologists made important scientific gains and important contributions to knowledge, but those discoveries must be considered alongside the theft of artifacts and an insatiable desire to acquire and collect that motivated many who entered the field.

Even earlier, the limestone casement of the Pyramids were pillaged and served as a quarry, providing stone for the construction of the medieval cities of Fustat and its successor Cairo (al-Qahira in Arabic -- literally "The Victorious One"). Most recently, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, the worry was that the most impending danger to the site would be neglect. During the revolution, tourism in Egypt came to a standstill and receipts from ticket booths plunged by as much as 50 percent. During my visit to the pyramids in December 2011, during what should be the high season for tourist activity, lines were nonexistent and shopkeepers selling souvenirs and tour guides offering camel rides had become morose at the prospects facing their small corner of the Egyptian economy.

While most Egyptians recognize and understand the role that these ruins play in the economy and various state efforts to represent Egypt as a modern-day heir to one of the world's great civilizations, there is a palpable discomfort with this promotion and glorification of a pre-Islamic past. The archaeologist Neil Asher Silberman once referred to this as an "uneasy inheritance." For some Egyptians, too much attention is paid to these works of idolatry, whose preservation eat up resources at the expense of the welfare of an Islamic past, present, and future. Pharaoh, we might recall, is particularly singled out for approbation in Quranic scripture, which conservative Muslims have used to challenge any reverence and respect for the material remnants of this era as a marker of shirk -- the sin of polytheism or, literally, the partnering of something with God.

This logic has been central in the justification of various acts of iconoclasm throughout history and in modern times. Salafists and Wahhabis have long looked to the scholarship of the 13th century thinker Ibn Taymiyyah for jurisprudential grounding to destroy sites, particularly tombs and shrines connected to the Sufi tradition and important figures in Shiism, which served as loci of pilgrimages or acts of ziyara (literally "visitation"). Such acts of destruction have been notable throughout the Arabian Peninsula and even within the holy precincts of Mecca and Medina.

But the voices of the iconoclasts do not go unchallenged within the Muslim tradition. Consider the remarks of the 10th century Muslim traveler in Egypt, al-Masudi, as he describes his own consternation at the destruction of Pharaonic ruins. He writes to his future progeny:

"Look, son, what the Pharaohs built and how it is being destroyed by these idiots. Nothing is more tragic and sad than the loss of what these ruins offer to those who would regard them and consider their lessons...What sort of wisdom preaches that these ruins should be removed from the face of the Earth?"

Masudi sought to find support for these ruins within the Islamic tradition. For him, they serve to strengthen the Quranic injunction to search out and contemplate the lessons (‘ibar) which the divine has left for believers in the landscape. His words make room for an Islamic cosmopolitanism and pluralism that holds particular urgency for the debates about the future of post-Mubarak Egypt. Egyptians will continue to argue about what lessons they want to draw from the past without literally pulling the house down around them, but they can do so safe in the knowledge that an embrace of ancient Egypt and its antiquities is not incompatible with Islam.

In the aftermath of attempts to destroy a series of sites in Saudi Arabia, the well-known Muslim American calligrapher Muhammad Zakariya commented that those involved propagated a vision of Islam "unable to accommodate the difficulty and complexity -- the depth and texture -- of [Islam] and, ultimately, of its essential meaning." He continued: "Islam is large. Muslims are not mushriks (idolaters)."

Indeed: Islam is large. This debate within the faith over how to reconcile a non-Muslim past with a fervently Muslim present speaks to the broader debate within the religion over how to orient itself after the Arab Spring. While the authoritarian yoke of Mubarak-era Egypt has now been cast off, the relationship of Islam and secularism in Egyptian society remains highly unstable. The Muslim Brotherhood in particular, as it enters the realm of politics, will be forced to navigate with greater clarity between progressive voices calling for pluralism and conservatives advocating a more fixed codification of sharia within Egypt's new constitutional framework. And, the preferences of Murgan Salem al-Gohary notwithstanding, the chances are good that the brothers will be doing so in the shade of the pyramids.