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 Mercenary

Joshua Davis • Epic

Roy Petersen was blind in one eye, had two replaced hips, and was twice divorced. His job was to solve a gold mine robbery case in the Peruvian Andes. He would need some help.

"I'm circling the drain now," he says. "But I'm not going down quietly. It's gonna be suicide by Al Qaeda. There'll be a hail of bullets."

In the fading light, Roy flips through pictures from better days. There aren't many: a marine buddy drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette with a good-looking woman ("He's dead now"), another of a marine in dress blues ("Dead too"), and then a photo of a woman: dark lipstick, silver earrings, skin the color of mahogany. She's wearing a suit with a blue turtleneck and her fists are balled. She looks like she could do some damage in a fight.

"Maria," he says.

He's quiet for a moment.

"Everything would have been different if Peru had worked out," he says finally, staring at the photo. "I would have been in high clover."


The Hard Life of Celebrity Elephants

Rollo Romig • New York Times Magazine

On the captive parade elephants in Kerala, India and the "two men battling over their fate."

A week after I met Venkitachalam, I took a train to Kerala's capital to meet Kumar in his ministerial office. His assistant had told me that I might have to wait: the minister's schedule was hard to foretell. His aides waited with me, none of them busy, it seemed, with anything but drinking coffee. Four hours later, the minister finally swept into the room, and the aides leapt to their feet. Kumar has dark, curly hair, a macho mustache and a weakness for loud shirts; he was wearing a shiny purple number covered with paisleys. I was surprised at how soft-spoken he was. A half-dozen of his staff members sat opposite us, laughing whenever their boss cracked a joke.

When I asked him why there's such a fondness for elephants in Kerala, a dreamy look fell over his eyes: it's because they're like the sea, he said, always moving and endlessly alluring. But when I mentioned Venkitachalam, his soft speech turned sharp. "This Venkitachalam, he never gave a banana to an elephant," he said. "If you love an elephant, you can send a complaint, but first you should feed the elephant. This fellow hasn't even fed one banana." (In response, Venkitachalam told me that bananas aren't a suitable food for an elephant - they might cause constipation.)

Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

My Teacher's Shadow

Caleb Crain • New Yorker

A former student discovers the family letters of his late translation professor, written from Nazi-occupied Prague.

A turning point came in the summer of 1939, when new regulations were posted that divided Jews from Gentiles in cafés and restaurants. Soon they were divided in movie theatres, swimming pools, and parks. A little while later, the Nazis took away radios. Eisenstein lost his job. The family lost its home in the country. Bit by bit, their freedoms were taken from them.

The power of the letter is in its specificity about the nature and timing of the losses. It is evident that they were still fresh in Eisenstein's mind when he wrote, as were the pleasures still possible at each stage of loss. After the family car had to be sold, for example, the family members were still able to ride their bicycles "a bit," until, a short while later, "the yellow star came" and, along with it, "the confiscation of bicycles." In the end, there were the so-called transports. The first ones did not quite seize what this word meant-we know it already [we know it now]. Crowded rooms without beds, foot equal to none [square footage equal to zero], no heating in winter, no right to move about-the confiscation (sequestration) of our remaining property except fifty kilos per person which we can take along towards-?

How painful it is that Kussi's uncle took so much pride in his hardheadedness, yet seems not to have known what lay behind his dash and question mark.

AFP/Getty Images


Adnan Khan • The Awl

In search of racial understanding.

There's an interesting loneliness that comes with having no reflections. I want to think that the closest I've found is Kumar from the Harold and Kumar movie franchise; n+1 recently suggested Kumar might be the "single best role model for generations of brown people otherwise condemned to going pre-med." But how flat is his rendering? How desperate is my desire that I fling everything on to poor Kal Penn? I treat Kumar with the same sort of reverence that someone could treat a Max Payne. Why am I so eager for the immigrant Dude, Where's My Car? I hold "Grand Theft Auto IV"-about a Serbian immigrant-strangely close to my heart, pumping the narrative full of meaning that was probably not intended.

The uselessness of brown angst. What am I supposed to do with all this scaffolding of thought that I've built? All these sputtering images, do they place any of us in the world? This color of pain gets brighter and more opaque with age, into something that I notice more but am less sure what to do with.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Who Is Ali Khamenei?

Akbar Ganji • Foreign Affairs

An intellectual profile of Iran's Supreme Leader.

. . . . Today, the capitalist system has reached a complete dead end. Perhaps it will take years for the consequences of this dead end to reach their final conclusion. But the crisis of the West has begun in earnest."

For Khamenei, world history is "turning a corner," and "a new age in the entire world" is beginning. The Marxist, liberal, and nationalist creeds have lost their attraction, and only Islam has kept its. The Arab Spring -- or, as he calls it, "the Islamic Awakening" -- is a prelude to a worldwide uprising against the United States and international Zionism. In his view, the fact that routine materialistic calculations make such an outcome unlikely is unimportant, because divine providence will bring it about. He sees the survival of the Islamic Republic in the face of more than three decades of international opposition as evidence of this heavenly support and counts on it continuing in the future. Khamenei believes that the historic turn he anticipates will lead to the victory of spiritual and divine values in the world. Contrary to Max Weber's diagnosis that modern science has disenchanted the world and the realm of power, Khamenei still relies on esoteric notions and divine beings in his approach to politics. He is re-enchanting the world.


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Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979

From Cairo to Wall Street to the West Bank, plotting a world of upheaval.

This is what data from a world in turmoil looks like. The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) tracks news reports and codes them for 58 fields, from where an incident took place to what sort of event it was (these maps look at protests, violence, and changes in military and police posture) to ethnic and religious affiliations, among other categories. The dataset has recorded nearly 250 million events since 1979, according to its website, and is updated daily.

John Beieler, a doctoral candidate at Penn State, has adapted these data into striking maps, like the one above of every protest recorded in GDELT -- a breathtaking visual history lesson. Some events to watch for as you scroll through the timeline:

  • Strikes and protests in response to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms.
  • Poland lighting up through the 1980s while Cold War-era Eastern Europe stays dark.
  • The escalation of apartheid protests in South Africa in the late 1980s.
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of protests in Eastern Europe preceding the end of the Soviet Union.
  • Protests in Iraq coinciding with Operation Desert Storm in early 1991.
  • The explosion of protests in the United States since 2008 -- think Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements.
  • Iran's Green Movement protests after the presidential election in 2009.
  • The Arab Spring, with protests stretching across North Africa and the Middle East starting in 2011.
  • The persistence of protests in perennial hotspots like Kashmir, Tibet, and Israel and the West Bank.

The map also shows some of the limits of Big Data -- and trying to reduce major global events to coded variables. Take, for example, the protests across the United States in late 2011: Some are Occupy protests, others are Tea Party protests, but the difference in the political identity of those demonstrations isn't reflected in the map. There are some strange things that happen when the data are mapped, as well. A cursory glance at the map would suggest that Kansas is the most restive state in the union, but really the frequent protests popping up somewhere near Wichita are every media mention of a protest in the United States that doesn't specify a city (the same goes for that flickering dot north of Mongolia in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia).

Another issue is that the results are only as good as the data. While the scale of GDELT's database is impressive, it's influenced by its source: international news reporting. Kalev Leetaru, the Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University working on the GDELT project, told FP by email that the apparent uptick in protests around the world starting in the mid-1990s may be misleading. "In some other work we are doing right now, preliminary results suggest that as a percentage of all events captured in GDELT, protests have not become more common overall," he explained. "So, the majority of that increase in protest events over time stems from the increase in available digital media," especially news.

Look again at that dark splotch in Eastern Europe through the 1980s -- is that the absence of protest, or the presence of strong state-run media? The data simply show that protests were not reported by the press. That doesn't necessarily lessen the significance of the data presented in the map, he notes: "Where this is so important is that news media is really our only cross-national comparative dataset capturing human society at this scale, so what this map reflects is the view of global protests conveyed by the news media over time.... [It] shows how media coverage of protests has increased so massively over the past decade..."

Beieler's global protest map takes a wide-angle approach to geography and time, but he's also interested in how mapping GDELT data can help analyze specific crises. And in the past several weeks, he's had a case study with the pro-Morsy protests and military crackdown in Egypt.

Look at these two maps, made using data from Egypt from Aug. 9 to Aug. 17. This first map, at the top of the page, tracks the location and intensity of protests (the purple and yellow dots) and events involving violence directed at civilians (the red circles). Like the previous map, making sense of the visual has its limitations: Some of those purple and yellow dots represent supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, while others represent counterprotesters. What the map does illustrate, though, is the diffusion of protests across the country even as violence has been concentrated in major metropolitan areas, especially Cairo and Alexandria. The map "is enormously powerful in its ability to convey how unrest has spilled beyond Cairo," Leetaru told FP.

In this second map of Egypt, Beieler tracked protests (again as the purple and yellow dots) and changes in military or police posture (the red circles), which "can include things such as an increase in police alert status, a mobilization of police power, or some other exhibition of police power," Beieler explained to FP. The map shows where the military and police did and did not respond to protests. But it's not all about protests: Look at the Sinai, where military actions responding to extremist groups are recorded in the absence of protests.

The maps of Egypt's protests and violence are "enormously powerful in [their] ability to convey how unrest has spilled beyond Cairo," Leetaru writes. "To me, the most powerful part of these visualizations is being able to see the spatial patterns in unrest." 

John Beieler