Feature

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.

 

Boko Haram: Terror's Insidious New Face, Alex Perry, Newsweek.

It's several weeks since the Islamist militants of Boko Haram kidnapped more than 260 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria and the general wants me to see what he's up against. He invites me to his office in the capital, Abuja, and opens his laptop.  

The general clicks on one folder titled Abubakar Shekau. A first clip shows the future leader of Boko Haram in his years as a preacher, in a white cap and white babban riga, the traditional Nigerian pajama, tunic and cape. A second clip is more recent, from 2013, and shows Shekau in a clearing, looking far bulkier, in full combat camouflage.

The next clip shows Shekau's former No. 2, Abu Sa'ad, a few months before his death in August 2013. He is giving a speech to his men on the eve of an attack last year on an army barracks in Bama, Nigeria, a town on the Cameroon border. The fighters, who appear to be mostly teenagers, grin shyly at the camera. Abu Sa'ad says that the attack has been long planned and that most of its architects are dead.

 

The Organ Detective: A Career Spent Uncovering a Hidden Global Market in Human Flesh, Ethan Watters, Pacific Standard.

Tracking the organ trade, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes visited African and South American dialysis units, organ banks, police morgues, and hospitals. She interviewed surgeons, patient's rights activists, pathologists, nephrologists, and nurses. So why aren't more people listening to her?

When she first heard about the organ thieves, the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes was doing fieldwork in northeastern Brazil. It was 1987, and a rumor circulating around the shantytown of Alto do Cruzeiro, overlooking the town of Timbau?ba, in a sugarcane farming region of Pernambuco, told of foreigners who traveled the dirt roads in yellow vans, looking for unattended children to snatch up and kill for their transplantable organs. Later, it was said, the children's bodies would turn up in roadside ditches or in hospital dumpsters.

Scheper-Hughes, then an up-and-coming professor at the University of California-Berkeley, had good reason to be skeptical. As part of her study of poverty and motherhood in the shantytown, she had interviewed the area's coffin makers and the government clerks who kept the death records. The rate of child mortality there was appalling, but surgically eviscerated bodies were nowhere to be found. "Bah, these are stories invented by the poor and illiterate," the manager of the municipal cemetery told her. 

 

Nature's Most Perfect Killing Machine, Leigh Cowart, Hazlitt.

Ebola is nightmare fuel: a biological doomsday device conspiring with our bodies to murder us in uniquely gruesome fashion. It's also killed fewer than 2,000 people. How has a virus with such a modest body count so fiercely captured the darkest corners of our imagination?

On October 13, 1976, Frederick A. Murphy, DVM, Ph.D., saw something that would terrify the masses for decades to come. A few days prior, a box containing a specimen from a patient in Zaire had arrived at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in poor condition, the glass tubes broken in transit. Rather than send it straight to the autoclave for sterilization, his colleague Dr. Patricia Webb scavenged some fluid-soaked cotton from the damaged delivery. After the virus spent a few days in tissue culture-monkey kidney cells, to be specific-Murphy prepared a sample for examination with an electron microscope. When he saw it, the filamentous hook-and-loop formation now so recognizable, he immediately shut down the device. He had to return to where he prepared the sample. He had to bleach the area, to autoclave his equipment and his protective coverings. It was urgent.

He returned his attention to the sample, though. He thought he'd seen Marburg, a lethal filovirus capable of causing a viral hemorrhagic fever, and shot a cassette's worth of pictures-not realizing he had, in fact, just become the first human to ever photograph the slender, looping tell of the Ebola virus.

Ebola. The name itself has become a synonym for horror. That a strand of 280 or so amino acids carrying little more than simple instructions and lucky keys for vertebrate locks can kill in such a fantastically gruesome manner is a testament to the ferocity of nature at the molecular core. It's one thing to fear life forms at the macro level-to dread the shark in the water, to gawk at lacerations rimmed by skin flapping around like party streamers, to see the stump and hear the story and be filled with awe at the efficiency of an ancient apex predator. It's quite another to contemplate your own body liquefying inside you, spilling through all of your available holes as you cling to life-to consider that something so deadly could have such stealth, present only in the bodily destruction it leaves in its wake.

 

A ‘Band-Aid' for 800 Children, Eli Saslow, Washington Post.

Nora Sandigo is guardian to hundreds of U.S. citizens born to illegal immigrants who are subject to deportation.

Sandigo is Miami's most popular solution to a growing problem in immigration enforcement affecting what the government refers to as "mixed-status families." A quarter of people deported from the United States now say they are parents of U.S.-citizen minors, which means more than 100,000 American children lose a parent to deportation each year. A few thousand of those children lose both parents. "Immigration orphans," is how the government refers to this group.

Many of them leave the country with their parents. Seventeen each day are referred to the U.S. foster-care system. Others seek out new guardians, American citizens such as Sandigo, to protect their legal interests in the United States. For these children, the arrangement means they can stay in the country where they were born and continue to live with relatives or friends who are in the country illegally, without fear of being taken into state custody.

 

When Wall Street Went to Africa, Christiane Badgley, Foreign Policy.

A New York tycoon won a sweetheart deal to build a massive "sustainable" palm oil plantation in Cameroon. What followed were accusations of intimidation, corruption, bribery, and deceit. 

At the main gate of the Herakles Farms plantation, a large billboard reads, "Contributing to a sustainable future for Cameroon." The gate is little more than a bamboo pole hung across a dirt road, but security guards won't let just anyone in. "No visitors," one said when I asked permission to enter. "You need a pass from management."

This is no ordinary farm. Several years ago, Herakles Farms -- then an affiliate of Herakles Capital, a New York private investment firm -- negotiated a deal with the Cameroonian government to develop a palm oil plantation in the country's Southwest Region, a province known for its lush rain forests and volcano, Mount Cameroon. The plantation would be massive: some 280 square miles, more than 12 times the size of Manhattan. Upon full implementation, Herakles Farms claimed, the plantation would be one of the biggest commercial palm oil operations in Africa.

But the project, now in its fifth year, is highly controversial; it faces strong opposition both at home and abroad. Local opponents have accused the company of using donations of goods and services to garner support. Scientists have challenged Herakles's claims of environmental sustainability. And numerous observers question the economic benefits promised for the surrounding region, fearing the project is much more likely to strip communities of land and livelihoods than it is to lift them out of poverty.

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images; STR/AFP/Getty Images; CELLOU BINANI/AFP/Getty Images; David McNew/Getty Images; SUTANTA ADITYA/AFP/Getty Images

Feature

One Billion Drinkers Can Be Wrong

China's most popular spirit is coming to the U.S. Here's why you shouldn't drink it. 

Imagine discomfort. It's 3 a.m., and you're sitting in the back row of a long-distance bus. The man sitting next to you scratches his whale-sized belly and giggles as he sleeps. The bathroom door keeps slamming open, and the smell of urine tinged with vomit wafts into your nostrils. 


Counterpoint

  • Derek Sandhaus:What Foreign Policy got wrong about China's most popular drink.

Bottle that experience and you have baijiu, which literally means "white alcohol" and encompasses a variety of grain-based spirits produced mostly from sorghum and rice. Because it is China's swill of choice, representing an ungodly 99.5 percent of the spirits consumed there, it is the world's most widely consumed strong drink. Baijiu is a staple at Chinese state banquets, in high- and low-end restaurants across the country, and in convenience stores on the sides of dusty roads in one-chopstick towns throughout China's vast interior. Throughout my time in China -- both during my college summers in the early 2000s and while living there from 2006 to 2011 -- baijiu was a constant reminder that the enjoyable part of drinking was not the taste. In Red Sorghum, an early novel by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mo Yan, workers at a distillery season baijiu with their urine. I don't see that as a metaphor, or as social criticism, or as a plot-building device. I see that as an accurate evocation of the flavor. 

Sensing a business opportunity -- due to growing curiosity over Chinese culture and the increasing number of Chinese visitors to the United States -- some companies are trying to bring baijiu to the United States. Diageo, the world's biggest spirits producer, has been pushing the high-end Chinese brand of which it is a majority owner, Shui Jing Fang ("Wellwater Workshop") to U.S. consumers over the last year. Some claim baijiu tastes "delicious, fruity and full of delicate complexity," states an article on the website of the Diageo Bar Academy, a company program that provides bartender training. The same article notes, however, that others call it "aggressive firewater" that "taste[s] of burnt tyres." (In the United States, Shui Jing Fang is almost only available for sale in the duty-free/duty-paid section of airports; a spokesperson for the company said it sees the opportunity to "deliver a truly authentic Chinese luxury product to Chinese diaspora and 'experience seekers'" in the United States.) 

But a small group of intrepid entrepreneurs has actually begun producing baijiu and selling it to American audiences. "It's such a brand-new concept -- no one knows about baijiu in America," said Michelle Ly, president of Vinn Distillery, a small family-run business based in Oregon and reportedly the only baijiu made entirely in the United States. In his March book, Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits, writer Derek Sandhaus describes Vinn as featuring "touches of sticky rice and lemon curd." And there is Confucius Wisdom, a baijiu available in a few Washington, D.C., bars and one that, Sandhaus writes, "hopes to put forward the best face of Chinese culture, albeit in liquid form."

Perhaps the most ambitious baijiu to try to crack the American market is byejoe, whose advertisements urge drinkers to "awaken your inner dragon." The company's founder and CEO, Matt Trusch, who worked in corporate finance at Merrill Lynch and spent 15 years living in Asia, said he makes the "cleanest and best baijiu" in the world. 

The company sent me its box of schwag: fortune cookies, a byejoe T-shirt, marketing materials, and two bottles decorated with an attractive Asian woman.

Byejoe's "Dragon Fire" flavor, infused with dragon fruit, lychee, and hot chili is passable. Sandhaus calls it "pretty approachable." And it follows the popularity of flavored spirits -- what industry types call the "flavorization" trend -- it has already started to show up in scattered restaurants across the United States. "We are looking for authentic Asian spirits, and there's not a whole hell of a lot available, so when byejoe became available we wanted to start offering it," said Kevin O'Rourke, the beverage manager at the upscale New York City Asian fusion restaurant Buddakan. The restaurant serves a Baijiu Longevity Cocktail -- "byejoe Dragon, blood orange puree, lemon juice, bit of apricot brandy, dash of lychee liqueur" -- for $15; O'Rourke calls it one of the restaurant's better-selling cocktails. 

Byejoe's original, or "premium," flavor, however, punishes. "Every time I drink our baijiu, I'm surprised that it's so smooth," said Trusch. I was surprised too -- but in the way that you feel surprised when banging your head against a lamppost hurts less than expected. (But don't take my word for it; watch FP's baijiu taste test.)

Byejoe's strategy is to Americanize the spirit -- the company emphasizes that the drink is low-calorie, gluten-free, even kosher. In its marketing materials, the company compares its brand with traditional baijiu -- its bottles are "tall, sleek & ultra modern," unlike the other stuff, whose bottles are "short, Chinesey." Confucius Wisdom, on the other hand, aims to entice Americans to Chinese drinking culture mostly as is: The bottle is festooned with the Chinese sage, and it's tag-lined "A Wise Man's Spirit." 

On a Thursday night in early May, Sandhaus and I went to dinner with David Zhou, the Beijing-born founder of Everest Spirits, the company that produces Confucius Wisdom. Zhou, an affable man in his early 40s, suggested we meet for dinner in Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown, at the first local restaurant to regularly serve baijiu cocktails. I'm 30 years old, but that night I felt like a freshman in college, guzzling the inane punch put in front of me solely for its alcohol content. It certainly wasn't for the taste. The baijito, the bai tai, and the lycheetini, were all burdened by a flavor that tasted like a mis-digested mash of pineapple and apricot.

These entrepreneurs are certainly trying to warn people that baijiu is -- to put it politely -- an acquired taste. As Vinn Distillery's Ly admits, when people first smell her baijiu, "They say, 'Ooof!'" and then they say, "Oh, that's smooth and sweet." Ly pointed me to a January write-up of Vinn in the food magazine Bon Appétit, which said that though baijiu "happens to taste pretty terrible," Vinn is "more palatable" because it's distilled with rice instead of sorghum. "We always say, 'Don't smell it!'" said Ly, "because it'll kick you in the head." 

A recent blog post by cocktail writer Kara Newman asked, "Are Americans ready for baijiu, China's overproof firewater?" "No, they are not," wrote Newman, "But [baijiu] is coming for them anyway." Yes, baijiu is Chinese culture. But chicken feet as a bar snack, carrying around a dusty thermos of day-old tea, or the exposed-crotch pants that so many Chinese toddlers wear when they're potty training haven't caught on in the United States. I can't imagine baijiu will either.

That's not to say all baijiu is awful. High-end Maotai, which Richard Nixon famously toasted with Mao Zedong in 1972, can sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle.

I've never had very expensive baijiu, but I imagine it's drinkable. When I was in Beijing as a student in the summer of 2004, and in the years that followed, we would drink erguotou -- originally made in a distillery established during the Chinese civil war in the 1940s to produce antiseptics and sterilizers for the army. Literally "two pots distilled," it is now the low-end drink of choice for Beijingers and foreign hipsters alike. It comes in a green bottle that resembles the glass you'd find buried in a landfill, and mostly in two sizes, da er (big two) and xiao er (little two). ("Two" in Beijing slang means defective or retarded; after a few drinks, much unclever punning ensued.) Midrange products to me tasted pretty much the same, only they caused a more genteel hangover. I've never had the really low-end baijiu. Some supermarkets sell plastic bags of the stuff, so that the poor and the masochistically suicidal can stupefy themselves for under a dollar. 

Byejoe's Trusch told me that "it's a big mystery why a country with 5,000 years of history, and a superpower in the 21st century, doesn't have its representation at the mini-United Nations" -- by which he means a New York City bar. He's got a point; Americans are very internationalized in their hard-liquor tastes. In 2012, 42 percent of the spirits they drank were imported, compared with 23 percent for wine and just 13 percent for beer. Vodka, which probably originates from Eastern Europe, is the most popular spirit in the United States. There is a precedent, of sorts, for Asian beverages: Japan's sake and South Korea's soju, if not ubiquitous, are at least pretty easy to find in big cities across the United States. But they're much lower proof and much less alienating. "The person who encounters sake for the first time might not love it, but it's not as off-putting as baijiu," said O'Rourke.

For baijiu to work in the United States, that off-putting pain has to be part of the charm. Baijiu could succeed if bars and drinkers embrace its grittiness and street cred. The Shanghai cocktail bar Yuan has served a rum, baijiu, ginger ale cocktail called the "Dark and Smoggy," an updated version of the classic concoction, with a play on China's polluted skies. Maybe that type of cocktail could build a following somewhere in the United States -- perhaps among American businessmen who play host to visiting Chinese. Perhaps byejoe's defanged Dragon Fire can find a spot for itself on bar backs across America. The best-case scenario is the thousands of American hipsters moving to and from China each year adopt a brand and pimp it to bartenders in Bushwick. 

But baijiu worked for me in China, and it was a cult drink of choice for many of the young hipster expats there, because of the drinking culture surrounding it. The suffering caused by drinking erguotou was a great bonding activity. Besides, painful obliteration in a foreign country makes for great stories. Like that time we bought several bottles of licorice-flavored baijiu served in squeeze bottles, drank it on the three-hour bus ride to an all-night rave on the Great Wall, made terrible mistakes, and then laughed about it as the sun rose the next morning.

Even when the ugliness of Beijing overwhelmed -- the smog, the traffic, the dismal buildings festooned with blue bathroom tiles -- the camaraderie was always fun.

Drinking baijiu without that is just unpleasant.