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.

Ghosts of the Tsunami, by Richard Lloyd Parry, the London Review of Books

In the aftermath of a tsunami that claimed 20,000 lives, stories of unhappy spirits haunt Japan.

The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors. Along with walls, roofs and people, the water carried away household altars, memorial tablets and family photographs. Cemetery vaults were ripped open and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books listing the names of ancestors over generations. ‘The memorial tablets – it’s difficult to exaggerate their importance,’ Yozo Taniyama, a priest and friend of Reverend Kaneda, told me. ‘When there’s a fire or an earthquake, the ihai are the first thing many people will save, before money or documents. People died in the tsunami because they went home for the ihai. It’s life – like saving your late father’s life.’

When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts’, who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster few families were in a position to perform them. And then there were those ancestors whose descendants were entirely wiped out by the wave. Their comfort in the afterlife depended entirely on the reverence of living families, which had been permanently and irrevocably cut off: their situation was as helpless as that of orphaned children.

Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?

Far from Home, by Cynthia Gorney, National Geographic

On the foreign workers of Dubai, who now make up more than 90 percent of the city.

Difficult living conditions for foreign workers can be found everywhere in the world. But everything about Dubai is exaggerated. The city’s modern history starts just over a half century ago, with the discovery of oil in nearby Abu Dhabi, then a separate and independent sheikhdom. The United Arab Emirates was founded in 1971 as a national federation encompassing six of these sheikhdoms-the seventh joined the following year-and since Dubai had comparatively little oil, the city’s royal family used its portion of the country’s new riches to transform the small trading city into a commercial capital to dazzle the world. The famous indoor ski slope is only one wing of a Dubai shopping mall, which is not even the biggest of the city’s many malls; that one contains a three-story aquarium and a full-size ice hockey rink. The tallest building on the planet is in Dubai; Tom Cruise was seen rappelling down its outer wall in one of the Mission: Impossible movies. Nearly everywhere the visitor looks, things are extravagant and new.

And because the men who conceived contemporary Dubai decided that their spectacular city would be assembled and serviced by workers from other countries-there were too few Emiratis to do it, and why would a newly wealthy nation expect its adults to wait tables or pour cement in 120-degree-Fahrenheit heat when it could afford to invite outsiders to perform these tasks?-they ended up doing this in exaggerated fashion too. Of the 2.1 million people in Dubai, only about one in ten is Emirati. The rest are the global economy’s loaners, working on temporary contracts with the understanding that they will never be offered Emirati citizenship.

Twilight on the Tundra, by Julia Phillips, the Morning News

An adventure on the Beringia, a dog sled race stretching 685 miles over Russia’s frozen tundra.

How do you see what the mushers see? You mush. Turn in an application to the Beringia, a dog sled race stretching over Russia’s easternmost tundra. In 1991, the Beringia was awarded a Guinness Word Record for longest mushing trail ever. This year it covers 685 miles. Buy, borrow, or build a sled. Breed, beg for, or steal your dogs. These dogs are sometimes vicious. Their snouts carry pink-hooked scars. Shout at your team. Break up a fight and tear your hands open. In the beginning of March, make your way to the village of Esso, at the heart of the remote Kamchatka peninsula, nearly 5,000 miles from Moscow. Meet your competitors; lower your head so organizers can drape a yellow jersey over your shoulders; stand on a stage next to Kamchatka’s governor; smile, wave; check your dogs’ harnesses one last time and lift the toothed snow anchor that had been holding your sled in place; mush.

If you’re not a musher, you can still make it across those 685 miles of snow. You just have to figure out how. Here’s my advice: Live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Kamchatka’s capital, Petropavlovsk is a slowly shrinking settlement of 175,000 people supported by commercial fishing, summer tourism, and the military-industrial complex. Learn to love life there. Compose newspaper articles about the peninsula. Discover that you’re the only journalist around who’s working in the English language. Figure out where the Beringia headquarters is, show up every day, make coffee for the three men who organize the race, and wash their mugs. Be patient. One morning you’ll find you’re in the right place at, finally, the right time-the race leader says you can accompany them as a writer.

Secrets from Belfast, by Beth McMurtrie, the Chronicle of Higher Education

How Boston College’s oral history of the Troubles fell victim to an international murder investigation.

To many academic observers the Boston College case, as troubling as it was, remains an oddity. Not many oral historians choose to interview members of paramilitary organizations. And few universities contract out such work.

But the case has had a chilling effect among scholars. Richard L. English, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, says he has heard from a number of researchers seeking advice about whether to pursue research on political violence if it includes interviewing those involved in conflict. “I think the fallout is much wider than Northern Ireland,” he says. “There has been a shadow cast over this kind of research.”

Clifford M. Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association, says the Belfast Project offers several lessons. Make sure you consult your legal team in advance, for one, and get the top administration on board. “Perhaps a word of wisdom is, if you have this kind of project,” he adds, “don’t open it up until all participants are deceased. At the very least, do your best not to publicize it.”

The Littlest Boy, by Adam Rawnsley and David Brown, Foreign Policy

Twenty years after Hiroshima, elite American troops trained to stop a Soviet invasion — with nuclear weapons strapped to their backs.

In the event that communist forces launched a limited, non-nuclear attack, the president would have to choose between defeat at the hands of a superior conventional force or a staggeringly disproportionate (and potentially suicidal) strategic nuclear exchange that would kill hundreds of millions of people.

To provide options between “red” and “dead,” the United States soon embraced the concept of limited nuclear war, championing tactical atomic weapons designed for use in combat. If Warsaw Pact forces ever bolted from East Germany and Czechoslovakia toward Western Europe, the United States could resort to nukes to at least delay the communist advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive. These “small” weapons, many of them more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would have obliterated any battlefield and irradiated much of the surrounding area. But they provided options.

Cold War strategy was filled with oxymorons like “limited nuclear war,” but the backpack nuke was perhaps the most darkly comic manifestation of an age struggling to deal with the all-too-real prospect of Armageddon. The SADM was a case of life imitating satire. After all, much like Slim Pickens1 in the iconic finale of Dr. Strangelove, American soldiers would strap on atomic bombs and jump out of airplanes as part of the opening act of World War III.

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