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.
“Five Hostages,” by Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker
Families whose children were held captive in Syria felt that U.S. officials had abandoned them. So they secretly joined forces.
“Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes the Atlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.
The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children — and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out — so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home.”
“The Demolition Man,” by Jane Kramer, the New Yorker
Matteo Renzi is on a mission to remake Italy.
“Early this year, Matteo Renzi invited Angela Merkel to Florence for a tête-à-tête at the Romanesque guild-priory known since the Renaissance as the Palazzo Vecchio and now its city hall. Renzi comes from Florence and, like most Florentines, he is devoted to the city, which in his case elected him mayor in 2009, when he was thirty-four, and nurtured the native Machiavellian wiles that five years later brought him to Rome, at thirty-nine, as the youngest Prime Minister since Italy became Italy, in 1861. In Rome, the art of politics could be described as nets and tridents. Not Renzi’s style. In Florence, where the Renaissance charm of the city and the Renaissance stealth of its population still hold sway, Renzi is a master of both, so it isn’t surprising that late last year, when Merkel confessed that she’d visited Florence only once, he asked her to come again, this time as his guest. The papers called the invitation the Prime Minister’s charm offensive. Renzi, who had hoped for Merkel’s blessing on his requests to the European Commission for the time and financial flexibility to rescue the beleaguered economy he inherited, put it this way: ‘Dostoyevsky wrote that beauty will save the world. Let’s see if it can save Europe, too.’ (Not precisely. It was part of an insolent question posed to the eponymous hero of ‘The Idiot.’)”
“A Thousand Splendid Stuns,” Morwari Zafar, Granta
True story: Afghanistan’s First Lady once slapped me so hard I pissed my pants.
“My brief encounter with the center of Mrs. Ahmadzai’s palm happened on a school bus. In a communist country, no one was above riding public transportation. The president’s wife and her oafish daughter were, however, latecomers, seats were at a premium, and I was not above paying with my pride in order to keep mine. She didn’t know me from Adam, so I don’t know what compelled her to demand my seat as she stood in the narrow aisle, the makeshift gutter for kids who soiled themselves out of fear, laughter and motion sickness. Stand up, she ordered. I did. And give up your seat to my daughter, she persisted. I refused almost at the same time as her hand connected with my jaw, and I, out of surprise rather than heroism, unleashed my sense of justice at her feet. None of the students said a word and I resolved not to shed a tear. We rode quietly home, me with my ass stuck to the prized vinyl, they staring out of the windows at the changing world.”
“In Welsh Patagonia,” by Jasper Rees, Intelligent Life
After years of idle dreams, Jasper Rees visits the valleys in Argentina that have been an outpost of Wales for 150 years.
“Lunch is over in a primary school on the edge of Trelew. An autumn sun toasts red-shirted children pinging about the playground. It is an ordinary scene, but for the odd compound of languages filling the air. The children flit between Spanish — and Welsh.
‘Faint ydy’ch oed chi?’ I ask a cluster of schoolgirls how old they are. ‘Deg,’ they say. Ten. It’s an exchange of equals. In order to reclaim my Welsh roots, I flung myself at the language some years back, so even though they’re ten and I’m 50, we’re at the same level. I ask them when they started Welsh, how often they speak it, and with whom. The conversation thrills me more than I can say. To find Welsh dancing on the tongues of children 7,000 miles from Wales is like coming upon a rose garden in the desert.”
Hindu nationalism is on the rise in the country with the world’s second-largest Muslim population.
“This past March, a group of community activists in Aurangabad, an industrial city in central India, convened a morcha — a demonstration — to protest a series of blatantly anti-Muslim measures taken by the state government in Mumbai, which is controlled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The morcha operated according to a well-worn protocol: A colorful tent was erected in a vacant lot across the street from the office of the district commissioner, and 250 or so Muslim men sat in the shade while a succession of speakers — a very long succession of speakers — denounced the state government and called for civil disobedience, in the spirit of Gandhi’s famed Salt March against the British, should their demands not be met.
The leaders of the demonstration then walked up a long driveway to formally present their demands to the district commissioner, who promised to relay them to the Maharashtra state authorities. The humble folk stayed back in the tent so as not to block traffic. Quite a few of them were qureish — cattle butchers — who had lost their jobs when the government had banned the consumption of beef the week before. They were trying to figure out how they were going to feed their families or send their kids to school. And they were wondering who, if anyone, would protect their interests amid India’s new politics of Hindu chauvinism.”
Sami Siva for FP; Bryan Thomas/Getty Images For Committee To Protect Journalists; Carl Court/Getty Images; Shah Marai/AFP/GettyImages; Francisco Ramos Mejia/AFP/Getty Images; Sami Siva for FP