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 Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice.” by Jeff Maysh, Smithsonian
“Count” Victor Lustig was America’s greatest con man. But what was his true identity?
Lustig was unlike any other inmate to arrive on the Rock. He dressed like a matinee idol, possessed a hypnotic charm, spoke five languages fluently and evaded the law like a figure from fiction. In fact, the Milwaukee Journal described him as ‘a story book character’. One Secret Service agent wrote that Lustig was “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream,” while the New York Times editorialized: “He was not the hand-kissing type of bogus Count—too keen for that. Instead of theatrical, he was always the reserved, dignified noble man.”
The fake title was just the tip of Lustig’s deceptions. He used 47 aliases and carried dozens of fake passports. He created a web of lies so thick that even today his true identity remains shrouded in mystery. On his Alcatraz paperwork, prison officials called him “Robert V. Miller,” which was just another of his pseudonyms. The con man had always claimed to hail from a long line of aristocrats who owned European castles, yet newly discovered documents reveal more humble beginnings.
“The Mastermind, Episode 1: An Arrogant Way of Killing” by Evan Ratliff, The Atavist
He was a brilliant programmer and a vicious cartel boss, who became a prized U.S. government asset. The Atavist Magazine presents a story of an elusive criminal kingpin, told in weekly installments.
A few days after Catherine Lee’s body was discovered, her husband contacted the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and requested that the agency look into her case. The ranks of local and national police in the Philippines are rife with corruption—“planting evidence is pretty much a regular occurrence,” the country’s former interior secretary Rafael Alunan told me—and the NBI has a better, though not perfect, reputation for integrity. The agency is required by law to take over cases at the request of victims’ families, and often those requests stem from concerns that local officers have been paid off, or worse. In targeted killings, as the Lee case appeared to be, it’s not unusual to hear whispers that cops themselves were in on the job. Contract murder is a thriving industry in the Philippines; having someone killed can cost as little as 5,000 pesos, or around $100. But police work pays poorly, and as much as 60 percent of the national police force lives below the poverty line. In 2013, Human Rights Watch documented police involvement in a death squad responsible for almost 300 killings over a six-year period in one city alone.
“Myanmar’s moment of truth” by Nick Davies, The Guardian
The country’s military rulers claim to have embraced democracy – and will soon transfer formal power to the party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But an unsolved double murder may suggest the Burmese army is not yet ready to surrender control.
The comedian was Par Par Lay, one of the few Burmese whose name became known outside his isolated country. He was the founder and leading light of a trio of vaudeville comedians – the Moustache Brothers – who had been playing regularly for tiny audiences that often consisted only of foreigners, particularly young backpackers, who spread the word about them, with a special boost from the Lonely Planet guide. On a makeshift stage in the garage at the front of their house in Mandalay, Par Par, his cousin Lu Zaw (the straight man who was arrested with him) and his younger brother Lu Maw relentlessly challenged the power of the ruling generals simply by making people laugh at them, often attracting police warnings, never going quiet.
The Moustache Brothers used to boast that they could deliver 300 jokes in two hours. There was the one about the man who goes to the doctor with a terrible headache. He turns out to be a military intelligence officer. “Ah, that explains it,” says the doctor. “You have no brain.” Or the one about the Burmese man who travels abroad to get his bad teeth treated. The foreign dentist asks him: “Don’t you have dentists in your country?” “Of course we do. But we’re not allowed to open our mouths.” As George Orwell said: “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
“The Obama Doctrine” by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
“Syrian Doctors Are Saving German Lives — and That’s a Problem” by Elisabeth Braw, Foreign Policy
More than 1,500 Syrian physicians are working in Germany. Could this be the death knell for Syria’s medical system?
Over three hours on an overcast November morning in central Germany, Abu Mohamed, an orthopedic surgeon, rattles off diagnostic questions to a handful of other “patients” — all of them immigrants enrolled in a medical-language class. Today their new vocabulary includes Verhütungsmittel (contraceptives),Röntgen (X-ray), and Ist es eher ein stechendes oder brennendes Gefühl? (Is it more of a stinging or burning sensation?). When he isn’t speaking, as doctor or as patient, Abu Mohammed is flipping through a textbook and worksheets that he keeps tucked inside a child’s Winnie-the-Pooh folder. The image on its glossy surface reminds him of his 9-month-old son, who lives more than 2,000 miles away.
“My son is growing up without me, and you don’t get another firstborn child,” he says. “It’s burning me.”
Abu Mohammed is from Syria, and like many of the war-torn country’s physicians, he has fled his homeland to seek work and safety abroad. (To protect his family, he asked that his real name not be used and that neither his exact location in Germany nor his hometown in Syria be identified.) Before the conflict, Syria had roughly 31,000 doctors, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. Today, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) estimates that about half have left the country; hundreds more medical personnel have been detained or killed. While the vast majority of Syria’s 4.6 million refugees remain in the Middle East, many regional countries make it difficult for displaced doctors to practice medicine. And getting permission to live and practice in the United States, Britain, and other Western countries is onerous; it can take months, even years.
Photo credits: Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images; OFF/AFP/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images; STR/AFP/Getty Images; Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images; Toby Binder, Foreign Policy