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    Archive (chronological)


    Where seeing a woman makes you gasp


    In an echoing, blast-chilled Riyadh mall today, I saw something unusual. At a series of tables outside an up-market cafe -- rather than a chain-smoking Saudi dude or a pair of ill-dressed European businessmen looking jet-lagged and confused -- I encountered a woman.

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    You'll never walk alone

    THE REVIEW - 31 JULY 2009

    Rihan told me to meet him at a car park near the stadium around 6.00pm. As I drew closer in my humble Corolla, I noticed that several beat-up cars driving around me had a door, trunk lid or maybe both side mirrors spray painted green: the colour of the Falcons, the national football team. Saudi kids leaned out the windows, waving the national flag. Rihan's cousin showed up first, in a Jaguar. Rihan himself, the son of a general, appeared shortly thereafter in a brand-new Jeep - imported all the way from Texas, he told me. The cousin and I got in, and Rihan jokingly asked if I'd locked my little Toyota. "Wouldn't want anyone to steal it," he said, guffawing.

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    Home tweet home

    THE REVIEW - 17 JULY 2009

    It was a little after 8pm when I entered the Second Cup cafe on Thalia Street, Riyadh's main shopping district. It was a Wednesday night - the end of the work week here - so Riyadh's cruisers were out. Alongside big Suburbans manned by teenaged Saudi boys just old enough to grow wispy moustaches were Maseratis piloted by cool, princely men in immaculate thobes. Also crawling through the traffic were Mercedes and BMWs with blacked-out windows. Inside were girls.

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    Get on the bus

    THE REVIEW - 26 JUNE 2009

    Riyadh wasn't made for people on foot. The pavements are willy-nilly, with each business evidently responsible for its own frontage. In sandals one night en route to a bookstore, I scaled a three-foot precipice between two stretches of pavement at different heights and stepped through half a pane of plate glass, which broke in an explosion of glittering shards. For blocks, sweat blinding my vision, choking on exhaust, gingerly taking steps with glass in my foot, I wondered how my wife and I - how anybody, really - could ever make a life in such a harsh place.

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    A paradise's costs

    THE REVIEW - 12 JUNE 2009

    On a clear weekday morning in March 2004, the 60-year-old New Zealander writer Graeme Lay glimpsed a front-page newspaper photo of a car accident on the treacherous State Highway 2 near Maramura, a small town a little more than an hour's drive from Lay's home. "Oh s***, he thought. "Another accident on that bloody road." Lay put the paper aside. Later that morning, the phone rang in the study of his Victorian home, a room lined with tall, single-pane windows and shelves of books - a few of

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    Saudi Arabia's got talent

    THE REVIEW - 5 JUNE 2009

    "You ready to rock?" asks Todd Albert Nims, his electric, American grin parting a week's worth of fashionable beard. We're arrayed in a rented-out conference room. Looking nervous but resigned, the sad-eyed Somali cameraman nods, the wiry Filipino tech fires up the klieg lights, and I sit back and hold my breath. For the first time in its modern history, Saudi Arabia is the site of an open casting call. Standard in Los Angeles, Berlin, London, Mumbai and other cultural capitals, the auditions were being held at a Holiday Inn Hotel converted from a compound that once held the staff of British Airways, which suspended operations in Saudi during the troubles from 2003 to 2006, when dozens of expatriates were killed in bombings and gunshot executions.

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    Up in the old hotel

    THE REVIEW - 8 MAY 2009

    From the beginning, in 1978, Al Khozama Hotel was a product of Riyadh’s frontier spirit. The city had a Wild West lack of infrastructure, and with it the opportunity – fed by oil’s disorganised gush – to strike it rich overnight. Fortunes were being made and lost; big thinkers and big dreamers were parachuting in to conjure up opulent masterpieces in the barren desert.

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    Unquiet Americans

    THE REVIEW - 17 APRIL 2009

    Assembled in a plush anteroom at Qunicy House, the US Ambassador's formal residence here in Riyadh, the Pine Leaf Boys were a crew of guileless, fresh-faced Louisianans in their mid-20s. The bassist, a handsome bearded man named Thomas David, had never left the US before. The drummer, Drew Simon, compact and slouching, said he postponed his wedding to attend. The wispy-thin fiddler, Courtney Granger, said he was so nervous about coming to the Middle East that he'd spent the previous two days vomiting.

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    More countries for an old man

    THE REVIEW - 17 JANUARY 2009

    - A review of Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Penguin, 2008)

    It's now a world of travelers. So says Paul Theroux, who's logged the miles to know. Wandering and describing this increasingly accessible world for more than thirty years, the Massachusetts native has written fiction and nonfiction that, among many other feats, have taken us deep into Africa, by foot along nearly every mile of the English coast, and paddling among the Pacific's remotest islands. As more and more people travel -- and attempt to write about it -- perhaps no other scribbler, as he calls himself, has more convincingly shown he can touch down in an unfamiliar locale and make the reader care not only about the people and places encountered, but leave the experience knowing more about themselves, and how they might live better.

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    Innocents at home


    It's late December, 2008, and my wife and I are on furlough from Islamic lands. Snow falls on New York as we roll up to a friend's building. Buzzers list dozens of names, from dozens of countries. The door snaps open and we hear the Christmas classic Jingle Bell Rock emanating from the belly of an animatronic Santa Claus. It's a shock: We're just a few hours off the plane from Riyadh, where music is effectively banned. There's no Christmas there, and certainly no animatronic Santas.Representing as it does the human form (in Saudi, forbidden), Christianity (very forbidden), and celebration that doesn't glorify God (also forbidden), this hip-swivelling elf is a bracing reminder that we're temporarily free from life under Saudi's implacable rules.

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    At the track, near the tents


    Giuliani be damned, the window washers are back, only a few streets from all the Fashion Week models and their witnesses. On 37th Street, still reeling from the twice-yearly shows at Bryant Park, I stop in a phone booth and find a few empty bottles of rum. How much? The closest liquor store, one of Hell's Kitchen's grim closets, sells tiny Bacardis for $1.50. Grey Goose, for the tony Port Authority guzzler, runs $4. A slip of Jack Daniels is $2.50.

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    I smell dead people


    Outside an exhibit of the dead, a ticket for which is $24.50, you will encounter the following: The Gap, a Baby Gap, a Guess store, Brookstones, The Body Shop, J. Crew, and a boldly-lettered sandwich board for the Buskers Hall of Fame. There is one entry on that board.

    The attraction, "Bodies: The Exhibition," takes up the corner of a downtown shopping plaza, a museum in a mall across from the South Street Seaport. Posters promise real human bodies.
    In the distance, old ships bob in the moonlight. The Fulton Fish Market is abandoned. I notice the Heartland Brewery. On a grim, bitter Sunday night, the lights look inviting. There's beer in there.

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    I survived the Staten Island Mall


    On the upper deck of the ferry, a pigeon taps at an old Newsday. A Korean family—parents, teenage son, tweens daughter—sit in a row, each listening to a private set of white headphones. Many riders seem like European merry-makers, with bright, jaunty knapsacks, maps, and cans of beer. Most will step briefly off this boat and immediately reboard another back to Manhattan. I mistake the women's for the men's restroom, inching briefly into its anteroom, where five hard chairs are bolted in front of a mirror. On a Saturday like today, the brilliant November sun blinds me for a second, and I step back to take a seat by the waves.

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    Shrink raps: Three books refract Sigmund Freud


    -Freud's Free Clinics, Elizabeth Ann Danto (Columbia, 2005)
    -Recollecting Freud, Isidor Sadger (Wisconsin)
    -Freud's Requiem, Matthew von Unwerth (Riverhead)

    Sigmund Freud's analytic couch implies a lush affair, an indulgence for the wealthy matron or nervous son of great inheritance. Over the past century, that handsome image has fueled more than a few dismissals of Freud, critical and informal. But thanks to a thorough new study, the charge that psychoanalysis was a luxury for the upper class deserves reappraisal.

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    Un-American activities

    THE VILLAGE VOICE  - 27 JUNE 2005 TO 9 JULY 2005

    Screw the Hamptons. I summer in Russia.

    Stretching through JFK's forgotten terminal three is a line of travelers willing to wait for accident prone-Aeroflot's overnight flight to Moscow. We're crossing a cultural barrier, entering this two-hour line ruled by Russian stewards, and I take it all as a gentle preview of the former Soviet Union. My fellow travelers: One is an lumpy middle-aged woman in leopard-print pants fanning herself, slightly disturbing a bright orange helmet of hair. Her shoes curl up like an elf's—the epitome of women's footwear on the other side of the Pacific. Her husband rubs his ribs under a Brezhnev-era suit, then spits on the floor and mutters in Russian.

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    The American way of beef


    These days, the thought of ingesting hamburger gives many people pause. Massive beef recalls and books like Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation have impressed upon readers' minds the image of the modern beef cow, packed tightly in an enormous feedlot, standing in a cesspool of its brethren's manure as it gorges itself on an excessively medicated mix of corn and rendered animal protein. Although livestock diseases have devastated farms in Europe, American factory farming has earned an especially bad name for its carelessness and inhumanity. As B. R. Myers wrote in his May 2005 Atlantic piece "If Pigs Could Swim," "Livestock are treated better in Europe because Europeans want them treated better. They are treated worse here because we hardly think of them at all. It's as simple as that."

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    The cruel wit of Evelyn Waugh 


    Charity requires that one forgive Waugh," argues Christopher Hitchens in "The Permanent Adolescent," his essay on the author in the May Atlantic, "precisely because it was his innate—as well as his adopted—vices that made him a king of comedy and of tragedy for almost three decades."

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    Like father, unlike son 

    THE ATLANTIC - 26 MARCH 2003

    In 1991, President George Bush directed the U.S. military into battle against Saddam Hussein. A little over a decade later, a second President George Bush is doing the same. Though in some ways it seems that history is repeating itself, George the younger is a very different man from George the elder. Whereas George W. Bush has been characterized—and criticized—as a leader who makes decisive split-second judgments and singlemindedly follows through on issues he cares about, his father, by contrast, was seen as a leader who preferred to avoid taking decisive or dramatic action. As an assortment of Atlantic articles from the 1980s and 1990s demonstrates, Bush the elder seems to have endured as much criticism for his perceived hesitancy and cautiousness as his son now endures for his perceived reckless determination.

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    The Korean quagmire 


    With international focus pointed almost exclusively toward Iraq, many feel that recent alarming developments in the Koreas should be getting equal attention. In the last month North Korea has resumed the production of nuclear-weapons material, and the international community is scrambling to respond. Meanwhile, countries in North Asia have expressed fear of North Korean missile attacks, and—as has been the case for decades—South Korea has mixed feelings of appreciation and resentment toward the 40,000 American troops who are stationed there. After half a century, conditions may again be ripe for trouble on the Korean peninsula. A sampling of Atlantic articles from the 1950s to the present offers perspective on the long history of tension between North and South Korea, and on the United States's sometimes inflammatory presence in the region.

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