Allah, Antarctica and Ancient Inca-The best reads of 2009
When I have time to lavish on reading something other than news, I want to spend it on stories that leave me saying, “Wow!” A great read should tell readers something they don’t already know, enlighten them about the world and its people, inform them about the human condition. Readers should be moved to laughter, tears, anger, action through superb writing and extraordinary reporting. Here are my picks for the best reads of 2009.
A packet of cigarettes is enough to cause a fight among the Spaniards and immigrants shivering in the dark outside an emergency homeless shelter in Madrid, set up for a bitter winter and depression-era unemployment. Police push past jobless Romanian and Hungarian construction workers. “One day this place is going to explode,” says unemployed waiter Miguel Roa, a Spaniard.
Pervez Chachar and his young wife live in the police headquarters in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Their crime? They fell in love and married without their families’ permission. In traditional rural society in Pakistan, getting married without permission is such a serious slight to the “honor” of a family or a tribe that death is seen as fitting retribution. They share a cramped room with another young couple in the same position.
Thriving only in near-freezing waters, creatures such as Antarctic sea spiders, limpets or sea urchins may be among the most vulnerable on the planet to global warming as the Southern Ocean heats up. Isolated for millions of years by the chill currents, exotic animals on the seabed around Antarctica are among the least studied, but scientists are finding signs that they can only tolerate a very narrow temperature band.
Fifty years into a treaty demanding all scientific finds on Antarctica be freely shared, governments are trying to end a dispute over company patents on life in the continent. Part of Antarctica’s attraction is that it separated from South America more than 30 million years ago and life has evolved with few outside influences. “You’d have to go to Mars or perhaps another planet to find species so different from those elsewhere in the world.”
From live snakes that smugglers stuff with packets of cocaine to white tigers drug lords keep as pets, rare animals are increasingly sucked into Mexico’s deadly narcotics trade. Drug gang leaders show off sea turtle skin boots and build private zoos. They also profit by sharing routes with animal traffickers who cram humming birds into cigarette packs and baby monkeys into car air conditioning ducts to be sold to underground U.S. pet traders.
A corroded mechanism recovered by sponge divers from a sunken wreck near the Greek island of Antikythera in 1902 changed the study of the ancient world. The Antikythera Mechanism, a system of bronze gears from the 2nd century BC, was used to calculate the date of the Olympic Games based on the summer solstice. A new law aimed at promoting tourism will open Greece’s coastline to scuba diving and artifacts could disappear.
At night, 11-year-old Salah Abbas Hisham wakes up screaming. Sometimes, in the dark, he silently attacks the boy next to him in a tiny Baghdad orphanage where 33 boys sleep on cots or on the floor. Salah, who saw both his parents blown apart in a car bomb blast two years ago, can never be left alone at night. “The issue is not a place where they can sleep and eat. More important than that is whether they can find peace inside themselves.”
For all the shouting and nose-to-nose confrontations going on, visitors to Havana’s Parque Central might think they had walked into a brawl or a counter-revolution … but here in the park’s famous Esquina Caliente, or Hot Corner, the topic almost always is baseball, Cuba’s national obsession. An unwritten rule at Esquina Caliente, baseball slang for third base, is that disputes don’t turn into a fight.
Reciting the Catholic Creed, the 1,800-strong congregation attending mass at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral on Borneo island intones in Malay: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of Allah.” Malaysian Catholics have used “Allah” in place of “God” since the 19th century. Now, the government wants to prevent “Allah” being used by Christians, saying it is subversive and aims to convert Muslims.
Only two memories brought tears to Sun Yaoting’s eyes in old age — the day his father cut off his genitals, and the day his family threw away the pickled remains that should have made him a whole man again at death. China’s last eunuch was tormented and impoverished in youth, punished in revolutionary China for his role as the “Emperor’s slave” but finally feted and valued, largely for outlasting his peers to become a piece of “living history”.
Crab boats dart back and forth on this inlet of the Chesapeake Bay as they have for generations. But watermen aren’t pulling blue crabs out of the Bay. After years of decline, the U.S. Commerce Department declared the fishery a federal disaster and Maryland and Virginia shut it down until spring. That disaster has been steadily building since Europeans first mapped the Bay’s shores 400 years ago.
When police arrested two Romanians for the rape of an Italian teenager in Rome, Il Giornale, a paper owned by the family of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, reported: “The Romanian beasts have been caught.” Three weeks later, prosecutors admitted the “beasts” could not be guilty — DNA tests had ruled them out. Italians were left wondering whether growing anti-immigrant sentiment had played a role in a hurried investigation.
Isaac Deka and his three exhausted cows cluster under a thorny acacia tree that provides little shelter from the midday sun. They are all that is left of a proud herd of 55 Borana cattle that were the wealth and livelihood of the Maasai pastoralist, his two wives and five children. Desperate elephants have been digging for water in dried-up river beds. Seasonal rains are not expected to bring relief.
Haji Anzurullah grew opium in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, but under pressure from authorities he gave up the illegal crop and turned to fish breeding. He pays $20 for thousands of fish and sells them for a hefty profit. Nangarhar province has gone from being the second biggest poppy growing province in the country to almost poppy free. Still, Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin.
Abundant water from the Red Sea could replenish the shrinking Dead Sea if Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians decide to commission a tunnel through the Jordanian desert from the Gulf of Aqaba. The idea, first suggested by a British military engineer in the 1880s, would supply the biggest desalination plant in the world, running on its own hydro-electric power, and give Jordan enough water for the next 40 to 50 years.
Jaguars still roam the world’s largest wetland and endangered Hyacinth Macaws nest in its trees but advancing farms and industries are destroying Brazil’s Pantanal region at an alarming rate. Less well-known than the Amazon rain forest, the Pantanal is larger than England and harbors a huge fresh water reserve and extraordinary wildlife. “It’s a type of Noah’s Ark but it risks running aground.”
In her old Baghdad house, policewoman Bushra Kadhem serves breakfast to her children, finishes her tea and readies herself for a day manning checkpoints in one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Kadhem became one of Iraq’s first policewoman in 2005. Now, with violence falling across Iraq, she faces a more persistent challenge: persuading a conservative husband and society to accept her choice of career.
At Tuhama’s Lebanese deli in Dearborn, and at bakeries and barbershops throughout town, it’s no secret the CIA is looking for a few good spies. In dire need of agents fluent in Arabic, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has made an unusual public show of its recruiting effort in a city with the densest Arab population in the United States. TV and newspaper advertisements invite Arab-Americans and Iranian-Americans to join up.
In the dungeons of Zul’Gurub frequented by online game enthusiasts, a giant winged serpent may offer important clues to epidemiologists trying to predict the impact of a pandemic. In 2005, a plague called “Corrupted Blood” caused mayhem in the online game World of Warcraft. Epidemiologists and disaster planners have tried for years to build realistic models of how a highly virulent disease might spread and impact global society.
From Napoleon III’s mistress to cash-strapped modern-day bankers, Parisians have for centuries stored their jewels and secrets in a discreet building not far from the Siene: the public pawnbroker. In the ornate rooms where Auguste Rodin once pawned a hand from one of his sculptures, immigrant mothers with toddlers queue to pledge their dowry gold or secure a low-cost loan.
More great reads:
After crossing half of Africa and surviving a perilous boat trip from Libya in search of a better life in Italy, Boubacar Bailo is now contemplating suicide. One of an army of illegal immigrants hired to harvest tomatoes in the Puglia region, Bailo squats in a fetid cardboard shack waiting for a call to the fields. “It’s better to die than to live like this…” Every year thousands of immigrants flock to the fields and orchards of Italy to make a living.
Inside a grimy building in Guangzhou, Chinese master carvers chip away at ivory tusks, fashioning them into the sorts of intricate carvings that were prized by emperors. A passion for ivory ornaments helped decimate African and Asian elephants until a 1989 ban on ivory trade. But China’s demand for ivory persists and in remote pockets of Africa and in teeming market towns on the banks of the Nile in Sudan, Chinese barter and buy ivory openly.
They avoid taking buses, make sure friends know their schedules, and rarely go out when it’s dark. For the three foreign-born Roman Catholic bishops under death threat in Brazil’s state of Para, speaking out against social ills that plague this often lawless area at the Amazon River’s mouth has come at a price. Latin America has historically been among the most dangerous regions for Catholic missionaries.
After regular beatings, torture and attempted murder by her husband, 35-year-old Zahra tried to burn herself to death to escape her marriage. Then she learned of another option: divorce. She is among a growing number of women in Afghanistan’s Herat province who, with the help of a women’s charity, have taken on patriarchal laws to get a divorce, a taboo in the devoutly Muslim, formerly Taliban-led state.
Wearing 3-D viewing goggles, scientists peer at virtual pink, blue and purple clouds billowing in cyberspace at a laboratory in the Dutch city of Delft. By tracking how particles move in and around computer-simulated clouds, they hope to shed light on one of the unknowns of climate forecasting: how these masses of water droplets and ice crystals influence changing temperatures.
A Shaman blows a bull’s horn on festival day and pivots to clouds of burning incense in a purification ceremony, all shot on video. The snapshot of native American life opens “Nykanchik Yuyay,” a twice-daily newscast in Quechua, the langugae spoken by millions of people across the Andes. Channel 47 says it is the world’s first television station for Quechua speakers.