This is hard.

I have something to say, and I don't usually do this, so this is difficult already.

My heart is broken at the death of Anthony Bourdain. Broken in the way that I can’t quite describe. It’s the kind of broken when someone whose work you turn to – in your desperate moments, when it seems like you’ve forgotten how to write the alphabet - is gone.

I mostly started writing about food at the end of my time as a reporter at The Express Tribune. When I quit to freelance full time, I cold-pitched Roads & Kingdoms. They took the piece. I discovered something in myself when writing about food: it allowed me to become a better writer, to research, to understand how and where something had originated, it allowed me to delve into my own middle-class background and understand how the food choices middle-class people make changes the way society functions. A few years later, I was trying to think about a pitch for Bourdain's Dispatched series, and I pitched a piece to Roads and Kingdoms about Eid and the cattle markets and the subcultures surrounding sacrificial animals. It got assigned.

A few days later, I was getting off a rickshaw and a biker crashed into me and ran off. I fell off the rickshaw, and thankfully I didn’t break a single bone but my legs and arms were bruised. I could have told R&K that I wanted to give up and heal, but it was just bruises. I just wanted to write the piece. I hobbled around cattle markets. My bruises healed. I turned in a draft that was probably overwrought and thousands of words over. When it came out.. the response wasn’t just for that day. Bourdain’s name attached to the story meant that people read it, and kept reading it, and kept reading it. Every year, someone reads that story. When I pitch stories, I include that as an example. Bourdain’s support to R&K and to that story meant that R&K kept going and I could keep writing about food, and I could keep learning. I owe so much to that site, but I owe so much to fact that Bourdain cared enough to let it thrive, that it impacted so many other writers.

There’s a tendency to denigrate writing about food or fashion or lifestyle as frivolous or unimportant or easy. I have written about what other people consider valued subjects or serious journalism, and writing about fashion or food or Zingers is hard. It is hard to fact check. It is hard to do. It is hard to mine your life and other people’s lives for what the crunch of a food means and why they spend money on it. There’s a tendency in Pakistan to denigrate women writing about food or music or fashion as not being serious – and accusing them of being unethical – I’m looking at you, Pakistani musicians who haven’t learnt to take criticism since 1991 – but food writing has taught me everything. Bourdain showed us that you can use food to say something larger than yourself and the meal in front of you. That is hard. It is valuable and hard and Bourdain’s loss is utterly devastating.

For many months now, I have thought about what people who are celebrated leave behind. What is their impact. But just look at what Bourdain has left us with – not just his legacy, but his support to writers and a website and cooks - and you think, that’s more valuable than anyone who says its just food. It’s everything.

 

 

 

Reading list: Profiles of Guantanamo detainees - I

A reading list -- in progress - of profiles of Guantanamo detainees

Saad Iqbal Madni

Madni was the last Pakistani detainee to have been released from Guantanamo

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12566027

www.nytimes.com/2009/01/06/world/asia/06iqbal.html?_r=1&hp

Muhammad Sagheer

Sagheer is described in his leaked assessment file as a 'farmer and missionary' who was arrested in Kunduz - on his first trip outside the country. 

https://www.oneindia.com/2006/09/11/pakistani-says-life-in-ruins-after-guantanamo-jail-1157963779.html

Lakhdar Boumedine, who spent seven years in detention

“RECRUITERS typically scan his résumé with an air of approval, he said, until noting that it ends in 2001. He tells them that his is a “particular case,” that he spent time in prison. He avoids the word “Guantánamo,” he said, as it often stirs more fear than sympathy.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/26/world/europe/lakhdar-boumediene-starts-anew-in-france-after-years-at-guantanamo.html

Omar Khadr

Khadr was arrested when he was 15 years old, and released to Canada in 2012

 http://projects.thestar.com/omar-khadr-in-his-own-words/index.html

Mohammad Jawad

Jawad was a teenager when he was arrested in Afghanistan at the site of a grenade explosion.

https://www.gq.com/story/boy-from-guantanamo?printable=true

Guantanamo: A history of detainee writings - I

This is a list of first-hand accounts of Guantanamo detainees, published as columns. Detainees began arriving at Guantanamo Bay sixteen years ago today.

For me it is not easy to suppress the images of Guantánamo. I am haunted by my own memories, the isolation cell, the food and sleep deprivation, the beatings, the daily humiliation and the brutality. And I keep thinking about the men I met while I was in that place.
— Murat Kurnaz, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/30/my-friend-released-from-guantanamo-bay-locked-up-again-younous-chekkouri

January 11, 2018

Sharqawi al Hajj: Will I Die at Guantanamo?

Sharqawi Abdu Ali al Hajj is a Yemeni citizen. He has been detained at Guantanamo since 2004.  He is accused of being a facilitator for al Qaeda.

October 13, 2017

Khalid Qassim: I am in Guantánamo Bay. The US government is starving me to death

August 24, 2016

Khalid Qassim: Hunger striking for ‘dignity’ in Guantanamo

Qassim wrote about being on hunger strike. Qassim is a Yemeni citizen born in 1976. He was accused of being an al Qaeda fighter and captured in Afghanistan in 2001. Qassim is yet to be charged.

October 17, 2017

Ahmed Rabbani: I’m a Pakistani inmate and here’s why I am on hunger strike since 2013

Rabbani wrote about being on hunger strike. He is a Pakistani citizen of Rohingya origin. He was accused of being a member of and facilitating al Qaeda in an apparent case of mistaken identity. He is yet to be charged.

January 11, 2016

Sami al-Hajj: Remembering Guantanamo

Sami al-Hajj was a Sudanese journalist working for Al Jazeera when he was detained in Pakistan and transferred to Afghanistan, and then Guantanamo. He was released after eight years, in 2008. He wrote about his detention and imprisonment. 

December 30, 2015

Murat Kurnaz: My friend was released from Guantanamo Bay – only to be locked up again

Kurnaz is a Turkish citizen who was born in Germany in 1982. He was accused of affiliations with the Tablighi Jamaat and al Qaeda. Kurnaz was released in 2006. He wrote about Younus Chekkouri, a Moroccan detainee who was detained by Morocco after his release from Guantanamo.

In 2008, my demand for a fair legal process went all the way to America’s highest court. In a decision that bears my name, the Supreme Court declared that “the laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times.” It ruled that prisoners like me, no matter how serious the accusations, have a right to a day in court. The Supreme Court recognized a basic truth: the government makes mistakes. And the court said that because “the consequence of error may be detention of persons for the duration of hostilities that may last a generation or more, this is a risk too significant to ignore.
— Lakhdar Boumedine, www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/opinion/sunday/my-guantanamo-nightmare.html

November 12, 2014

Murat Kurnaz: Former Gitmo Detainee: ‘It Is Time to Prosecute Those Responsible for My Torture

July 15, 2014

Emad Hassan: Detainees are human

Hassan is a Yemeni citizen who was detained in a raid on a suspected safe house in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He was released after thirteen years.

December 13, 2013

Shaker Aamer on why Russell Brand is banned from the Guantanamo Reading List

August 2, 2013

Shaker Aamer: Have I Lost Hope at Guantanamo?

Aamer was the last British resident to be released from Guantanamo. He spent thirteen years at Guantanamo. He wrote about his imprisonment at Guantanamo. 

April 14, 2013

Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel: Gitmo is Killing Me

He is a Yemeni citizen who was accused of being a guard for OBL. He was released in 2006.

January 18, 2012

Lakhdar BoumedineMy Guantanamo Nightmare

Boumedine spent seven years in Guantanamo. He and other detainees challenged their detention in a landmark habeas corpus case. He wrote about his detention and his life after his release.

May 6, 2011

Moazzam Begg:  A former Guantanamo detainee on the death of Osama bin Laden

Begg was a British detainee held at Guantanamo for over two years.


 

The post-Guantanamo future

I've been reading through the statements made by personal representatives and private counsel of detainees at Guantanamo during their periodic review boards. In some cases, there are mentions of rehabilitation programs in their home countries. There is also Reprieve's Life After Guantanamo program. In their statements, the representatives and counsel mention what the men they're representing want to do for work after their release. These range from opening a laundromat to running a honey bee farm and opening a pizza place. Here are some excerpts from statements made by the lawyers and representatives in the unclassified documents released in the review process.

Muhammad al Ansi, whose work was displayed at the Art from Guantanamo exhibit, wanted to find a construction job. [Al Ansi has been released]

Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammad Uthman: "He has put a lot of thought into a business plan that can be conducted in any country as everyone loves ice cream."

Omar Muhammad Ali al Rammah: "His goal is to gain the skills and raise the necessary capital to open a cafe. He plans to work part time, while attending university to raise capital. His cafe will offer several types of coffee, a game room and perhaps a hookah bar. This type of venture is very popular in Saudi Arabia, where Zakaria hopes to be sent; however, he feels that this type of establishment would thrive anywhere in the world."

Haroon al Afghani has developed a business plan and wants to run a honey bee farm.  

Saifullah Paracha wants to retire.

Guantanamo: The Shepherd

This description of an Afghan shepherd detained at Guantanamo was in the leaked detainee files in 2011. 

Detainee did not receive any military or extremist training. Detainee and his family are nomadic and follow opportunities to find the best grazing grounds. Detainee was harvesting grain for seven days and was away from his home that entire time. He returned from harvesting grain and went to visit his neighbor for some tea before going home. Shortly after this, he was captured.
During an interview at JTF-GTMO on 13 June 2004, the interpreter stated the detainee, “uses tribal dialect and appears to be very uneducated.” Detainee went on to explain in detail how he shepherded. Explaining that he had 300 goats, five sheep, eight camels and two baby camels and how he migrated to other various areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan for grazing purposes. He also explained how he and his brothers shared and lived in tents as they moved. (Analyst note: This detainee’s knowledge of herding animals, which he readily talks about, and his inability to discuss simple military and political concepts, tend to support the detainee’s contention that he indeed is just a simple shepherd.)

Guantanamo Library: Bollywood, and Bakra Qiston Pe

Last year, the U.S. government released a list of video/film and book titles available at Guantanamo, in response to an FOIA request. The entire list is on GovernmentAttic here. I hadn’t looked at the entire list until now, and I did a double take when I saw Bakra Qiston Pe is available.

Carol Rosenberg’s incredibly invaluable reporting on Guantanamo includes updates on the library: Rosenberg reported that the library added Moana last July. In 2013,  she reported on how censors did not approve a book by Noam Chomsky.

Last month, The Independent reported that Pakistani detainee Saifullah Paracha was refused permission to read a book about non-violence authored by family members of victims of the 9/11 attacks.

There’s also a tumblr of images at books at Guantanamo: http://gitmobooks.tumblr.com

For consumers of South Asian popular culture, here are some of the titles available at Guantanamo:

Bakra Qiston Pe – one of the standouts of Pakistan’s comedy theatre productions, the stage play is a classic, rife with sketches of a Genghis Khan-like character, a lot of Michael Jackson music and moonwalking and references to America, and some bawdy and stereotyped humor.

Fifty Fifty – An Urdu satire/sketch show, probably considered among the best shows produced in Pakistan

Taleem-e-Balighan – A classic Urdu play on school education

Bollywood Zero Hour Mashup – If this is the same mashup I’ve heard at workout studios, it’s not very good.

Something called Shahid vs Ranbir, which is what? A Bollywood face-off?

Desi Boyz (A really, really average Bollywood film)

Veer Zaara – A soppy, sappy film about an Indian man who languishes, forgotten, in a Pakistani prison for years, torn from the woman he loves, and is only saved when a lawyer takes up his case

Dhoom and Dhoom 2 and Dhoom 3

(and Chennai Express.)

Dil Se – a Mani Ratnam film about nationalism, insurgency, and love in India. (This piece by Daisy Rockwell on the film is great.)

Tremors – Every Pakistani saw this film in the 1990s.

In the library, along with works by Murakami, Nietzsche, Marquez, Mahfouz, Rowling are works by Saadat Hasan Manto (written as Minto in the list – one wonders if the letters to Uncle Sam are included?), Mustansar Hussain Tarar, and Khadija Mastoor.

Pakistan / Guantanamo in Pakistani courts & legislature

I am reading through old reports on Pakistani prisoners at Guantanamo. During the early 2000s, a number of petitions were filed in high courts by the relatives of detainees, seeking to know their whereabouts. (This, for example, is from a hearing in a petition filed by Majid Khan's wife.) The petition reports do not have much information, but are useful in trying to understand how these cases were emerging at the time. (This is a petition in the Islamabad High Court by Ahmed Rabbani's family in 2014,  hearings were still continuing by 2016)

This is a 2004 report on the expected release of forty prisoners from Pakistan at Guantanamo. 

In 2009, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Sindh High Court during a hearing in a petition filed about Ammar al Baluchi that five Pakistanis were being held at Guantanamo, while 68 Pakistanis had been released. 

The ministry said the government had constantly been in touch with the US authorities at various levels to seek early repatriation of the detained Pakistani nationals and protect their rights and interests. Besides regular diplomatic contacts, the matter had been taken up at the highest level by the president and the prime minister.

The ministry said the government was making all-out efforts for the release of innocent Pakistanis and agitating their detention through the United Nations would adversely affect the bilateral approach, which had successfully worked so far.

From a November 2008 statement by the foreign minister during the National Assembly's Q&A session. 

The Government has been and remains engaged in efforts at the political and diplomatic levels to seek early repatriation of all Pakistani detainees at Guantanamo Bay as well as to ensure that the detainees are well looked after, are provided with necessary facilities including medical treatment and are not mistreated.
The matter is regularly taken up with the U.S. side both at the political and diplomatic levels.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Yousaf Raza Gillani, during his visit to the United States from 28-30 July 2008 conveyed to the U.S. side our concerns regarding delay in the return of the remaining Pakistani detainees at the Guantanamo Bay.
Our inter-Ministerial teams have undertaken 3 visits in August 2002, April 2004 and August 2006 in connection with efforts to secure the repatriation of Pakistani detainees at Guantanamo Bay. 
During two consular visits to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and 2006, our relevant officials also met Pakistani detainees.
As a result of these efforts, 67 detainees have so far been repatriated to Pakistan from the Guantanamo Bay.
 According to the procedure devised by U.S. authorities, once a person is brought to Guantanamo Bay, a CSRT (Combatant Status Review Tribunal) is held to determine his status. If he is found to be an Enemy Combatant, he is detained in Guantanamo Bay.
The U.S. Department of State approves detainees for transfer or release based on a system of Administrative Review Boards (ARB) which assess each detainee’s threat level and intelligence value.
Our Embassy in Washington has maintained regular contact with the Office of War Crimes issues, Department of State for seeking repatriation of the six Pakistani detainees.
The Embassy has been told that all the six Pakistanis presently in Guantanamo Bay have gone through the CSRT process. None has been approved for transfer or release as yet.
The U.S. Department of State has further conveyed to the Embassy that it keeps the Government of Pakistan’s requests for repatriation of the remaining Pakistani nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay under review and shares the desire of the Government of Pakistan for the transfer of the detainees promptly and does not wish to hold any one longer than necessary.

Reading (and rereading) the ‘60s guide to single life

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 Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962. I first read it last year, and every few months I get back to it. I reread books a lot, but this isn’t the book I read to kill time before an appointment or eating alone. This is the book that I read when I feel uninspired and sad and in the opening-last-bag-of-chili-chips throes of misery, and every time I read it, I go away wanting to do better, be better, dress better, and to just get to work.

Sex and the Single Girl was revolutionary when it was published. But there’s still something about the book that feels startlingly different: that it doesn’t consider as strange or unnatural to build a life as a single person, a life for yourself, a life that celebrates the idea of independence, a life that is fun. The reason it feels new, still, is because it’s so imbued in practical advice. This is an actual guide; not the glossy version of single life, not the cliched parts, but the parts of SATC that were about the hustle.

Of course, Brown’s book is mired in the idea of getting — or at least, being appealing to a man — singledom with a view to getting somewhere. There are archaic, stereotypical views — particularly of gay men — and parts that will make you cringe.

But it’s the everyday routines where Brown’s advice on what to wear, how to decorate, how to spend, how to focus on work is absolutely fantastic. Sometimes I wish I could go back to my 18-year-old self and hand her this book. Brown’s advice is so different from the notions of indulgent self-care – sure, you should indulge in self care, but also do well at work. Brown is brutally honest – and right – about so many things, like byob – who wants a party where you have to bring things at? Or the merits of chilled rose – so far ahead of the last few years’ rose and frose trends. Or the joy of creating a jewelbox of a tiny, cheap apartment — more people, she writes, will say “That girl has the most divine apartment” than they ever will about a divine husband, which I would get inscribed on a t-shirt if I could. Brown doesn’t think it’s a compromise to live on a miniscule budget, but to feel pride in living within your means and having a career and to not feel shame or guilted into entertaining or dining out when you’d rather save it for the Balenciaga coat of your dreams.

Cupboards, she writes, should be almost bare: “Who are all these other people you’re feeding?”

Brown describes how she’d turn her ennui – once not being invited to a shower by a girl she’d apparently slighted – into opportunity, entering a competition (which a friend of hers had won previously, making her jealous) Brown doesn’t pretend to be immune from all the feelings that plague us – envy, jealousy, loneliness, exhaustion, weight. But she teaches something more important: that a single life is a great life. The fear of missing out is real, but don’t let being single — or being poor — make you think you can’t enjoy brunch. It is the life that other people should and do covet, not the other way around. And this is a lesson that’s perhaps even more important today, in a world of faux #goals (a word I have happily muted on Twitter and would on Instagram too, because in the immortal words of Chrissy Teigen: 

Brown’s book is a compelling get your life together spiel. So: Why are you sitting around feeling sorry for myself? Why don’t you condition your hair and go out for a walk? Why don’t you drink a glass of cheap something and study up on your French? (Or Arabic or Farsi or whatever it is you’re doing?) What excuse do we have for sitting around and waiting for things to happen?

Dust, danger, and the TV trolley

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If you’ve ever owned a TV in Pakistan, you might have also owned/encountered/been told to dust a TV trolley. 

What is a TV trolley? It is the fancier iteration of the stationary shelved TV ‘rack’ and the wood glass-fronted cabinet to place the TV on. But the TV trolley was really the same cabinet but on wheels. It held the VCR, the VCR ‘cleaner’ tape – a scam if there ever was one – the protective plastic cover for the VCR, and the selection of video cassettes you were lucky enough to own / “forgot” to return to the video rental shop, and the TV rested atop it this edifice. Despite the wheels, the TV – and the trolley – was/is never really mobile and is usually restricted to one vantage viewing point, only ever moving if you moved house (revealing the rusty wheels’ marks on the floor) or when the TV had to be sent off for repairs (99% of the time there’s always something wrong with the ‘tube’.)

TV trolleys, as it turns out, are also dangerous. According to this study, of the 55 kids taken to a Karachi hospital ER because of injuries caused by falling objects – 40% were injured by TV trolleys (!!!). 71.4% of the 55 were admitted to the ICU, and the most common injuries were to the upper limb and head -- leading the researchers to conclude that injuries caused by falling TV trolleys were an important home safety issue in Pakistan.

(Even though I’ve never owned a flat screen and abhor TV trolleys I have been unable to KonMari them out of the house. I have tried. They remain, rusty wheels and all.) 

 

Crime v. Terrorism

This is a great piece in the LRB on how one defines "credible fear" in order to establish eligibility for asylum.

The complexities of women’s lives can be overlooked by the legal system. But the more time I spent at the detention centre, the more I saw it was systematically prone to the dynamics of evasion and rhetorical slipperiness of the phrase ‘credible fear’. The name ‘Family Residential Center’ is disingenuous, too. Owned by a private prison company, the centre – a collection of pre-fabricated huts – is surrounded by mirrors, surveillance cameras and coils of barbed wire. US immigration policy is based on an irrational fear of the people detained here. There is nothing credible about it.

The nature of legal definitions - and the impact they have on someone's life - reminded me of the challenges with defining terrorism in the Pakistani anti-terrorism court system and the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Reema Omer at the ICJ had an excellent op-ed recently on the vague and inconsistent ways in which the definition of terrorism has been interpreted by the courts in Pakistan. 

In order to establish whether an alleged crime is an act of terrorism, the prosecutor has to prove that it matches the definitions in the Anti-Terrorism Act, one of which includes that it must have affected society at large. This can and is very arbitrary: is there a barometer for what shocks society, and how does one judge that? In the Rangers-Sarfaraz Shah case, the prosecution presented a witness who described how her children were traumatised at viewing the video of Shah being killed.

But what differentiates a crime from terrorism? As Omer points out:

 While there is no agreed universal legal definition of terrorism, international standards clarify that laws related to terrorism must be clearly and precisely formulated, and they must be limited to countering terrorism, as properly defined. This means that the ‘action’ must be a serious crime such as grievous physical violence, and the intention with which it is carried out must be to provoke a state of terror in the general public or a segment of it, or to compel the government to do or abstain from doing something. The definition of terrorism under the ATA falls foul of these standards: it is vague, overbroad, and allows even acts driven by reasons other than spreading fear or coercing governments to be considered ‘terrorism’

Where does one draw the line at what cases should be heard by the regular courts v/s anti-terrorism or special courts? This isn't always dependent on the law, but also on perception, 

There was - for a considerable period in Karachi - a palpable sentiment that cases be sent to the ATC because they were theoretically assumed to work faster [while in reality, there was a considerable backlog] This seems to have been blurred further by the introduction of miitary courts; with a bevy of "high-profile" cases sent or transferred out of the ATC to military courts. 


A reading list of reporting, on reporters.

Around the world, journalists have long struggled to report against hostile governments, in times of censorship andand war. But what does it mean to be a writer in a place where being a journalist can feel like being public enemy number 1, 2, and 3, where there is often no institutional support and funding, little acknowledgement, and where as "local journalists", there is little of the prestige or awards or opportunities that writers in the U.S., for example, often can access. Local journalism, after all, is mere fodder, local journalists merely bring the great color and quotes that end up being shared as part of someone else's work.

Here are some stories about how journalists work, and what it means to contend with challenges that can seem unfathomable to the world. And while I was writing this up, I thought about how striking it is that one can actually find reportage about reporters abroad, but little of their own work in some? most? international media outlets. There's so much to be said about how utterly broken the system of pitching, commissioning, and writing is, but that's for later.

“Bodies of Evidence” (Laurent Gayer, Nida Kirmani and Zia ur Rehman, The Friday Times, February 2017)

In Pakistan, photojournalists work the morgue circuit to get grisly mugshots of dead criminals. This story peels back how they do this – and why there’s a culture of printing macabre photos of corpses in local Pakistani newspapers.

“Bangladesh war: the article that changed history” (Mark Dummett, BBC, December 2011)(Original piece: “Genocide”, The Sunday Times, Antonio Mascarenhas, June 1971)

In 1971, the journalist Antonio Mascarenhas traveled with the Pakistan Army as it stamped down on dissent from the country’s eastern wing – East Pakistan, now known as Bangladesh – and saw the military’s planned campaign of brutally eliminating dissent in force. The story is an incredible piece of reportage, and the story of how Mascarenhas managed to write it and evade arrest – and save his family from reprisals – is testament to his commitment to tell the story.

“It’s Always the Fixer Who Dies” (George Packer, The New Yorker, September 2009)

Journalists Sultan Munadi and Stephen Farrell were held captive while reporting in Afghanistan; Munadi was killed in a raid while Farrell survived. George Packer’s lament for Munadi – the interpreter who died while his colleague was freed – is bitter and knowing, and strikes at the deeply unjust imbalance between the lives of journalists and the fixers they depend on.

The unique burden of covering climate change in the Middle East” (Mark Schapiro, Pacific Standard, August 2016)

Reporting on climate change in the Middle East means contending with the intersecting forces of government and powerful figures in the economy, but investigative journalists are trying to bring out the stories of polluted rivers and emissions in a region where journalism practices itself are subject to censorship – and self-censorship.

Kidnap, rape and ‘honor’ killings: on the road with a female reporter in rural India” (Snigdha Poonam, The Guardian, March 2015)

An immersive look at how a newspaper covers rural India through a feminist lens, and how women investigate stories that impact women.

“Woman’s work” (Francesca Borri, Columbia Journalism Review, July 2013)

An Italian freelance journalist in Syria tries to report on one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent history. She gets paid $70. The piece is a brutal indictment of how news organizations use freelance journalists; Borri wrote a follow-up piece in the Guardian about the response to her account from freelance journalists, and why the conflict itself had been forgotten in the conversation.

Unbylined (Roads & Kingdoms, ongoing)

This is an excellent series of interviews with fixers from around the world on how they report, the demands made of them, the challenges and the reporting credits.

"The Dissenters,” (David Remnick, The New Yorker, February 2011)

David Remnick profiles the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and the challenges it faces as it tries to balance idealism, reportage on the conflict with Palestine, and the polarization of society.

A dinner from Herat, via Beirut

While in Beirut recently, I went to Makan - a lovely space that does global cuisine events - for its three-night western Afghan set menu [apparently prepared by a Sri Lankan chef!]

Herat is beautiful, but I visited in 2013 in the dead of the winter and don't recall much of the food, other than eating a massive heap of rice and chicken one afternoon that I could barely make a dent in. Though I consumed enough bolani and mantu in Kabul to last a lifetime. [Also, people: "Kabuli pullau" is not what we think it is]

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All the things.

Everything was delicious, though the kheer turned out to be more firni-like - and sans carrots - which was great because I don't like gajar ki kheer or halwa, and I was actually rather surprised to see it on the menu since I didn't know gajar ki kheer was an Afghan dish [though I know fairly little about Afghan cuisine] The salads reminded me of how great kachoomar tastes and I really should make it more often. I didn't eat the lamb stew because I can only eat red meat if it's minced/spiced and cooked to death. The khichri was like all good khichris should be: comfort food at its very best - generous.

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oh, hello.

The highlight of this meal was the bichak.

Why did I never know bichak existed? I could have eaten half a dozen of in a single sitting. It's one of the things I like best about discovering a new cuisine: a single item that makes you slightly obsessed and searching for places to have it again.

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Ready, set, go! Using CoachBot: the language taskmaster

I've been in Amman for a few months now, and my colloquial Arabic skills are still a sore point. I now find myself speaking an odd mix of fusha and colloquial, and I'm hoping that over the next few months I can practice more and switch over, and not ask questions like (true story) "Keef keep up?"

I'm excited about working on Arabic in different ways: I'm going to be doing some work on 'Master Arabic' - Alex Strick van Linschoten's upcoming (available for pre-order now!) hugely useful new book for intermediate Arabic students to get over the roadblocks in learning and advancing in the language. 

Alex has also developed a fantastic new tool for language study called CoachBot which I'm really looking forward to using as I practice Arabic (and hopefully get back to resuming my Farsi study this year.)

So CoachBot works like a task master: you pick how much time you have -- the five minutes before you're waiting for your ride, the 15 minutes off your lunch break -- and go:

 I picked five minutes

I picked five minutes

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 My very glamorous to-do list

My very glamorous to-do list

All of this took less than five minutes. Fantastic! There are over 380 tasks online, and more are being added every day. So the next time you're complaining about how you just can't make the time to study, remember it only takes five minutes to get back into it.