Roving thoughts and provocations

Syria: Inventing a Religious War

Toby Matthiesen

Shawn Baldwin/Corbis

Bashar al-Assad is head of an ostensibly secular Baathist regime and many Shia think his sect, the Alawites, are heretics. Why then is Hezbollah fighting for the regime, and is this conflict really rooted in religion? The answer to both these questions may lie in a suburb of Damascus called Sayyida Zainab, the site of an important Shia shrine and since the 1970s a haven for foreign Shia activists and migrants in Syria. Though the story of Sayyida Zainab is little known in the West, it may help explain why what began as a peaceful uprising against secular authoritarian rule in 2011 has increasingly become a war between Shia and Sunni that has engulfed much of the surrounding region.

Faking It in China

Ian Johnson

Liu Jiaqi/Xinhua Press/Corbis

One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. Above all are the physical spaces. There are now not just individual buildings but entire streetscapes, with cobblestone alleys, faux churches (often used as concert halls), towers, and landscaping designed to reproduce the feel of European and North American cities. The city of Huizhou features a replica of the Austrian village of Hallstatt; while Hangzhou, a city famous for its own waterfront culture, now includes a “Venice Water Town” that has Italian-style buildings, canals, and gondolas. What drives this obsession with foreign styles?

Sylvia Plath: Rage and Laughter

April Bernard

Landshoff/Mademoiselle/Condé Nast

One of my favorite items in the Sylvia Plath archive is a collage she made in 1960: the central image is President Eisenhower sitting at a desk; included in the collage is a cut-out of a woman in a bathing suit with a bomber plane aimed at her, and the caption “It’s His and Her Time All Over America.” Readers may look in vain for explicit political content in most of Plath’s poems. Her own training as a poet and literature student in the 1950s inclined her to avoid direct speech about such “low” topical matters as the Rosenbergs or, for that matter, fabric choices for the spring collections. Only in a few of the poems from the last years of her life do we see her break free from the constraints of her training to speak more directly about the political, material, and sexual culture around her.

Looking It in the Face

Charles Simic


Of course, I never really believed it would happen. Grow old, I mean. I knew it was coming, saw the evidence of it in my friends and relatives, but despite that, I acted as if aging had nothing to do with me. Even having people congratulate me on my seventy-fifth birthday doesn’t sound right to me. Either they or I must have screwed up the count somewhere along the way. Knowing the truth, of course, is better than fooling oneself, but who wants to look truth in the face every morning?

Chavismo: The Crack Up?

Alma Guillermoprieto

Reuters/Miraflores Palace

Sometime in the three months since Hugo Chávez was pronounced dead, his favorite television mouthpiece, a broadcaster called Mario Silva, delivered himself of his sorrow regarding Venezuela in the course of a highly private conversation. It was a riveting aria: fifty-three minutes in which Silva told of coup plots, death threats, power struggles within the heart of chavismo. Astonishingly, Mario Silva’s complaint was sung not to a friend or colleague, not to a Venezuelan official or source but to Aramis Palacios, a lieutenant colonel of Cuba’s G2 intelligence directorate, and we know what was said because someone—a spy for the opposition? secret agent Palacios himself?—has made an audio recording of this conversation available to the Venezuelan opposition.

Playing Moscow’s Game

Amy Knight

Mladen Antonov/Reuters

As usual, the Russian government is playing a tough game with the US and its Western allies over Syria, with the revelations in late May that it plans to deliver advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles and other military aid to the Assad regime. Yet while voicing criticism of these deals, the Obama administration has been welcoming a series of senior Russian officials to Washington, and Britain has actually softened its relations with the Russian government. Why is the Kremlin getting away with this? One reason is that US officials—and their European counterparts—are loath to upset ties with the Russians in the run-up to the Syrian peace conference, which the Obama administration is trying to convene this summer with Russian support. But just as telling may be Washington’s newly-declared cooperation with Moscow in fighting terrorism, prompted by the April bombings in Boston.

The Cemetery Dream

Daniel Mendelsohn

Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos

For a period of two or three years during the late 1980s or early 1990s—it’s difficult, now, to recall exactly when, but I know it was while I was a graduate student—I repeatedly dreamt the same terrifying dream. Once a week sometimes, sometimes every other week, sometimes twice a week or more, it would (as I then thought) be waiting for me as soon as I dropped off, identical each time in every detail: the open gate, the familiar headstones, the sudden sunset, the missing graves, the dead I knew so well but who didn’t seem to know me any more, chasing me, the gun, the embarrassing horror-movie detail of the silver bullets.

Under Sri Lanka’s Big Roof

Martin Filler

Ulrik Plesner/Aristobogforlag

From 1958 to 1966 the Danish architect Ulrik Plesner was the chief architectural partner of Geoffrey Bawa, the Sri Lankan master builder. Plesner’s absorbing new account, In Situ: An Architectural Memoir from Sri Lanka, depicts Bawa’s Ceylon as a prelapsarian architectural paradise where one barely had to think about creating something before it materialized into being. When Bawa and Plesner began their collaboration, however, the influence of Le Corbusier’s International Style was pervasive in the developing world and the inherent advantages of regional building methods were not immediately obvious.

Echoes from the Gloom

Tim Parks

How does Leopardi’s cosmic pessimism, as it’s sometimes called, affect my translation? As one reads the Zibaldone one can’t help feeling that one has heard its voice elsewhere. Either he has had more influence than I knew about, or others since have arrived at similar combinations of gloomy content and emphatic style. An Italian can’t help thinking of Giorgio Manganelli and Carlo Emilio Gadda. But the voices that for me are most constantly present, or nascent, in long sections of the Zibaldone, are Samuel Beckett’s (the novels), Emil Cioran’s, and, above all—indeed overwhelmingly, especially in the wilder riffs on the scandals of human behavior—Thomas Bernhard’s.