Christopher de Bellaigue is the author of Rebel Land: Unraveling the Riddle of History in a Turkish Town. His research for the article in this ­issue was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
 (December 2015)

Hunting the Truth in a Paris Ghetto

Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan in Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, 2015

The three main characters of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan join together opportunistically in the Sri Lankan refugee camp from which they will head westwards, but the question of whether Dheepan, Yalini, and Illayaal will end up caring for each other—becoming, in the process, a “real” family—isn’t simply of human interest. In their new home, safety and security can only be found by pooling income, morale, skills, and acquired local knowledge.

Persia: The Court at Twilight

Dancers and musicians at the Qajar court, photograph taken by Antoin Sevruguin, late nineteenth century

The two hundred-odd images in “Eye of the Shah: Qajar Court Photography and the Persian Past” were executed for the most part by a small number of court and portrait photographers using an ultra-modern medium in a land still run according to the divine writ of kings, where the Shah’s harem contained hundreds of wives, concubines, and eunuchs, and many people continued to keep slaves. It’s in this confrontation—between the bastinado and the wet collodion method—that the principal interest of “Eye of the Shah” lies.

Dreams of Islamic Liberalism

Muhammad Abduh, Egypt’s senior judicial authority at the start of the twentieth century and an admirer of Darwin. He is now ­recognized, according to Christopher de Bellaigue, ‘as one of the most influential liberal Islamic thinkers.’
During the spring of 1910 a young Iranian who was studying to be a mullah would climb to the roof of his house to observe a mysterious projectile as it moved across the night sky. Ahmad Kasravi did not know what he was seeing but he was instinctively skeptical of …

A Song Against Jihad

A scene from Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu, 2014

One comes away from Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu not only despising the tyranny of Islamic extremism, but also strangely buoyed by the sense that its exponents may be redeemable through the dignity and beauty of their victims.

Iran & the Bomb: The Endgame

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second from left, and his cabinet ministers meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about Israeli air strikes on Gaza, Tehran, July 2014
In the summer of 2002 an Iranian opposition group thought to have been fed intelligence by Western spy agencies revealed the existence of a secret uranium enrichment facility outside the central Iranian town of Natanz. It was the beginning of a long, rancorous, and so far intractable battle of wills between a revolutionary state seemingly determined to acquire the expertise necessary to build a nuclear bomb and an international coalition, led by the United States and including other nuclear weapons states, that has been trying to prevent this from happening.

Turkey’s Double Game in Syria

Turkish tanks standing by on the Syrian border with the battle of Kobani in the background, October 11, 2014

If ISIS captures the Kurdish city of Kobani, the militants could consolidate their control of a long stretch of the Turkish border, and establish a corridor between their stronghold of Raqqa in eastern Syria and positions further West. But for the Turkish government, the fall of Kobani might be a price worth paying for the sobering effect it would have on what Turkey deems a greater threat: Kurdish nationalism.

What Only Soldiers Understand

A soldier on patrol in Sebastian Junger's Korengal

Sebastian Junger’s new documentary Korengal follows the same soldiers over the same fifteen-month tour of duty in Afghanistan as his acclaimed 2010 film Restrepo, but it cannot be considered its sequel; it might be misleading even to call it a war film. Korengal‘s subjects are youth and male friendship, and it deals in a peculiarly profound way with the unsettling sense that a young warrior experiences, after fighting alongside his brothers-in-arms, that he knows all the joy and agony that life can offer.

Iran: A New Deal?

Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) at a meeting about Iran’s nuclear activities, United Nations headquarters, New York City, September 2013
On a recent trip to Tehran I visited a friend I hadn’t seen since June 11, 2009. We had met on the eve of that year’s presidential election, and my friend, a prominent campaigner against the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had alluded somewhat unnervingly to the possibility of vote-rigging and violence.

Turkey Goes Out of Control

Protesters with placards of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen during a demonstration against corruption, Istanbul, December 25, 2013. The text on the placards says ‘We will cast them down!’
Large parts of the civil service have been eviscerated, much of the media has been reduced to unthinking carriers of politically motivated revelation and innuendo, and the economy has slowed down after a decade of strong growth. The Turkish miracle is over.

No One Is Blameless

  Tahar Rahim, Bérénice Béjo, and Ali Mosaffa in Asghar Farhadi's The Past

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi seems to enjoy casting beautiful actresses and then making us forget their beauty, degrading them with their unhappiness and the ineptitude of their actions. Everyone becomes hypnotically normal under his gaze, and this is why one ends up feeling so intensely for his characters.

Turkey: The Fakir vs. the Pharaoh

Embroidered images (left to right) of Atatürk, exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Gaziantep, Turkey, 2014

Turkey’s political crisis has divided the two groups dominating Turkish life: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP, on the one hand, and an exiled spiritual leader, Fethullah Gulen, whose movement has sweeping influence in the police and the judiciary, on the other. The conflict could end a decade of political stability and economic prosperity.

Turkey: ‘Surreal, Menacing…Pompous’

Antigovernment protesters at Taksim Square, Istanbul, July 20, 2013
Another nightmare may be emerging in Turkey, the Middle East’s most prominent proponent of what might be called Islamic democracy. The stability and prosperity that Turkey has enjoyed over the past ten years had associated the country with a type of political arrangement known flatteringly as the “Turkish model.” This summer, the model came unstuck.

The Resurgence of the Kurds

Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), at a PKK training camp, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, 1991. He is now imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali. The paintings in the background are of Öcalan, left, and a PKK soldier killed in battle.
The announcement on March 23 by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of a cease-fire with Turkey is only one sign among many that the fortunes of the Kurds may be taking a new, more hopeful direction. For almost a century, they have inspired sympathy for the underdog. Jonathan Randal’s book …

Tunisia: ‘Did We Make the Revolution For This?’

 Protesters against the UGTT labor union and the former ruling party, Tunis, December 8, 2012

Less sensationally than in Egypt, a matter of seeming indifference to the international press, the revolution in Tunisia is starting to unravel. Exactly two years have passed since the self-immolation of a fruit-seller in a depressed provincial town spurred Tunisians to topple their authoritarian president, Zeyn al-Abedine Ben Ali-and Arabs in several other dictatorships to launch uprisings of their own. But the mood on the anniversary of that richly symbolic martyrdom is somber, even defeatist. To many Tunisians, the goals that animated the revolution no longer seem within reach.

In the Supreme Shrine

In God’s Eye, by the Saudi Arabian artist Shadia Alem, showing Muslim pilgrims around the Ka’aba, the black cube believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham that stands at the center of the Meccan sanctuary, 2010
The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is the supreme expression of global Islam. This year more than 2.5 million Muslims will undertake the journey from towns and villages around the world; during their absence, they will be in the thoughts and prayers of a much larger circle of family and friends. Setting out in their own national dress, speaking different languages, and espousing widely varying versions of Islam, by the time they arrive at Mecca these Indonesians, Afghans, and Nigerians will, in important ways, have become one.

Iraq: What Remains

Iraqi soldiers walk past a bullet pocked wall in the aftermath of a deadly raid, Mosul, 2006

The world has changed a great deal since the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003–thanks in part to that invasion and to the earlier invasion of Afghanistan. And yet, watching President Barack Obama welcome home the troops at Fort Bragg on December 14, and the media coverage of that event, it struck me that one thing has not changed. Despite the vast expenses incurred by news organizations following the occupation, and the considerable time that politicians in Washington spent debating its merits, many Americans continue to see in Iraq a reflection of their own country’s ideals and contradictions. They will remember Iraq as an American trauma. But it was, above all, an Iraqi trauma.

Afghan Treasures

‘Ceremonial Plate with a Representation of Cybele’; gilded silver plate from the Greco-Bactrian city of Aï Khanum, third century BC
During the 1920s, when King Amanullah of Afghanistan tried to unite his disparate subjects, his inspiration was the European nation-state. According to this model, nationhood meant not only conscription, a civil code, and education for girls, but also a collective self-awareness deriving from the past, and this last element was …

Should Afghanistan Exist?

An approximate map, based on UNOSAT data, of Afghanistan’s major ethnolinguistic groups; striations indicate mixed areas

Here is a map of Afghanistan. Versions of it adorn conference rooms in military bases, ministry buildings and NGO headquarters. The first question it raises is: “Why does Afghanistan exist?” The country contains about a dozen ethnic groups, whose distribution is shown here in simplified form. There is no coast to attract people and trade. One should also bear in mind Afghanistan’s tribal divisions, particularly within the Pashtun ethnic group, which is split into numerous clans and smaller descent groups. These are too complex for a cartographer to suggest.

The War with the Taliban

US Marines checking villagers’ documents as they cleared an area of Taliban forces in southern Marja, Afghanistan, before parliamentary elections, September 15, 2010
The Obama administration has been trying to dispel the impression that its military strategy in Afghanistan is influenced by domestic politics. The President’s announcement at West Point last December that US troops will start withdrawing in July 2011—in time to impress voters before his reelection campaign the following year—has been …

Turkey at the Turning Point?

It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful,” is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed. To the many Turks who welcome this transformation, it holds out the promise of a free public culture, equally open to devout …

The Uncontainable Kurds

Since the Turkish Republic was set up in 1923, no Turkish statesman has shown the necessary combination of courage and imagination to resolve the question of how the country’s ethnic Kurds, who are now estimated to number fifteen million people, should be treated. Turkey’s leaders have tried variously to isolate …

Defiant Iran

At the beginning of 2002, President George W. Bush tried to punish Iran for supporting anti-Israel militants, for refusing to adopt a Western-style democracy, and for allegedly trying to produce weapons of mass destruction. He included Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, in the “axis of evil.” Among foreign …

Iran and the Bomb

During the past few months, many nations have reached a consensus on the threat that Iran’s nuclear program poses to international security. A similar consensus eluded the same nations in the debate over invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq three years ago. On March 8, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna …

The Persian Difference

Tony Blair said recently that the Islamic Republic may pose a “threat to our world security”; he also mused that he might one day be called upon to “do something” about Iran. Other Western leaders have criticized Iran’s development of an ambiguous nuclear program, its influence in Iraq, and its …

New Man in Iran

Iran’s presidential election, which was held in two rounds, on June 17 and June 24, ended in triumph for an Islamist ideologue, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The vote raised important questions. Have Iranians, by electing a hard-line conservative, turned their backs on the ambition of encouraging the rule of law and promoting …

Left Out in Turkey

“In Turkey we have no minorities,” the leading official in a poor district in one of the poorest provinces of eastern Turkey told me in April. The official was in his late twenties; he had studied public administration at a Turkish university, then received training in Ankara and spent a …

Bush, Iran & the Bomb

In 2002, Kenneth Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq helped to persuade some Americans that, sooner or later (preferably sooner), the US would have to unseat Saddam Hussein in order to safeguard its own security. Pollack put his case more cautiously, and more adroitly, than many …

Stalled in Iran

When she left Iran for the US in 1997, Azar Nafisi found that she was able to write with a freedom that she had not known since she was last in America as a student in the 1970s. Long muffled by Iranian censorship, she took advantage of her liberty to …