Marin Alsop appointed first female artistic director of top Vienna orchestra

25 minutes ago

Exclusive: American conductor greeted new role at ORF but hopes being the first woman will shortly no longer be news

Why did two mothers murder their adopted child? | Giles Tremlett

3 days ago

The long read: Asunta Fong Yang was adopted as a baby by a wealthy Spanish couple. Aged 12, she was found dead beside a country road. Not long after, her mother and father were arrested

One day in late June 2001, Rosario Porto, a petite, dark-haired lawyer from Santiago de Compostela, northern Spain, sat nervously on a flight to China beside her husband Alfonso Basterra, a quiet man from the Basque country, who worked as a freelance journalist. The couple, both in their mid-30s, were on their way to adopt a baby girl. Porto swallowed two tablets of Orfidal a common anti-anxiety medicine that she had used before then but remained too agitated and excited to sleep.

The couple had had no trouble persuading local Spanish authorities that they would make good parents and that their child would be surrounded by a loving extended family. Portos father was a lawyer who had been honorary consul for France in Santiago, and her mother was a university lecturer in history of art. They had given their daughter a flat that occupied a whole floor of a four-storey block in what some call Santiagos VIP zone, home to the citys upper middle class. The flat was decorated in the bold tones blues, greens and yellows that Porto liked, and full of art, curiosities and colourful rugs from around the world. The childs bedroom would have wallpaper covered in clouds and suns.

At that time, adopting from China was unusual. Nobody in Santiago, a solidly bourgeois city of 93,000 people, had done so before, and only a few Chinese children had been adopted in the wider region of Galicia, a mostly rural area of 2.7 million people. But Spanish parents wanting to adopt were beginning to cast a wide net. With a plummeting birth rate and strict adoption laws, there were relatively few Spanish children needing homes, while adopting abroad was relatively quick and easy at least for couples who could afford the costs of 10,000 or more. By 2004, Spain would rank second in the world for foreign adoptions behind only the United States. The following year, adoptions of Chinese children peaked at 2,750. Of these children, 95% were girls (the one-child policy placed an added premium on boys).

Adopting a baby girl from abroad brought the satisfaction and, for some, the moral cachet of rescuing a child in need. In the progressive, cultured environment in which the Basterra Porto family moved, they could expect nothing but praise. Porto, who inherited her fathers role as honorary consul, even appeared on local television to share her wisdom and experience about adopting.

Psychologists reports painted a positive picture of the couple. Porto was friendly, relaxed, emotionally expressive, cooperative, adaptable and solicitous, they said. I am a passionate woman, she told them, describing her husband as patient, easy-going, understanding and with a sense of humour, a strong character who makes his own decisions. The Porto family, one of their friends told me, were aristocracy.

In China, an underweight, undersized nine-month-old baby girl from Hunan province called Asunta Fong Yang awaited them. It was, Basterra would recall, an incredible trip. Two weeks later, after navigating the Chinese red tape and making the required payments, they brought the little girl home to Santiago. Her new Spanish identity documents showed that she was now Asunta Fong Yang Basterra Porto.

The child grew and began to gain weight, though she remained slight and suffered the routine ailments of childhood: fevers, gastroenteritis and other illnesses that scare parents but pass quickly. In the circles in which Porto Charo to friends and family moved, friendly doctors were always on hand. There was no need to go to the public health centre, where a paediatrician had been assigned to Asunta. They went, instead, to the citys major hospital, where a friendly consultant would oversee future care. Even prescription-only medicines could be obtained from friendly pharmacists. It was a privilege of class, but this was how things worked in Santiago a charming, tranquil city that functions as the capital of the increasingly self-governing region of Galicia. Like other provincial cities, Santiago can be very complacent, the Galician writer Miguel Anxo Murado told me. The couple were happy to use their contacts. They were simply doing their best for Asunta.

Over time it became apparent that Asunta was special. By the time she reached secondary school she was deemed so bright that she skipped an academic year. Her parents both pushed her and fretted about her abilities. Well-handled, they are a good thing, Porto told friends after reading up on gifted children. But they can be a problem. There were private classes in English, French and Chinese, plus German at school. Asunta already spoke Spanish and Galician, the Portuguese-tinged language of this green, damp corner of Atlantic Spain. There were also private classes in ballet, violin and piano often demanded by Asunta herself.

She once told us what her Saturdays were like, Asuntas ballet teacher, an English woman named Gail Brevitt, recalled. She got up at 7am, did Chinese from 8 until 10, came to ballet from 10.15 to 12.30, then did French until lunchtime. And then there was violin and piano. Asuntas proud parents followed her progress carefully. The girl was timid with strangers, but exuberant at home playing practical jokes, haranguing her parents with mock political speeches or flouncing around in her ballet costumes. There were concerts and theatre trips, while her mother became involved in the Ateneo, a liberal cultural club that arranged talks, debates and concerts.

By the time she turned 12 in September 2012, Asunta might have been expected to be getting fed up with being, to all appearances, a project child someone who was determinedly being shaped into a prodigy. Once, when her mother was going through a list of after-school activities in front of acquaintances, the girl snapped: Thats one that Im doing because you like it! But mostly Asunta seemed happy. She was talented, disciplined and enjoyed what she did. She was also reserved, sharing her few concerns with Carmen González, the familys cleaner and nanny, or with her elderly but active godmother, María Isabel Veliz. She was now five inches taller than Porto, and on the verge of womanhood. To me they seemed an idyllic family, said González.

* * *

But the family had started to show some cracks. In 2009, Porto spent two nights in a private psychiatric hospital, saying she felt suicidal, apathetic and guilty. Her mind was a high-speed whirl, she said, and she felt in competition with her own mother. She [Porto] gets very irritable with her daughter, who is a bother, a psychiatrist wrote in her notes. After two days, however, Porto discharged herself and only returned for one of the regular checkups that had been scheduled for her.

Two years later, in 2011, Porto had recovered her balance and began to think about sending her daughter away to school in England for a year. This would allow her to polish her English and help ensure that Asunta lived up to her natural brilliance. Porto had done something similar, spending a year at school in Oxford as a teenager and, as a 22-year-old student, travelling to France as an Erasmus exchange student. She had lasted only a few months in France. Nobody knew who I was. Here in Santiago, as my father was a faculty teacher, they treated me with greater consideration, she explained later. Her self-esteem was brittle, and it was during her time in France that a cycle of occasional tailspins into acute anxiety or depression had started. Porto began working in her fathers law practice after graduating and later posted a CV online in which she claimed to have completed her Erasmus year and studied at the London High School of Law, an institution that does not exist.

In September 2013, aged 12, Asunta started back at school after a long summer holiday that included several happy weeks with her nanny in her home village and with her godmother at a local beach resort, swimming in the sea and going to local fiestas. She had a wonderful time, said Veliz. Her parents were nearby in Santiago or at their own beach apartment, but spent only a week of that six-week period with Asunta. They were recovering from an emotionally draining 18 months. This black period had started with the deaths of Portos mother and, seven months later, her father. Both had died in their beds. Asunta had spent lots of time with her grandparents, strolling through the citys Alameda park with her grandfather, who would walk her home from ballet class. Her maternal grandmother had been the familys driving force. She had a personality like a lawnmower, said one acquaintance. Porto called her charmingly awful.

The losses exposed the faultlines in Portos marriage. Early in 2013, she and Basterra had suddenly divorced, much to the surprise of their friends. In fact, Portos enthusiasm for a man she saw as excessively puritan, antisocial, apathetic and unpredictable had run out long before. She admitted to a friend that she had tired of her underachieving house-husband. Porto had taken a lover a self-assured, energetic and successful businessman called Manuel García. When Basterra discovered the affair, after rummaging through his wifes emails, the marriage crumbled. He moved away, staying with relatives in the Basque country, but returned three weeks later, taking a tiny apartment around the corner. His only aim, he said, was to see Asunta grow up happy.

Porto had sat Asunta down and given her the divorced parents talk, full of reassurances that her parents adored her but that mummy and daddy no longer loved each other. So who will cook? Asunta wanted to know. It was a pertinent question. Her father, whose freelance work was erratic, had been chef and chief housekeeper. Basterra bombarded his ex-wife with emails reminding her of all the household tasks that would now fall on her, knowing that her inability to organise herself would make her anxious. I doubt if she has ever even boiled an egg, said one friend. Without Portos money, Basterra had come down in the world. His wifes choice of lover García, who was still married and who Basterra regarded as vulgar only added to his sense of resentment.

No one knows how Asunta, entering adolescence, reacted to all this. The perfect certainties of her world were being dismantled, and her trust in her parents must have been shaken.

Alfonso

Alfonso Basterra and Rosario Porto suddenly divorced in 2013, much to the surprise of their friends. Photograph: Lavandeira Jr./epa/Corbis

In June 2013, Porto had a nervous breakdown that provoked acute physical symptoms, including dizziness and the seizing up of one side of her face. Basterra rushed to his ex-wifes hospital bed and, a week later, helped to set her up again at home. In some ways, it was a return to their old life. They had meals at his place and he even thought they might move back in together.

Meanwhile, Asunta carried on with her many extra activities. When she laid her study books out in a fan shape across the colourful rug on her bedroom floor on the afternoon of Saturday 21 September 2013 after she and her mother had eaten lunch at her fathers flat, followed by a game of cards and an episode of The Simpsons it seemed that the family had overcome its recent traumas and that Asuntas life was firmly back on course.

* * *

Alfredo Balsa is well-known to police in and around Santiago de Compostela. An assiduous visitor of clubes de alterne the legal, neon-lit bar-brothels that sit on the edges of every Spanish town he had the habit of driving around drunk in his home parish of Teo, a sprawl of villages outside Santiago. By September 2013 he had been caught so often that his driving licence had been taken away, but the nearest club de alterne the Satay was only a mile away, down well-maintained dirt tracks, and the chances of being caught driving there were almost non-existent.

In the early hours of 22 September, he and a friend rolled out of a bar in the village of Feros, got into Balsas white Volkswagen Golf, and drove down the broad track to the back of the Satay. It was a remarkably bright night, but the oak and pine trees cast deep, black shadows, and it was among these that Balsa glimpsed something strange. It looked like a scarecrow. He stopped the car, reversed, pointed the headlights towards the spot and, sure enough, a human shape lay stretched out on a gently-sloping bank just two metres from the track.

They got out of the car and stepped cautiously towards it. A girl lay on the bed of fallen pine needles, dressed in mud-stained grey sweatpants, with one arm half-inside a matching top and a white T-shirt pulled above her stomach. She was barefoot. The girls left arm was curled up to her shoulder, a large wet stain ran around her crotch, and there was a small amount of blood-tinged mucus under her nose. It was a shocking find, made stranger in this quiet country area because the girl was Asian. The men felt for a pulse, but there was none.

* * *

Police knew immediately who the victim was. Rosario Porto and Alfonso Basterra had appeared at the main Santiago police station, a honey-coloured stone building in a manicured barrio near the cathedral, at 10.17pm that night to report that Asunta had gone missing. The police record noted that Asunta had been left at her mothers apartment doing her homework at 7pm while Porto went to the familys country house a walled retreat built by her parents, with a swimming pool and tennis court. The house was also in Teo parish, 20 minutes from Santiago and some four kilometres from where the body was found. When Porto returned at 9.30pm the girl had disappeared.

Asunta was a disciplined, obedient child not the sort to wander off so her mother had rung Basterra and they had waited a few minutes to see if she was walking from one parents apartment to the other. They told the duty police inspector, Javier Vilacoba, that they had called a few of Asuntas friends, but nobody had heard from her since Porto had gone to the country house. Just before they left the police station, Basterra reminded Porto to tell Vilacoba about a strange incident from earlier in the summer. At 2am on a July night, she said, she had been woken by Asunta screaming. When she rushed to the girls room she found a man dressed in black with latex gloves, bending over the child. As the man ran out, he pushed past Porto and bruised her cheek. They had left the keys in the outside lock of the apartment by mistake, though Porto did not know how the man who she assumed knew about a safe box containing thousands of euros in cash had entered the building.

Porto had consulted police at the time but decided not to make a formal report of the incident. Break-ins were rarely solved, she reasoned, and nothing was missing. Asunta was a fearful girl. I did not want her to feel unsafe in her own home, Porto said. It was an odd explanation, made stranger by the fact that she did not inform her neighbours. But witnesses noticed Portos bruised face and the fact that something very frightening had obviously happened. Today someone tried to kill me! Asunta texted to a friend. Two months later, it seemed, someone had succeeded.

Inspector Vilacoba gave Asuntas parents the news at 4.45am. He and Basterra had smoked a cigarette together outside the apartment building in the warm night air a few hours earlier. Basterra had muttered that Asunta must be dead and that he hoped she had not been raped.

A

A memorial to Asunta at her school in Santiago de Compostela. Photograph: EPA/Corbis

The next two days were a blur of police interrogations, pain and pills. Portos parents had both been cremated and on 24 September, for the third time in 18 months, she was back in the crematorium. Wakes are public affairs in Spain and the crematorium was packed. Porto and her ex-husband took mobile phone photographs of the closed white coffin which had been displayed behind a glass screen, surrounded by large wreaths of white roses and lilies before it went into the incinerator.

News reporters gathered outside. A veteran local television journalist, Tareixa Navaza, stepped forward as the familys spokeswoman and when someone suggested that the parents were under investigation, she reacted angrily. She knew the family, she said, and would walk through fire to prove her belief in Portos innocence. While Basterra wept, a man approached Porto. He whispered something into her ear and they walked off together. It took a while for anyone to notice her absence.

Soon news came through from Spains Civil Guard police, which investigates crimes committed in rural areas. Porto had been arrested at the funeral. To anyone who knew her, the idea that Rosario Porto might kill her own daughter was ridiculous. I just dont understand. I never saw Charo mistreat Asunta in any way, a neighbour, Olga Fachal, told me.

Not everyone agreed. An energetic and controversial investigating magistrate named José Antonio Vázquez Taín, who sometimes writes novels based on his cases, was detailed to oversee the investigation. It was the maverick Taín famous for bounding out of his office in jeans and T-shirts to greet visitors who had ordered the arrest.

* * *

Even though there was no physical evidence, such as fingerprints or fibres, to link Porto to the girls corpse, the police had sound reasons for arresting her. The most compelling evidence came from a CCTV camera at a petrol station near her apartment. The footage showed Porto driving the familys old, green Mercedes Benz on a route that led towards their country house. A long-haired girl sat beside her. The timecode revealed that the footage had been taken at a time when, according to Portos versions of events, Asunta was meant to be at home.

When shown the video, Porto admitted that the passenger was her daughter, blaming nerves, pills and shame at the girls death for blurring her memory. They had briefly gone to the country house in Teo, she explained, but Asunta felt ill and had insisted on being taken home. She had dropped her off near the apartment in Santiago. Porto claimed to have then spent most of the evening driving around on errands that, because of her scattiness, she failed to complete.

Portos behaviour had already seemed suspicious. When police had taken her to the country house hours after the body was found, she had rushed towards a room that contained a wastepaper basket with snippets of orange baler twine inside. The twine was similar to some found next to the body, which, investigators concluded, must have been used to tie Asuntas limbs together. A roll of the same kind of twine which is common in rural areas was discovered in a storeroom, but forensic scientists were unable to say if the bits found by the corpse came from that particular roll.

If Porto had murdered Asunta, it seemed likely that she must have had an accomplice. At barely 4ft 8in tall, Porto would have had trouble lifting Asuntas corpse and laying it neatly by the roadside without leaving drag marks. So, the day after Porto was arrested, Judge Taín ordered the arrest of Basterra.

The public was understandably shocked. Santiago is a small city, a place where anonymity is impossible and appearances count. Porto and her husband were a popular, considerate couple. She had made a point of hiding her problems behind a cheery disposition. She was intense and absent-minded, but not at all snobbish and given to sudden, unsolicited generosity. When Asunta grew out of her clothes, her mother rang around friends with smaller daughters. They wouldnt just offer the clothes, they would package them up and bring them round, said Demetrio Peláez, a journalist who worked with Basterra at El Correo, the local newspaper, in the late 1980s. Karen Duncan-Barlow, a university lecturer who gave English classes to Porto as a teenager, found herself spontaneously invited round for Christmas dinners after running into her decades later.

Rosario

Rosario Porto being arrested on suspicion of murder. Photograph: Europa Press via Getty Images

Basterra specialised in travel journalism, but made no mark on the citys media. He attempted to build a career in radio but his speaking voice was notoriously dull. He was like a dead mosquito, said another person who worked with him. When he was first courting Porto, Basterra irritated his fellow journalists at El Correo by abandoning half-written news items in order to make sure he was at the theatre or concert hall on time. There was also envy at his lifestyle. We couldnt afford to go to the Caribbean, said one.

Basterras family came from the Basque city of Bilbao and had been well-off before his father frittered away the money. He, nevertheless, clung onto the importance of class and gentlemanly conduct as part of what he called the honour of the Basterras. Those who knew the couple well were aware that Porto could be capricious and demanding and some saw Basterra as a mousy, dominated man. But he also had haughty, disdainful side, with what Duncan-Barlow called a condescending attitude to his little woman. On various occasions Basterra had lashed out and hit Porto, though investigators did not find this out until much later.

There was very little physical evidence to implicate Basterra, who claimed to have been alone in his apartment, cooking or reading a book with his phone turned off, when the murder happened. His wife, too, said that her phones battery had run out, meaning their movements could not be tracked from data picked up by cellphone towers.

Asunta had spent the final night of her life in a bunk bed at her fathers flat after Porto had called to say she would be late back from an exhibition that was being held out of town. Her absence was a sign that Basterras hopes of a return to normal family life were fantasy. He had demanded, when offering to care for Porto after her breakdown, that she ditch her lover García who had originally hired her to help with real estate deals in Morocco. She had agreed, but secretly took up with him again on the day before the murder, sailing off in his boat for an afternoon of lovemaking.

In addition to the CCTV footage, there was one more reason to suspect the couple. Forensic scientists had tested Asuntas blood and urine, revealing highly toxic levels of lorazepam the main active ingredient in the Orfidal pills that Porto had long used to calm anxiety attacks. Initial results suggested that Asunta had been drugged and then smothered.

Teachers at two music academies recalled that in the months before her death, Asunta had sometimes been dopey and stumbling, unable to read her sheet music or even walk straight. I took some white powders, she told Isabel Bello, who ran one of the academies. I dont know what they are giving me. No one tells me the truth, she complained to a violin teacher. Unusually, on the Wednesday before her death, Asunta had also missed school. Porto wrote a note explaining that she had reacted badly to some medicine.

Forensic scientists tested a strand of Asuntas hair and discovered the presence of lorazepam along the first three centimetres. Since hair grows at about a centimetre a month, they concluded that she had also been ingesting smaller doses of the drug for three months. This matched the stories told by her teachers.

Investigators began to develop their theory. Asuntas adopted parents, they decided, had grown tired of the girl they had bought a decade earlier. The killing had been a carefully planned attempt to rid themselves of an increasingly bothersome pre-adolescent child. The plot had included experimental dosing of the girl with Orfidal, careful disabling of their mobile phones, and an arrogant belief that they would be able to convince people that Asunta had been abducted and murdered. Porto was the driving force behind the crime, they suspected, and had been unhinged by the recent deaths of her parents. A psychologist who had treated her in the weeks before the murder said that she had felt overwhelmed by Asunta.

Immediately after his arrest, Basterra was put in a police cell next to his wife, separated by a flimsy partition through which they could speak and be secretly recorded on video. The police amassed hours of tape but at no point in the recorded conversations was there any admission of guilt or any other evidence to use against Basterra and Porto (a court would also later declare the recordings inadmissible). Look what trouble your overheated imagination has got us into, was one of several enigmatic phrases used by Porto.

Alfonso

Asuntas adopted father Alfonso Basterra was also arrested. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

But the tape did reveal something unexpected. When left alone, Basterra was no longer submissive. Silence! he commanded Porto when it seemed she was talking too much.

That was a surprise, Taín told me. It seems they took it in turns to be dominant. Basterra, investigators decided, was just as likely to be the main instigator. They are two of the most selfish people I have met, one of the interrogators told me. She is a spoilt child. He thinks he is superior to the rest of the world.

* * *

For the next two years, as the police investigation proceeded sluggishly, Spains popular tabloid television shows speculated wildly about guilt, motive and evidence, while spreading unsubstantiated rumours that Basterra was a paedophile or that Porto had murdered her parents. Details of the police investigation were leaked and rumours circulated freely. Everybody seemed to have an opinion about the guilt or innocence of Porto and Basterra, yet nobody could explain such an apparently motiveless crime.

Cases in which children are murdered by adoptive parents are exceedingly rare. In the few instances where parents kill children, the crime is typically the result of a moment of rage or overpowering feelings of inadequacy.Obedient and gifted, Asunta did not fit the profile of a victim of this kind of crime. Nor did her parents fit the profile of child-murderers. Porto may have suffered depression and anxiety attacks, but those do not turn mothers into killers.

It was not until 1 October 2015 that the prosecution finally laid out its case before a jury, in the anodyne surroundings of Santiagos smartest courtroom. Two years of prison had taken their toll on Porto and Basterra, who had suffered the taunts and insults that prisoners reserve for child abusers. Porto had spent much of her jail time in a weepy, pharmaceutical daze. Basterra, now almost fully bald and white-bearded, had developed a fierce hatred of Taín and the police investigators. In court, he was openly confrontational, maintaining an indignant and occasionally sneering attitude during questioning and mouthing silent expletives his dark eyebrows bouncing up over thick-rimmed glasses when upset. Porto was confused and tearful, with sudden moments of coherence and a determination to persuade the jury that her memory lapses were part of wider nervous troubles. Both wore black.

Over the next month, through long sessions that started at 10am and sometimes lasted until evening, a jury of nine men and women listened to the evidence, although like most Spaniards they had probably already heard or read vast amounts about the case. Other than the music and ballet teachers who had seen Asunta dazed or upset, all the witnesses described Porto and Basterra as model parents. To me they were always a perfect family, said González, the nanny.

Prosecutors continued to insist that the pair had spent months devising a cold-blooded conspiracy to eliminate their own daughter though they eventually downgraded the charges against Basterra, depicting him as an accomplice to his ex-wifes murder plot. Porto was still unable to explain her initial lies about her movements on the day of Asuntas death. The weak spot in Basterras defence, apart from the violence towards his wife, (described in a perfunctory manner during the trial by his ex-wife, who insisted he had been a marvellous father) was the Orfidal. During the trial it was revealed that he had obtained at least 175 pills over 10 weeks some legally with his wifes prescription, others without a prescription, and still more with a prescription he obtained after lying to his own doctor. Porto, however, insisted that she had only used them occasionally. Asunta, the jury was told, had somehow been made to swallow at least 27 ground-up pills nine times as powerful as a strong adult dose on the day she died. Neither parent could explain how or why, and both claimed that they had only given her pills to treat hayfever on the days she appeared dizzy.

After three and a half days of deliberation, the jury produced a verdict that was even harsher than that sought by the prosecutor. They accepted the evidence of a 15-year-old acquaintance of Asunta who claimed to have seen her in the street with Basterra on the day of the crime when he was meant to be alone at home. Basterra, their spokesman said, may have hidden in the back seat of the car when Asunta was driven to the country house. She had been smothered there, then dumped at the country track. The judge handed Basterra and Porto 18-year sentences, as the crime was committed before a new law introduced life sentences for child-murderers. Both have appealed to have their convictions overturned.

The guilty verdict threw up a fresh set of unanswerable questions. Investigators can only guess at why the couple decided to adopt. Basterra had never wanted children, according to Porto. Pressure from her parents was part of it. I think they wanted to project the stereotype of a happy family, said one investigator, who saw both as arrogant and selfish. If she wants something, she thinks she can just buy it. And if she doesnt want it, she gets rid of it. He helps her to satisfy her whims. But when she is dependent, he becomes violent. It is impossible to say whether, if true, any of this might have been spotted earlier. Court-appointed psychologists who interviewed Porto after the crime (Basterra refused to be profiled by them) deemed her narcissistic and depressive, but capable of distinguishing between right and wrong.

It is understandable that those who assessed their suitability as adoptive parents never imagined Porto and Basterra turning into child-murderers. But the guilty verdict ought to have provoked some soul-searching. It is now clear that Portos psychiatric problems began well before the adoption, but they were either kept secret by Porto or discounted by the psychologists who assessed her adoption application. Officials from the regional government of Galicia repeatedly refused to say whether they had carried out an internal enquiry or revised procedures in light of Asuntas death.

According to adoptive parents of other Chinese children in the region, the selection process for parents in Galicia wanting to adopt is now exhaustive. China has since tightened its adoption rules and far fewer girls like Asunta are leaving the country. In fact, across the world, international adoptions have fallen to below half their 2004 peak of 45,288, reflecting concerns about both trafficking and the new levels of protection offered by host countries. Events as shocking as the murder of Asunta Fong Yang remain, thankfully, few and far between.

A 12-year-old child has had few opportunities to leave a lasting mark on the world. On death, almost everything disappears. Asunta Fong Yang is no exception. Only a few things now remain. One is a blog she used to practise her written English, where she showed a taste for murder mysteries. Once upon a time there was a happy family; a man, a woman and a son, starts one. One day the woman was assesinated (sic).

The site where Asuntas corpse was found has become a small shrine, populated by slowly disintegrating cuddly toys, candles, plastic flowers and the occasional fresh bunch of chrysanthemums. You showed no compassion, no feelings, no heart, reads a rough, hand-painted sign, chastising her parents. Her ashes also remain. After the arrests, the crematoriums manager had to ask Taín what he should do with them. They were eventually given to a friend of Rosario Porto. It will be up to her adoptive parents also now her convicted murderers to decide what happens to them.

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

‘ Jihadists were going to burn it all ‘: the amazing narrative of Timbuktu’s book smugglers

5 days ago

In 2012, tens of thousands of artefacts from the golden age of Timbuktu were at risk in Malis civil war. This exclusive extract describes the race to save them from the flames and how lethal assaults could still threaten the towns treasures

One hazy morning in 2012 in Bamako, the capital of the west African nation of Mali, an ageing Toyota Land Cruiser picked its route to the end of a concrete driveway and pulled out into the busy morning traffic. In its front passenger seat sat a large human in billowing robes and a pillbox prayer cap. He was 47 years old, stood over 6ft tall, and weighed around 14 st, and, although a small, French-style moustache balanced jauntily on his upper lip, there was something commanding about his appearance. In his brown eyes lurked a sharp, almost impish intelligence. He was Abdel Kader Haidara, librarian of Timbuktu, and his name would soon become famous around the world.

Haidara was not an indecisive man, but that morning, as his driver piloted the heavy vehicle through the cloud of buzzing Chinese-made motorbikes and beat-up green minibuses that plied the citys streets, he was caught in an agony of indecision. The car stereo, tuned to Radio France Internationale, spewed alarming updates on the situation in the north, while the inexpensive mobile phones that were never far from his grasp jangled continually with reports from his contacts in Timbuktu, 600 miles back. The rebels were advancing across the desert, driving government troops and refugees before them. Haidara was aware of the fact when he left his apartment that driving into this chaos would be dangerous, but now it was beginning to look like a suicide mission.

Responsable is a French noun whose meaning is very easy to guess at in English. There were few better terms to describe the librarian then than as a responsable for a giant slice of neglected history, the manuscripts of Timbuktu, a collection of handwritten documents so large no one knew quite how many there were, though he himself would set them in the hundreds of thousands. The manuscripts contained some of the most valuable written sources for the so-called golden age of Timbuktu, in the 15 th and 16 th centuries, and the great Songhay empire of which it was a part. They had been held up as proof of the continents vibrant written history. Few had done more to unearth the manuscripts than Haidara. In the months to come , no one would be given more credit for their salvation.

Abdel
Abdel Kader Haidara showing rescued manuscripts in Bamako in 2015. Photograph: Charlie English

In person, the librarian was an enforcing man with a handshake of astonishing softness, a drive-by of a greeting that left a clue of remembered contact , no more. He was well versed in the history and content of the documents, but appeared not so much a scholar as a businessman who controlled his affairs in a variety of speeches via his mobile phones, or in person from behind a desk the size of a small boat. He was not the only proprietor of manuscripts in the city, but as the owner of the largest private collecting and founder of Savama, an organisation devoted to safeguarding the citys written heritage, he claimed to represent the bulk of Timbuktus manuscript-owning families.

Sitting in his vehicle on the morning of 31 March, Haidara knew there was only one place he should be. The cumbersome Land Cruiser made a U-turn once again, and headed north-east, toward Timbuktu and the war.

Northern Mali had long been a rough neighbourhood, a refuge for bandits, smugglers and revolutionaries. In 2011, an extra ingredient had been added to the simmering stew. That year, a insurrection in Libya, backed by Nato jets and cruise missile, toppled the Gaddafi regime, and hundreds of Malian Tuareg who had been employed in the dictators armies returned home with all the weapons and ammunition they could carry. In Mali, they joined forces with a political movement that had been campaigning for an autonomous Tuareg state called Azawad, and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad( MNLA) was born. The MNLA declared war on the Bamako government and, with the help of its al-Qaida allies, inflicted a string of humbling defeats on Malis demoralised military. In mid-March 2012, a group of disaffected Malian army officers launched a takeover, and in the political chaos that followed, the rebels took their possibility, sweeping across the north as the army retreated in disarray. The jihadists of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb( AQIM) were not far behind. They took over Timbuktu and governed it for almost a year.

Haidara stayed in jihadist-occupied Timbuktu for a month, covertly organising the hiding of his manuscripts in household homes. He then returned to Bamako, where he began to consider moving them south. As a Timbuktien, he didnt yet have an office in the city but his American friend Stephanie Diakit did. By October 2012, Haidara and Diakit had become a team: in future months they would describe themselves as a consortium, consisting of Haidaras NGO Savama and Diakits development organisation, D Intl. Fundraising was central to their operation, and Diakit, in particular, had contacts among the foreign governments and foundations she knew from her career in development. It was these organisations that would end up donating the largest sums of cash.

One of them was an Amsterdam-based foundation, the Prince Claus Fund, named for the husband of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. This fund, which was supported by the Dutch government and the Dutch national gamble, even had a cultural emergency response program, set up in the wake of the Talibans demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001. Deborah Stolk, the programmes coordinator, had never gratified Haidara and Diakit, but she felt he, in particular, seemed to have a good track record. At the start of October, the information Stolk was receiving from Bamako via email, phone and Skype was increasingly alarming. In particular, Diakit told her the citys occupiers had implemented a search-and-seize policy in private homes and business, and Haidara was growing concerned that manuscripts would become the target.

On 8 October, Stolk received an email from Diakit informing her that the manuscript-owning families of Timbuktu wanted Savama to evacuate their collects. A lack of checks on the road south had a window of opportunity. Diakit devoted details of how it would work: the documents would be taken to Bamako in lockers, each of which would contain 250 to 300 documents, via two overland roads. Each shipment would be accompanied by couriers recruited from the manuscript-owning families, and there would be supervisory and security personnels camped out all along both routes, ready to give indirect support services and help in case of emergency. For extra security, each courier would check in eight times a day, Stolk was told. Once in Bamako, the precious manuscripts would be hidden in safe house. All that was missing was funding.

Stolk was convinced. She knew there was a risk to participate in evacuating the manuscripts, and that it might not succeed, but since there was clearly an imminent threat, this seemed the best option.

On 17 October, the Prince Claus Fund signed a contract for the evacuation of 200 lockers of manuscripts. The cost to the Dutch fund would be 100,000, or roughly 500 a locker. The fund wasnt just for transportation, but for overall coordination, transportation costs, couriers, mobile phones to be used during evacuation, stipendium for households/ safe houses and so on, according to Stolk. According to a later report of the evacuation in The New Republic that was fact-checked by Diakit, the first shipments started to leave Timbuktu the day after the Prince Claus contract was signed: On 18 October, the first team of messengers loaded 35 lockers on to pushcarts and donkey-drawn carriages, and moved them to a depot on the outskirts of Timbuktu where couriers bought space on buses and trucks attaining the long drive south to Bamako.

That trip would be repeated daily for the next several months, according to The New Republic, sometimes many times a day, as the teams of smugglers passed hundreds of lockers along the same well-worn road to Bamako.

The manuscripts journey south was fraught, and barely a day went by without a messenger ringing in with what Haidara described later as petits problmes , which ranged from mundane breakdowns to ransom demands and dangerous run-ins with the jihadists. By the end of 2012, however, Savama informed the German embassy in Bamako that between 80,000 and 120,000 manuscripts had been successfully evacuated from Timbuktu.

President
President Hollande in Mali in February 2013. Photograph: Fred Dufour/ AFP/ Getty Images

At this time, the Malian crisis was entering a far more dangerous stage. In early January, the rebels began to advance south, taking Konna, 40 miles inside government province, and on the morning of Friday 11 January, Frances president, Franois Hollande, announced that his country was going to war. Operation Serval, the French offensive to retake the north of Mali, was about to begin.

Haidara had been alerted by heritage experts that the end of the occupation of Timbuktu would be the most dangerous period for the manuscripts: People told me that the working day they leave they are going to burn everything. They are going to sabotage it all.

He and Diakit now renewed their energetic fundraising. On Tuesday 15 January, Diakit pitched up at the Dutch embassy in Bamako for a meeting with the embassys head of development aid, To Tjoelker. She told Tjoelker the problem. They told we would like you to help us because there are still 180,000 manuscripts left in Timbuktu and we cant get them out without extra money, the envoy recollects. In particular, Tjoelker was informed, the jihadists had threatened to burn the manuscripts on the day of Mawlid, the celebration of the oracles birthday, which fell on 24 January. After the combat of Konna, the AQIM fighters who were occupying Timbuktu became very angry, she remembers. They told: OK, we will show you. We will do a big auto-da-f on the day of Mawlid.

Tjoelker had no budget for saving culture, but Diakit had come knocking at an opportune moment: the Dutch foreign minister, Lilianne Ploumen, had just sent a note to the embassy asking what the government could do to help Mali, and Tjoelker was persuaded this was it. By 17 January, Ploumen had given her blessing to the operation. The project had to remain confidential: I said to[ Ploumen ]: You cant tell anyone about it, it has to be kept really secret because, if it becomes public al-Qaida will react … It is top secret and you can only get the publicity after four or five months but not now, you have to keep quiet.

Embassy staff took this entreaty so seriously they even marked down the money they dedicated the book smugglers as being for school exercise books in their own accounts.

The Dutch foreign ministry apportioned 323,475 to Savama and that afternoon, Tjoelker began to make arrangements. On Saturday 19 January, she took the contract to the librarian for him to sign, satisfying him in the Bamako lockup where the manuscripts were being received and dispatched to the safe houses. He seemed unwashed, she remembered, and so tired, and to cheer him up she told him the work he was doing was important for the whole of humanity. The contract stipulated that he would evacuate 454 lockers, or 136,200 manuscripts, which meant the cost of transporting each had now reached a whopping 660, though this included storage for a year, the induce of an inventory, at 212 for each locker, and a 10% management fee for Savama and for D Intl.

A
A restoration expert with one of the manuscripts in 2016. Photo: Thomas Imo/ Photothek via Getty Images

The manuscripts would now be moved by barge, Tjoelker was told, since the French advance meant it was too dangerous to drive to Timbuktu. That weekend, a large numbers of boats around 20 were already starting to leave Timbuktu, she says. These travelled 250 miles upriver, across the inland delta and Lake Debo, to Mopti, where they turned south up the Bani river for a further 70 miles to Jenne, where the lockers were transferred to shrub taxis that took the manuscripts the last 350 miles to Bamako by road.

Once or twice during the operation, the Dutch ambassador, Maarten Brouwer, asked how things were going, and recalled being told of difficulties on the route: We got some stories about[ lockers] full of manuscripts that were transported by pirogues [ dugout canoes] and that it was done during the night, and they had a lot of problems on the way because there was the police, there were rebels, and so on, he tells. He had heard that barges had been kidnapped or that people had threatened to set manuscripts on fire. It was the people on the ground that solved those issues.

As the lockers reached Bamako, Haidara took Tjoelker to ensure them. He really made me part of the reception of all those boxes. Every box had a number and the name of the funder on it so they knew who had paid for what. Brouwer accompanied Tjoelker on one of these visits. He counted approximately 500 -6 00 containers in the room, easily enough for Savama to have fulfilled its contract with the Dutch government, and was told there were more elsewhere. I looked at To[ Tjoelker] and I said: This is a lot. Are these all full? They said: Yes, they are all full.

To be doubly sure, he even singled out one chest-deep in a stack at the back of the stockroom and said: OK, show me that one.

When the locker was opened, he saw it was piled to the brim with manuscripts.

Postscript: On 2 February 2013, after Operation Serval had succeeded in recapturing northern Mali, Franois Hollande stood in Timbuktu as the citys hero and liberator. French troops maintained Mali secure for a short time, but the situation has long since deteriorated. Once again, innumerable armed groups of different beliefs and ethnicities are fighting for a slice of the countrys future.

According to the Malian journalist Ousmane Diadi Tour, who often travels to Timbuktu and the north, security is now as bad as ever. All the forces have had time to reorganise and are now pursuing different strategies, he says. Though some al-Qaida commandants were killed in 2013, many of those who led the rebellion are still in business. In January this year, more than 70 soldiers succumbed and 100 were injured in what is described as the most lethal terrorist attack in the countrys history, on a military base in Gao. The jihadist insurgency also seems to be spreading: since 2015, a new group, the Macina Liberation Front, has brought terror to the centre and south of the country.

Timbuktu town itself is still procure, with a UN blue helmet force-out regularly patrolling the streets. However, the wider political situation has had a significant effect on the economy, since the tourists who provided a substantial section of Malis income no longer gone. Business is running very badly for the librarians, tells Abdoulwahid Haidara, the proprietor of the towns Mohamed Tahar manuscript library.

Four years after Timbuktus liberation, many of its manuscript libraries remain in the south and merely two libraries are now open in the city itself, he tells. He hopes his own Mohamed Tahar library will reopen its doorways in a months time, when renovation run by Unesco is complete.

Extracted from The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu by Charlie English, published by William Collins on 6 May. The book is published the US by Riverhead, under the title The Storied City .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

The women who won’t marching: ‘silenced’ conservatives vow to stay home

12 days ago

Conservative girls are sticking to their beliefs ahead of the inauguration and that means skipping the Womens March, where they dont feel welcome

For Mindy Finn, Saturdays are cherished hours to be with their own families. The Republican political operative and founder of Empowered Women, a not-for-profit group focused on inspiring women in civic life, enjoys the slower pace after a long workweek. This Saturday will be just like any other: shell eat breakfast with her husband and two young boys, perhaps take her kids to the park, and definitely sneak in some shuteye during their naptime.

Carrie Lukas also plans to spend Saturday with their own families. Lukas, the managing director of the conservative policy group the Independent Womens Forum, will take her daughter to a write contest, and then take the rest of her kids five in all to visit their grandparents.

And Sarah Isgur Flores, who served as deputy campaign administrator to the Republican presidential nominee Carly Fiorina, will expend the day clothed in cozy pajamas, snuggling up with her cat and catching up on Sherlock episodes.

One thing they all know for sure? Though they all live in or near Washington, they wont join the thousands of women descending on the capital for the Womens March on Washington.

The marchs organizers are planning for some 200,000 people: women of all races, credoes and sexual orientations, their partners, their children.

But conservative females though divided during the campaign on their support for Donald Trump wont procession. Theyll be on the sidelines, praying that their unexpected criterion bearer will actually deliver on their long policy wishlist.

The march isnt called the Leftwing Womens March on Washington, or the Democratic Womens March. Its billed as simply the Womens March on Washington. But despite its intersectional, all-inclusive mission, prominent conservative women say the event doesnt represent all women particularly, well, themselves.

Its going to be a whole bunch of people standing up and saying, Youre not a real female if you dont agree with us, says Flores, who works as the spokeswoman for Jeff Sessions, Donald Trumps pick for us attorney general. But the great component about being a conservative woman is that we know who we are, we know what our notions are, and we know how many women agree with us.

Throughout the campaign, Trump has flouted long-held GOP positions on healthcare, taxation and more. In response, the individuals who disagree with Trump have had to differentiate themselves as conservatives rather than Republican. Were not a Republican organization, Lukas tells me of IWF. Were a conservative organization that stands for certain principles. Not for people , nor for a party.

As Trump continues to change his intellect on core policy positions, conservative females are sticking to their own notions more than ever. Those notions are at odds with the unmistakably liberal platform of the Womens March, which advocates for gender equality, reproductive freedom, paid family leave, an objective to police brutality, among other stances.

Conservative women, meanwhile, have more modest purposes: theyre hoping for another rightwing justice to fill Antonin Scalias long-vacant supreme court seat, one who is unabashedly opposed to abortion rights. They wholly embrace the Republican effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Obamas signature healthcare law. And their policy goals arent confined to stereotypical womens issues.

Pro-life
Anti-abortion activists on the steps of the supreme court. Photograph: Pete Marovich/ Getty Images

I find it condescending, insulting and a little demeaning, Tomi Lahren, the 24 -year-old firebrand host of Tomi on The Blaze TV, tells of that buzzy term. To think that women only care about abortion, and birth control, and paid maternity benefits, I think, does a disservice to a lot of conservative women that care about immigration and national security, and Common Core, and the other things that are facing our nation and facing our families.

Trumps spotty record as a conservative, along with his seeming disregard for democratic norms, hasnt assured conservative girls that hell be their champion far from it. And his open boasts of sexual assault dont induce him an easy person to unite behind. But, after eight years of a chairperson who challenged their core beliefs, Trump at least claims the Republican party mantle. And in Washington, institutional power is the key to passing any serious policy agenda.

Im sure that there may be women who are just secretly and behind closed- door shaking their heads, and thinking, I cant believe this guy actually just said that, please dont hold any more press conferences, tells Ronnee Schreiber, a professor at San Diego State University and author of Righting Feminism: Conservative Women and American Politics, referring to Trumps bizarre tangle with the media last week.

But national conservative organisations, she predicts, will look past that. What theyre going to do is say, Hey, lets celebrate the fact that, for example, were a pro-life organization and we have a chairman who claims to be pro-life. Now, we have a chance to actually get an appointment to the supreme court whos pro-life.

Trumps position on abortion rights, like most of his beliefs, is far from set in stone. But until he demonstrates his mettle in office or fails spectacularly, the conservative females I spoke with told me that even if they didnt support him during the campaign, they were hoping for the best.

I think its horrible when the president-elect says something thats offensive about females, says Lukas, who, though she would have preferred many of the other 16 GOP candidates who initially entered the primaries, objective up voting for Trump. But then I look at things like the possibility for healthcare reform, and Im super aroused about that. For tax reform. Tax reform and the problems with starting businesses and job creation, thats a huge womens issue. And I feel very optimistic about that.

Mr Trump is not a conservative, she continues. He doesnt come from the conservative movement, the policy movement that Ive always been a part of. But Ive got hope.

A bunch of sore losers throwing a tantrum

Mindy
Mindy Finn, who was the running mate of the US independent presidential nominee Evan McMullin. Photograph: George Frey/ Getty Images

Just after the election, in the Final Thoughts segment of her eponymous TV reveal, Tomi Lahren went on a tear against anti-Trump protesters. Or, as she called them, a bunch of sore losers throwing a tantrum.

President-elect Donald Trump has opened his arms to all Americans, Lahren chided. No one is asking you to bow at his feet. But your protests and tantrums arent doing anything for this country. You have every right to do it. But youre simply kind of making fools of yourselves at this point.

This Saturday, Lahren will be in Washington she will travel from Dallas to attend the inauguration of Trump, whose campaign she advised on social media starting late last summer.

I dont wake up every day and remind myself that Im a woman. I know that Im a woman, she says, charging that theres been a concerted effort by Democrat to silence and quiet conservative girls, or to diminish conservative girls, or to repeal the woman card of conservative females.

For a moment last week, it seemed that the Womens March organizers had reached across the yawning political abys to include a major plank of conservatism. On Friday, the March announced that one of its hundreds of organizational partners would be the New Wave Feminists, an anti-abortion group based in Texas. Intersectional feminism is the future of feminism and of this movement, one of the events co-chairs told the Atlantic. We must not just talk about feminism as one issue, like access to reproductive care.

Backlash was swift. The feminist novelist Roxane Gay tweeted her outrage: Intersectional feminism does not include a pro-life agenda. Thats not how it runs! The right to opt is an essential part of feminism. By Monday, the organizers had backtracked, releasing a statement clarifying that the Marchs platform is pro-choice, and that has been our stance from day one.

When I talked to Lukas before the flap, she said the exclusion of conservative women was par for the course for progressives. Im looking at their little website now, she said, reading the marchs stated mission: Recognise that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country. Well, perhaps. She giggled hollowly. Perhaps they think that. But they sure dont think that diversity of gues is of any interest. They sure arent interested in people who dont support their political agenda.

Flores agrees. This leftwing playbook is down to one page, she tells, get into feminazi character: If you dont vote our way, we will call you a racist, we will call you a misogynist, we will call you anti-woman. And if you are a woman, then were going to call you a traitor, and were going to say youre not a real girl. Youre not the right type of woman. Those charges, she adds, can be thwart. But she takes heart that this cycle despite the overwhelming pressure to support Hillary Clinton based on the results of shared gender it didnt succeed.

That weaponized feminism, she says, is losing its force.

Its time for all women to identify what is truly important

The first time Mindy Finn go for office, it made national news. In October, she jumped into the race for vice-president on a long-shot independent ticket with the former CIA counterterrorism officer Evan McMullin, hoping to serve as a conservative foil to Trumps distinct brand of erratic Republican ideals. The pair didnt get far, failing to even attain the ballot in many states.

But Finn, a veteran GOP spy who has worked for George W Bush and Mitt Romney, isnt backing down from defending her conservative, #NeverTrump values. Along with her former operate mate, Finn plans to launch an advocacy effort that will catalyze a new conservative motion to defend the constitution against Trump.

Its time for all women and I can say this as a conservative to identify what is truly important, and to guard those principles and those values, and proponent for them regardless of who is president, or what party is in power, she tells. Its a country over party moment.

Finn hopes Trump puts the publics interest ahead of his own. But after a long campaign of quite the contrary, she says shes skeptical of his capacity to respect democratic norms. Under Trump, conservative girls may be pleased with cabinet appointments, supreme court justices, executive actions. But theres also an underlying fear that America as we know it will cease to exist.

President Bush, you could disagree with him on a series of things, she says. But I think people would say he respects human rights and has a strong moral compass. And thats not something that I am confident that we can say about Donald Trump.

Ultimately, Trumps ever-shifting policy whims dont dictate what conservative females believe. And despite the identity crisis, Lahren tells now is a pivotal period for right-of-center women.

Now, our first female chairwoman can be someone thats not scandal-ridden. Can be someone that didnt have a rap sheet a mile long. Can be someone that was not investigated by the FBI, she says. So I think its actually an exciting moment for women.

Contribute with

Read more: www.theguardian.com

‘ All my friends had some nightmare experience trying to get pregnant. My story took the cake’

14 days ago

At five months pregnant, Ariel Levy lost her newborn. After four more years of IVF, had she left motherhood too late?

I first fulfilled Ariel Levy in 2009, soon after moving from London to New York, but I had been a fan for more than a decade. Her frank articles about pop culture and sex, which she wrote in her first task at New York magazine from the late 1990 s, the template of what I wanted to write one day. Her 2005 book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, a blister look at how young woman were being sold the lie that emulating pole dancers and Paris Hilton was empowering, became one of the defining feminist statements of that decade. At the New Yorker, where she has been a personnel writer since 2008, she breaks up the publications occasional aridity with vivid articles about sexuality and gender.( She got her job when she told editor David Remnick that, If foreigners had only the New Yorker to go by, they would conclude that human beings didnt care that much about sexuality, which they actually do .)

Heroes rarely live up to your fictions, but Levy outstripped them. Usually marriage used to go for drinkings cocktails that knocked me sideways, but scarcely seemed to touch her sides and from the start she struck me as being just like her penning: laid-back, wise, curious, kind. Sometimes Levys wife, Lucy, would join us. Isnt she hilarious? Levy would say after Lucy had said something that wasnt, actually, all that funny, but I jealousy them their mutual love after almost a decade together. I, by contrast, was lonely and, like generations of single women in their mid-3 0s before me, starting to panic. But like a lot of women of my particular generation, I felt ashamed of this. Panicking about not having a newborn? How retrograde. So I never admitted any of it to Levy, who seemed more likely to eat her own hair than indulge in such uncool, unfeminist thoughts.

I left New York in 2012 and, despite my doomy fears, had twins when I was 37. Levy and I stayed in touch by email, and although her messages became shorter and more distant, I presumed everything was fine, because she was Ari. But in 2013, I opened the New Yorker and learned that it was not.

***

When we meet for brunch on a cold Saturday in February, it has been five years since we last comprehend each other. Its a typical New York scene: weary and winter-pale mothers eating scrambled eggs in a trendy restaurant while their sugar-rushed toddlers play on iPads. Levy, by contrast, looks calm, happy and healthy, and not only because she has a tan from a recent five-week stay in South Africa.

If we had this conversation five months ago, I would have been in a bad way, she says, in a lilting voice that are typically sets an unspoken Oh my God! and Can you believe it? behind her terms. But Im so much less miserable Im not even miserable at all. So what the frack are we going to eat?

We are just around the corner from Levys flat, where she has expended the past year writing a memoir. This in itself is something of a surprise, because she is not usually a first-person novelist. But Levy, after negotiating her order with the waiter( Ooh, the cheddar scramble is that good? But do we have to have the creme fraiche with it? I mean, lets not ), shrugs off any concerns about self-exposure: Im pretty open book-y, you know? I never understood what the big deal is about privacy. The hardest part was realising that Id better entail what I say. The whole schtick of the book is acceptance and surrender. So after I finished writing it, I believed, Wow, I guess Id better follow my own advice now.

In 2012, Levy conceived a newborn with sperm from a friend, having overcome the reservations shed long had about parenthood. She was about to turn 38: It felt like attaining it on to a plane the moment before the gate shuts you cant help but thrill, she wrote in her 2013 New Yorker article, Thanksgiving In Mongolia.

When she was five months pregnant, she flew to Ulaanbaatar for run. Her friends were concerned but, she wrote, I liked the idea of being the kind of woman whod go to the Gobi desert pregnant. After two days of abdominal discomfort, she ran into the hotel bathroom, squatted on the floor and blacked out from the ache. When she came to, her newborn was on the floor next to her. I heard myself say out loud, This cant is all very well. But it looked good. My newborn was as fairly as a seashell, she wrote. She gazed in awe at his mouth, opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world.

She had suffered a severe placental abruption, a rare complication in which the placenta detaches from the uterus. In shock, Levy held the 19 -week foetus while blood spread across the tiles. She eventually called for help, taking a photograph of her son before the ambulance turned up. She was taken to a clinic where a kind South African doctor tended to her while she hemorrhaged and sobbed. And I knew, as surely as I now knew that I wanted small children, that this change in fortune was my fault. I had boarded a plane out of vanity and selfishness, and the dark Mongolian sky had punished me, she wrote.

Levy flew back to New York and, within two weeks, her relationship with Lucy came to an objective. For months afterwards, Levy continued to bleed and lactate: It seemed to me sorrow was leaking out of me through every orifice. She appeared obsessively at the photograph of her newborn, and tried to make others appear, too, so they could see what “shes seen” and they did not: that she was a mother who had lost her child.

Her article, which won a National Magazine Award in 2014, aims at that point, and I assumed that the end of Lucy and Levys marriage was tied to the loss of their child. In fact, that was a whole other shitshow, Levy tells now. When she returned from Mongolia, she realised through her cloud of grief that Lucy, who had struggled with alcoholism before, needed to go to rehab, poorly. The girls, still in love but too broken to support one another, separated. Today, they are in touch, but, Levy tells, There are times when one of us says, I gotta stop talking to you for a while because this is too painful. Because we are get divorced, you dont magically stop caring about each other.

The breakup is one of merely several shitshows recounted in Levys memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, which looks, in self-lacerating detail, at events in her life before she went to Mongolia, and hints at some that came as. It is not the book that many expected would follow Female Chauvinist Pigs , not least because it could be spun as a warning to women about the perils of waiting too long to have a newborn. Placental abruption, Levy writes, usually befalls women who are heavy cocaine users or who have high blood pressure. But sometimes it only happens because youre old. She doesnt go into this in the book, but Levy, who is now 42, has not been able to conceive again, despite having undergone a ridiculous amount of IVF over the past four years.

The alternative way of looking at Levys memoir is that she is dealing with a subject that feminism has never been able to resolve: the immovable boulder of fertility, butting up against female progress. Levy says she had always wanted to be a writer, so I construct my life with that as my priority; by the time she realised she also wanted to be a mom, she was in her late 30 s. She writes that she and her generation were given the lavish gift of agency by feminism, coupled with a middle-class, western sense of entitlement that resulted them to believe that anything seemed possible if you had ingenuity, money and persistence. But the body doesnt play by those rules.

Of course, this is partly about class, she says now. I dont hear women who are less privileged supposing theyre entitled to everything, whenever they want it. Thats a privilege phenomenon, but it is a phenomenon. It constructs me laugh when people say, Why dont you simply do surrogacy, or merely adopt? Believe me, there is no just about them. Surrogacy expenses $100,000 – $150,000 in the US, while adoption expenses are on average between $ 20,000 and $45,000( costs in the UK are much lower ). After the money Levy spent on IVF( A plenty. A plenty, a lot, a lot ), those options are less possible than ever.

Doomy warnings that women need to stop shillyshallying and sprog up are published in the Daily Mail every day. They are far less common from prominent feminist novelists, and Levy concurs there is no point in lecturing young lady, because it doesnt do anything, and they know it already. Theyre like, Eff you: Im busy trying to earn money and figure myself out. Its just a design flaw that, at the exact moment so many of us ultimately feel mature enough to take care of someone beside ourselves, the bodys like: Im out.

Writer
At home in New York: I was a mess for a very long time. Read an excerpt from her new memoir below. Photo: Annabel Clark for the Guardian

In the UK and US, the average age of first-time mothers has climbed consistently for the past 40 years, partly because of the decline in teen pregnancies, but also because feminism has given women alternatives beyond marriage and motherhood in their 20 s. This, Levy tells, is a seismic rejiggering, and the cost can be epic. While not all women want children, many do eventually, and it doesnt matter how many articles you read about women who are childfree and fabulous when the desire makes, it grabs by the root. That much has not changed, even if the age at which it comes has.

It feels virtually treacherous to say this, I say, devoted how hard our moms fought to give us more alternatives than they had.

I was never any good at maintaining secrets, Levy says. I entail, we ensure their own problems all around us. All of my friends had some nightmare experience trying to get pregnant. My story took the cake, but it wasnt fairly for anyone.

In the book, Levy indicates it was being a writer that encouraged her to believe she could prefer motherhood when she wanted:[ Writers] are accustomed to the power of authorship you control how the narrative unfolds. But I tell her I ensure the writer side of her more in her self-recrimination, the idea that she was to blame for the loss of her child because she waited too long to conceive. Although it is above the average age for first-time motherhood( in the US, this is 26; in the UK, 29 ), 37 is not insanely old to get pregnant. According to the NHS, 82 % of women aged between 35 and 39 will conceive within a year if they are having regular unprotected sex. Levy was in a different situation, because she was relying on IVF. Is it easier to ascribe self-blame, or even societal blame, than say she simply suffered terrible luck in tricky circumstances?

Well, its not just bad luck, because you are more likely to suffer from bad luck if youre older, she tells. But who knows? This might have happened to me if Id got pregnant when I was younger. I just would have had more hour afterwards to get pregnant again.

***

Levy grew up think the rules existed to be defied. As a child in pretty Larchmont, New York country, her mothers special friend, a large African-American named Marcus, would frequently come to stay with Levy and her mothers, a pair of diminutive Jews. Sometimes Levys mother would go to visit him. Marcus had the power to change my mother from a stern regulator of all food containing sugar into a giggling nymph pouring giant glasses of 7Up, as carefree as if it were carrot juice. It was frightening to watch her so happy, Levy writes. Eventually, her parents divorced.

They came out of the 60 s, where people were experimenting with all kinds of things, she tells. And they were going to reinvent marriage, and everything that was established was bullshit. So my mom was like, Im going to have everything. Ill have this thing and Ill have my domestic life, and neither will affect the other. She feels really bad about it. You know, it destroyed their own families. But its not like I think, Therefore convention is great and traditional families are perfect.

Because neither the traditional nor the less conventional approach insures happiness?

Exactly.

As she grew up, Levy occasionally experimented with women, but it wasnt until she was 26 and fell in love with her first girlfriend, Debs, that she realised this was, in her words, a definite thing. The narrative around[ came to see you] is that everything that preceded it was a lie. But thats not true for me I actually dug my boyfriends. But when I was with Debs, I believed, Oh, Im wholly a lesbian. Then I thought, Oh, wait. You dont have to choose no ones going to make you sign anything.

She satisfied Lucy when she was 28 and Lucy 41, at a friends party, and fell for her instantaneously. They had a wedding in 2006 and were legally married the following year in San Francisco. A few years after, Levy, then 35, embarked on an affair.

Even as affairs go, this one truly broke the rules. Levy had got back in touch with an ex-girlfriend, Jen, only to find that she had since transitioned and was now a trans man named Jim. The sexuality was as good as Levy recollected, but on a personal level Jim infuriated her: he indicated the two of them have a baby together employing his eggs and Levys uterus, a theory she found repellent in its blithe presumption: It was his sense of entitlement his belief that you could just keep choosing whatever you wanted in life, without ever sacrificing a single thing, Levy writes.

But this was really a kind of self-reproach: she wanted to be married, but also to have an affair; she had tried to forge her own path, but objective up replaying her childhood; she wanted to delay motherhood, but not reject it entirely.

Levy eventually cut Jim off, and she and Lucy repaired their relationship. Soon after, Lucys alcoholism overwhelmed her, and she attempted suicide. But the two of them went through it; I satisfied them soon after, when they couldnt have seemed more together. They decided to have a newborn. This, Levy believed, would be their happy story.

But happy tales come in unexpected shapes. Soon after Levy returned to New York from Mongolia, suddenly with neither a spouse nor a newborn, she got an email from John Gasson, the South African doctor who had looked after her in Ulaanbaatar. He sent her her medical report, which stated unequivocally that flying to Mongolia had played no part in the loss of the baby, just in case you have any lingering doubt or feelings of remorse, which she did. The two began to coincide, and that was a lifesaver, because he was the only one who saw me with the newborn, and that was the only thing that felt real to me then, Levy tells. Emailing turned into visits. Visits turned into something more, and they are getting married next year. This relationship feels less conventional than my relationship with Lucy: we dont live in the same country, we have different lives. My straight relationship is a lot less straight-out than my gay one was, she says.

Levy only hints at this relationship in her book, and I tell her I was astonished that she defied concluding with this better-than-Hollywood happy aiming. Well, I didnt want the books message to be, Someday, my prince will come, because it wasnt like that. I was a mess for a long time. Theres no such thing as a happy aiming. And this isnt an ending I mean, Im not dead.

The real lesson of Levys story isnt that women are having children subsequently and that this is a problem, but that womens lives are now an entirely different shape, with happiness no longer dependent on the old markers. A female can marriage other women in her 30 s, and then a human in her 40 s; a woman can run for president in her 60 s. And even if they dont get the original intended prize the baby, the presidency the forging of that new route still feels in itself like a victory. But I suspect it will be some time before Levy will be able to tell that story.

She has always loved to garden; her roof terrace was always bordered by shrubbery, and these days she has vegetable and flower beds. If I had my way, its the only thing Id ever do, she tells. In South Africa, she has learned to pony ride along the beach: I like how it feels like flying. When we satisfy, she is just finishing up a New Yorker profile of the artist Catherine Opie, whom Levy describes as a feminist and visual poet on gender.

As for herself, Levy remains first and foremost a feminist, but one who has moved on from Female Chauvinist Pigs: I still agree with myself that reducing females to tits and ass isnt this liberating thing. But Im just not that interested in talking about porn and whatnot at this moment in time. I dont know if its because Im older, or because the world has changed and were in a genuine crisis about womens rights with Trump.

Last summer, Levy chose, after four long years, to stop the fertility therapies. I merely need my life not to be about what I dont have, or consistently failing to get it in the most painful style. And its great. I mean, you cant spend the month of January in South Africa riding horses on a beach and is just like, my life sucks. All options entail not choice something else, and if the kid thing doesnt work up, John and I can travel when we like, and that has its charms.

I feel like were not supposed to admit to regret about our lives, but I do have unhappiness, and thats fine. That doesnt entail I cant live with them, or that somethings wrong. And its pretty great when I can hand my friends children back when they start having a tantrum. Simply as you wont lie to me and say theres nothing fulfilling about motherhood.

A decade ago, Levy profiled the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, and asked her if she regretted not having had children. Everybody doesnt get everything, Dowd replied.

That sounded so depressing to me at the time, Levy tells. Now it just seems like a relief to know I dont have control over everything. Its a part of growing up.

Another part is learning that the rules are mutable: you can be divorced and still love your former spouse; sadness is part of a happy life; and feminism doesnt entail getting everything. It entails giving women choices and thats a good thing even if sometimes those options are taken away.

Dr John wished to know how I am feeling. I tell him that I am in hell: an exclusive extract from Ariel Levys new book

An email arrives from Dr John Gasson, medical director, SOS International Clinic, Ulaanbaatar. As promised, he has sent my medical report, which I need to submit to my insurance company. He has also attached a study on preterm birth that he mentioned when we were in the clinic.

I ask him if it is normal that Im lactating. He explains that the oxytocin that brings on contractions also signals the body to lactate. He adds that the milk letdown reflex after a miscarriage is one of natures less kind tricks, which I think is an elegant and apt style of putting it.

Dr John asks how I am feeling. I tell him that I am in hell. But the very fact of him asking, of is available on communication with the person who was there that night, is a balm beyond any other.

I thank him for being so kind to me at the clinic. I ask if its gets even colder in UB. He says that it has, but that the real problem is the pollution: the colder it gets, the more garbage and coal people burn in the street for warmth, and the harder it becomes to breathe.

He explains that for six months of the year, he lives on the other side of the world, in South Africa, in a bungalow he constructed himself. There is a stable there that he put up for his ponies, and next door, his two adolescents live with their mom and her second spouse. I do miss my children and horses when I am away, and that can be difficult, he writes. The kids will be leaving school soon and off to university. Then I will only have the ponies to miss.

I tell him about the time I spent in Cape Town. I describe my meeting with the track squad out in the wind in Limpopo, my encounter in Pretoria with Caster Semenya.

Actually, he knows that story: he has been reading some of my articles online. He says he likes the way I write.

I like the route he writes, too: One of my fathers better narratives involved being woken up in the early hours of the morning and leaving in some haste as the house was burning. He remembers himself and his younger friend peering through the back window of the motorcar, still in their Victorian nightdress, as the night sky lit up over the rapidly receding town of Barberton. The veracity of his account is suspect, but what is fact is that some very incriminating documents conveniently disappeared in the fire. His sentences are so jaunty! And so foreign. They sound like the latter are written in not just another place, but another time. His narratives transport me.

Dr John tells me about his childhood in Zambia and Zimbabwe Rhodesia, to him, at the time. Growing up, he didnt question why, if the latter are Englishmen, as the person or persons they socialised with considered themselves to be, they lived in a country where everyone else spoke Shona and Ndebele. He did not really contemplate what it meant that his father also a doctor and his grandpa before him were colonialists, until many years later when he began to question everything hed been taught about blackness, whiteness and where he belonged.

His brother, Greg, was his best friend; they were only two years apart in age. Their mother died when they were toddlers. Greg died, too, in a motorcycle accident when he was 21. I can feel how haunted Dr John Gasson was is by that loss from 6,000 miles away. His mom, two brothers, his father, his country no longer exist, are part of the past.

When we converse in writing, everything feelings complete, discrete. I dont have to explain what just happened; he was there. Within the confines of our epistolary friendship, I am not missing pieces of my life except the one that came from my own body, the one that Dr John alone has ensure. Not a picture of the piece, the person.

I wonder sometimes if my grief is disproportionate, inappropriate. I insured my father fall apart after my brother got killed, Dr John tells me. But he had the consolation of knowing the adult that my brother briefly became. You dont even know what your son would have been like as a little boy. I feel desperately sorry for you.

Only Dr John insured him, and merely Dr John insured me with him. Merely Dr John insured what feels so violently true to me, I cant stand that it is invisible to everybody else on Earth: here is a mother with her newborn who has died.

And so, in one style, our friendship is a kind of fiction.

We are two people on opposite objectives of the Earth, who do not know each other, who write one another emails as if we are aware.( At first, we just exchange a few, here and there. But soon we are writing regularly. And the first thing I do when I wake up after I stop crying is check to see if he has sent me an email full of narratives about places I have never seen, in a voice that is swashbuckling but somehow intimate .) In another way, these emails and that picture are the only things that are real to me.

This is an edited extract from The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy, published under 16 March by Little, Brown at 16.99. To order a copy for 12.74, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Poland is ‘on road to autocracy’, tells constitutional court chairman

17 days ago

Law and Justice party is trying to destroy system of checks on government power, says head of highest constitutional court

The outgoing chairperson of Polands highest constitutional tribunal has accused the ruling rightwing Law and Justice party( PiS) of a systematic attempt to destroy oversight of government activity, describing the country as on the road to autocracy.

The departure of Prof Andrzej Rzepliski, whose term expires on Monday, ought to be able to pave the way for PiS appointees to assume control of Polands most important institutional check on executive power.

The expiration of Rzepliskis term goes amid signs of the most serious political crisis in Poland since PiS won presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015.

Protesters on Friday night attempted to barricade MPs in the parliament build after the government sought to restrict media access to parliamentary proceedings. Opposition MPs accuse PiS deputies of holding illegal elections outside the parliamentary chamber after an opponent MP was expelled for protesting against the media restrictions and opposition leaders occupied the parliamentary pulpit in protest. Protests continued in Warsaw and other cities over the weekend.

Speaking to the Guardian, Rzepliski defended his attempts to uphold the freedom of the tribunal, which rules on the constitutionality of legislation and decisions taken by state authorities.

He said the governments refusal to recognise the legitimacy of a number of the courts rulings threatened to create a double legal system, with some courts upholding our rulings, and others not. Judges truly dont know what is the law, and without that, in a continental system, courts cannot operate.

PiS has been engaged in a stand-off with the constitutional tribunal ever since Andrzej Duda, the countrys PiS-aligned president, refused last year to swear in a number of magistrates appointed by the previous government and appointed five new magistrates of his own. Three were ruled unconstitutional.

The PiS-controlled parliament has also passed eight separate pieces of legislation regarding the role and functioning of the constitutional tribunal, the majority of which, critics argue, seem designed to minimise the ability of the court to hold the government to account, and to maximise the influence of the governments own appointees.

The aim of the legislation is to destroy the court, to disintegrate it, to create a kind of private council for our beloved leader, said Rzepliski, a reference to Jarosaw Kaczyski, the leader of PiS.

At a meet of supporters earlier this year Kaczyski, who portrays the constitutional tribunal as in hoc with the liberal opposition, and has described the court as the bastion of everything in Poland that is bad, was contended that the will of the nation, as exemplified by the ruling party, trumped the rule of law.

In a democracy, the sovereign is the people, their representative parliament and, in the Polish occurrence, the elected president, told Kaczyski. If we are to have a democratic state of statute , no state authority, including the constitutional tribunal, can disregard legislation.

The stand-off has prompted the European commission to consider sanctions for what it has described as a systemic threat to the rule of law in Poland. Over the weekend Donald Tusk, European council chairwoman and a former premier of Poland, called on the Polish authorities to respect the constitution.

Citizens, law and morality place limits on government , not vice versa. As we know from our own experience, a democracy without respect for morals, culture and conventions speedily degenerates into the opposite, Tusk told a news conference in Polands western city of Wrocaw.

Kaczyskis attitude towards the constitutional tribunal is a possibility rooted in his experience as prime minister in the mid-2 000 s, when the court inflicted a series of defeats on a short-lived PiS-led alliance government.

It is important to remember that it is the constitutional tribunal that humbled Kaczyski last period Law and Justice were in power, between 2006 and 2007, told Jacek Kucharczyk, chairperson of Polands Institute of Public Affair. It stands to reason that this time around, he would attempt to take it on right from the beginning.

In Poland, the constitutional courts rulings are not considered to have legal effect until they are printed in an official journal, which is produced by a printing press controlled by the government.

In March, the tribunal ruled unconstitutional a reform to the court that would have given more power to PiS appointees and forced the court to consider suits in chronological order, hampering its ability to scrutinise government activity. But the prime minister, Beata Szydo, had now been rejects to publish the ruling, arguing that the decision had not been made in accordance with the new legislation.

When a judgment is not published, you disintegrate the legal system, said Rzepliski. The government has since refused to publish numerous rulings issued by the court.

When earlier this month the courts judges gathered to vote on Rzepliskis replacement, three judges appointed by the present government called in sick on the same day, denying the gathering of a quorum. The government responded by passing legislation permitting the president and prime minister to appoint the courts new president on a temporary basis.

Julia Przybska, one of the judges who called in sick, is tip-off by some commentators to be appointed as Rzepliskis successor.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Lust in translation: arrival of the ‘love hotel’ divides India

26 days ago

Japanese-style short-stay rooms are building life easier for amorous unmarried couples

Police swept through the Mumbai hotels at about 3pm, running room to room, arresting more than 40 unmarried couples. All were charged. The college student were forced to call their parents and admit what they had done.

Their crime was ” indecent behaviour in public “, the police told. For couples without wedding certifications in India– especially those of different faiths- spending time in a hotel room together can still be a struggle.

But where many Indians see immorality, others in the country’s digital startup industry have find opportunity.

” We have a guaranteed promise ,” tells hotel entrepreneur Blajoj ” Blaze ” Arizanov.” No knocks on the door , no weird stares , no questions asked .”

For virtually three years Arizanov, a Macedonian, and his Indian co-founder, Sanchit Sethi, have been pursuing an unlikely goal: to bring a version of Japan’s short-stay” love hotels”, designed for urgent amorous encounters, to India.

StayUncle, their company, added its 800 th hotel partner in February and clocked up$ 3m in total sales. The startup is helping to drive a more couple-friendly attitude across the Indian hotel industry- even if society is still catching up.

” Even today, around half of my squad doesn’t tell their family they work for StayUncle ,” Arizanov says.

StayUncle beginning in 2015 as a hotel aggregator, selling half-day remains aimed at business people seeking a nap or somewhere to freshen up. But sales were slow.

” It wasn’t a problem to die for ,” Arizanov tells.” As a startup, you want to solve a problem that is of severe significance .”

In the meantime, the website was being inundated with couples trying privacy.” We got to know they were coming to us because they couldn’t book a hotel with local IDs ,” he tells.” It was a tragic thing- but perhaps the opportunity we had been scouting for all this time .”

Winning over hotels was the hardest step. Eight out of 10 rejected the idea outright.” They said no, it’s against statute, it’s immoral, blah blah blah ,” Arizanov says.

Asking them to shed their old-fashioned ideas rarely worked. What did, however, was an appeal to the hip pocket- and the rapid growth of Airbnb.

” We told them, you can choose to be conservative, or you can open your eyes to the opportunity ,” Arizanov tells.

” There are thousands of young people with well-earning employment creation and lots of free fund who want to have fun. And if you reject them Airbnb will take your piece of the pie .”

Most hotels were satisfied when the money started flowing, and many now approach StayUncle asking to be listed. But Arizanov says he still “mercilessly” cuts at the least 10 each month for being insufficiently discreet.

Other hotels have asked to be taken off the website after ensure StayUncle’s provocative marketing.

When the company posted a scene on Facebook of two Hindu deities checking into a room, it got death threats. When Arizanov insisted on calling the website’s blog Naughty Sita, after another Hindu god, faculty threatened to quit.( It was retitled Naughty Bharat, or Naughty India, last month .)

Dressed in a black turtleneck, with shoulder-length hair, Arizanov, 29, looks like a thoroughly modern oracle as he propounds his doctrine of business.” We have to be controversial to survive ,” he says.

But his Indian colleagues are less breezy.” I was struggling with the idea ,” says his co-founder, Sethi.” The fight is continuing .”

The business is still an awkward subject in his family, who are from a small city near the holy city of Varanasi.” Some of them, who have more progressive minds are OK ,” he tells.” Others are still on their style to accepting it .”

StayUncle’s greatest threat may be competition. India’s largest network of budget accommodation, Oyo, recently introduced a” relationship mode “, listing hotels that have agreed not to hassle unmarried couples.

Arizanov is convinced the concept will boom in India. After all, he tells, Japan, where the latter are pioneered, is a conservative country too.

” They’re going to be an escape route ,” he tells.” Instead than let that repressed sexual energy pile up and manifest in some other way, we are helping them dissolve in some alternative channel, softly .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

‘Yes we did’: Barack Obama lifts America one last time in emotional parting

1 month, 7 days ago

Outgoing president devotes proud account of his eight years in office and pays moving tribute to Michelle, spouse, mom of my children and best friend

Yes we are capable of, he said one last hour. Yes we did. And the crowd roared.

Barack Obama the son of a Kenyan goat herder and self-described skinny child with a funny name who grew up to become Americas first black chairman had come to say goodbye.

But while for most of the past eight years it had seemed this night would be one of elation and nostalgia , now it came with a sober note, laden with omens and warns about a republic under siege.

Obama had hoped to be talking about passing on the baton to fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton. Instead Donald Trumps stunning victory implied an existential threat and called for him to paint on a bigger canvas. In a nation of our democracy speech he deftly concentrated his flame not on the president-elect but on the malaise that produced him. In 4,300 terms he only mentioned Trump by name once but delivered much by way of repudiation.

Obama rejected talk of post-racial America, in vogue after his own ascending in 2008, as unrealistic. He defended the rights of immigrants and Muslim Americans. He lambasted the individuals who refuse to accept the science of climate change. He warned of the threat posed by the rise of naked partisanship, with people retreating into their own self-confirming bubbles.

There was not, perhaps, the penetrating feeling of Obamas greatest speeches. But when he came to thank his wife, Michelle, for standing by him through it all, an eulogy that prompted one of the biggest cheers of the night, he wept.

They were back in their home city, Chicago, albeit in the unromantic surrounds of a dark and cavernous convention dormitory with giant US flag, presidential seal and TV screens. The make-up of the audience male and female, young and old, diverse in race and religion was itself a statement about who he was and what he stood for. They cheered and roared and whistled, rising in a wall of human noise, holding his memory tight.

Every day I learned from you, Obama told the audience. You built me a better chairperson and you attained me a better man.

Michelle
Michelle and Malia Obama react to the outgoing chairmen tribute. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP

It had been 2,989 days since the Obamas were greeted by almost a one-quarter of a million supporters gathered in Chicagos Grant Park on election night in 2008. Maybe you still cant think that we pulled this whole thing off, he told wistfully.

And before he made his stride there was an eruption from the audience. Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! they chanted. The chairperson raised his hand and responded: I cant do that! This is not a monarchy, after all.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy, Obama told. That elicited some boo, but he pressed on: The peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next. Now there was applause. I committed to president-elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

Over the past eight years Obama has travelled the globe extolling the American experiment in democracy, acknowledging its flaws but insisting that it strifes for a more perfect union. He little expected to be ending his second term having to defend the great project on his home turf.

Democracy depended on equality, he argued, and the economy was growing again. But this was not enough. Stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic principles a recipe for more cynicism and polarisation in our politics.

Then he named a second menace to republic. After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.

Upholding laws against discrimination alone would not be enough, he told, adding that hearts must be amended. In a nod to the discontent in rust belt states that helped propel Trump to victory, he continued: For blacks and other minorities it entails tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like hes got all the advantages, but whos considered his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change.

But he added: For white Americans it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim crow didnt abruptly vanish in the 60 s; that when ethnic minority groups voice discontent theyre not just engaging in reverse racism or practising political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest theyre not demanding special therapy, but the equal treatment our founders promised.

Obama went on to tackle a hot topic following the completion of last years bitterly divisive general elections: deep polarisation, even around what facts people eat. For too many of us its become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of venerate or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our premises.

The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every savour all this constructs this large sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only datum, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence thats out there.

Citing climate change as two examples, he added: Without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and be recognized that your opponent is making a fair phase, and that science and reason matter, well keep talking past one another, attaining common ground and compromise impossible.

Democracy was threatened when taken for granted, Obama said , noting the relatively low turnout in US elections. Our constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But its genuinely only a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own.

Democracy needs you, he told an estimated audience of 18, 000. Not just when theres an election , not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If youre tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life.

If something wants fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organising. If youre disappointed by your elected official, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Depict up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes youll win. Sometimes youll lose More often than not your faith in America and in Americans will be confirmed.

George Washingtons parting address warned of the divisiveness of political parties. Dwight Eisenhowers warned of the rise of the military industrial complex. So Obama cannot presume his terms will be heeded.

His professorial side had been at the fore all night. But when he came to thank his family there was a change. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, girl of the south side[ of Chicago ], for the past 25 years, youve been not only my wife and mother of my children, you have been my best friend. You took on a role you didnt ask for and you constructed it your own with grace and grit and style, and good humour. You constructed the White House a place that belongs to everybody. And a new generation defines its sights higher because it has you as a role model. Youve made me proud. Youve stimulated the country proud.

Teary Barack Obama thanks Michelle in parting speech

Michelle sat in the front row. The crowd erupted around her and devoted an extended ovation. Beside her the couples daughter Malia welled up with tears.

Obama also paid tribute to Malia and sister Sasha the latter absent due to a school quiz in Washington the next day saying: Of all that Ive done in my life Im most proud to be your dad.

Michelle and Malia, along with the vice-president, Joe Biden, and his wife, Jill, joined the president on stage to more cheers and goodbye waves from the crowd.

Sheila Baldwin, a 64 -year-old African American, who got her ticket on Saturday after queuing from 5am, told: My ancestors would appreciate and insist I see this historic event. It was thrilling for us to assure my mother, who is 91, witness the first black chairman; now to see it go full circle is a wonderful moment.

Obama shook hands with advocates, including civil right fight veteran Jesse Jackson, and stepped out of the limelight. To the end he appeared composed and serene: a man at peace with himself.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Hello Berlin, goodbye optimism: why is Germany’s glass half empty? | Philip Oltermann

1 month, 7 days ago

Just 18 months after a survey determined more than half of Germans felt extremely satisfied with life, confidence has evaporated

German angst is back, or at the very least consulting its lawyers about a reunion tour. I have just moved back to Berlin, after a total of 18 years away from the country in which I grew up, and cant assistance being struck by the relentless reliability of my birth nations craving for pessimism.

Self-doubt is writ large across the counter at my local newsagent: Countdown for the chancellor: How long does she have left?; Can she still save herself?; Have we Germans run insane?( Die Zeit ).

Never mind that austerity here is mainly something that happens in other countries. Never mind that beer and bread are cheaps, that the cost of living is lower than in most of northern Europe, while wages are higher than in southern Europe. Never mind that Germany is the reigning football world champ, and that it added a European handball championship title and a Grand Slam tennis title to its trophy cabinet last weekend. Talk to people in the cafes and bars, and they will tell you that the country is going down the drain, or if it isnt, it is about to.

This is even more surprising, given that what the German novelist Jean Paul christened Weltschmerz has seemingly been in steady decline for the last 10 years. Only one and a half years ago, a survey announced that Germans had remodelled themselves into the worlds optimists, with over half of its citizens saying they were extremely satisfied with their lives. Only 2% described their contentment as low.

Weltschmerz looked like a relic of the past, kept alive only out of ironic affection, as the success of Nein Quarterly, a Twitter account by the US academic Eric Jarosinski that has spawned its own column and books, seemed to prove.( Sample tweet: Go ahead: try defeatism. Wont run .)

Even the archetypical painting of German melancholy, Caspar David Friedrichs moody The Monk by the Sea, has recently been restored to its more uplifting original glory. The thunder clouds have gone, remarked one astounded art critic.

But ever since Angela Merkel spelled out this newfound optimism, extol Wir schaffen das( We can do it) in regards to the refugee crisis, the real pessimists have been out in force again. In the current edition of the political monthly Cicero, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk warns that Germans need to relearn not just to appreciate closed perimeters, but to reacclimatise to what he calls phobocracy. For too long, he says, Germans have lived sheltered from the terrors of the modern world; now the time has come to submerge oneself into the subconsciousness of the phobocratic mechanism. Which sounds fun.

Return to Faxland

On a more cheerful note, my childhood football club, Hamburger SV, is being ridiculed for failing to tie down a bargain for a new player during the transfer window. An email send from Switzerland was too big for the clubs server, and didnt arrive until four minutes after the transfer deadline. Hamburg is a repeat offender: in 2011 another transfer broke down, because the manager couldnt run the fax machine.

I sympathise. Moving back to Germany has come with a reminder that even though this country results the way in so many fields of engineering its position to information technology is stuck somewhere in the late 90 s. To order up documents from the Stasi archive, you must fax a form. To get accredited to the Bundestag, you have to fax a kind that has been rubber-stamped by your office manager. No emails are accepted. Flat-hunting in the old west of Berlin once the calling card of western hypercapitalism , now a vision of a quaint protectionist past I spotted a vast shopping emporium selling rubber stamps, and two stores offering photocopying and fax services, all on the same street corner. I now understand why.

Wine for Hamburgers

Talking of football, the sports pages of German newspapers are always the best place to pick up new phrases and colloquialisms. Hamburg, who have been in the top tier of German football for longer than any other club, are a bit strapped for cash this season, but their administrator confided to one of the papers that he was hoping to soon get a good gulp of English wine. Which in modern footballing parlance means selling mediocre German players for big bucks to clubs in the English Premier League. No German angst there.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Sumo wrestling embroiled in scandal again after champion acknowledges assault

1 month, 8 days ago

Ancient Japanese sport rocked by behaviour of superstar athlete Harumafuji, who attacked fellow wrestler during drinking session

Japan’s ancient sport of sumo is again fighting to salvage its reputation after a top-ranking wrestler seriously injured a fellow challenger in an alcohol-fuelled attack.

Harumafuji, one of four reigning grand champs, or yokozuna , has admitted assaulting Takanoiwa, a more junior wrestler, at a party last month, in the latest scandal to hit Japan‘s national sport.

Police have launched an investigation into the Mongolian following a complaint from his 27 -year-old alleged victim. Speculation is mounting that Harumafuji will be forced to resign in disgrace.

Media reports said the 33 -year-old had been drinking with several other Mongolian wrestlers during a regional tour in western Japan when he allegedly struck Takanoiwa over the head with a beer bottle as punishment for his” poor stance “.

When Takanoiwa then attempted to answer his mobile phone while Harumafuji was berating him, the yokozuna punched him as many as 30 hours, leaving him with concussion, a fracture to the base of the skull and other traumata, according to Kyodo news.

He spent five days in hospital and was unable to compete in a tournament in Fukuoka, south-western Japan, which began on Sunday. Harumafuji, who was bidding for his 10 th title, receded on the third day after the assault became public.

Harumafuji,
Harumafuji, left, fights Takanoiwa in the ring in September 2016. Photograph: AP

” I apologise deeply for causing trouble to his stable master, his stable, the Japan Sumo Association and my stable master ,” he told reporters.

The assault by Harumafuji, who as a yokozuna ought to be able to display exemplary behaviour at all times, has dominated Tv talkshows and received widespread media coverage.

The incident goes just as sumo was beginning to rebuild its reputation following a string of scandals and criticism that the sport’s authorities had failed to address a culture of violence outside the ring.

In 2007, Takashi Saito, a 17 -year-old trainee who fought under the name Tokitaizan, succumbed after he was tortured and beaten by his stable master and three senior wrestlers for attempting to leave his stable without permission. His stable master was sentenced to six years in prison.

Violence aside, in recent years sumo has been rocked by match-fixing and illegal betting. In 2010, two wrestlers tested positive for marijuana utilize, heaping more embarrassment on a athletic whose exponents pride themselves on their gruelling train regime and supposedly disciplined lifestyle.

Japanese media said the incident had once again cast a shadow over sumo. Condemnation of Harumafuji has given style to” letdown that sumo’s veiled underbelly has yet again stained the reputation of Japan’s national athletic”, the Kyodo news agency said.

Sumo had started to capture the public’s imagination after years of falling interest, with no fewer than four yokozuna- three of whom are Mongolian- compete for dominance and venues selling out for the six major tournaments of the year.

In January, Japanese sumo fans celebrated when Kisenosato became the first homegrown wrestler to attain the rank of yokozuna in almost two decades.

Harumafuji is not the first yokozuna whose questionable temperament could bring a premature objective to his career. In 2010, the Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu retired, weeks after he allegedly transgressed a man’s nose in an assault outside a Tokyo nightclub.

The Japan Sumo Association has come under fire for failing to take immediate action against Harumafuji. Masayuki Tamaki, a sports commentator, told sumo had yet to join other sports in rooting out bullying and violence.” There is a strong tendency toward violence ,” he told the Asahi Shimbun.

Japan’s top government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, told reporters that the public” expects wrestlers to understand the weight of tradition they carry outside of the ring, and to devote themselves to their training “.

Harumafuji, whose real name is Davaanyam Byambadorj, induced his professional debut in 2001 and has won nine titles. The 137 kg( 300 lb) wrestler was promoted to yokozuna in 2012, becoming the third consecutive Mongolian-born athlete to reach sumo’s highest rank.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Powered by WP Robot