A Volcano in North Korea and an Election in Gambia: The Week in Global-Affairs Writing

The highlights from seven days of reading about the world

Supporters of the United Democratic Party opposition alliance presidential candidate Adama Barrow attend a campaign rally on November 29, 2016.
Supporters of the United Democratic Party opposition alliance presidential candidate Adama Barrow attend a campaign rally on November 29, 2016. (Thierry Gouegnon / Reuters)

Why Many Young Russians See a Hero in Putin
Julia Ioffe | National Geographic
“We walk past a small, one-story cube of a building covered with images of red Soviet stars and the orange-and-black St. George’s ribbon that holds imperial, Soviet, and Russian military medals. ‘We could go in here,’ Sasha shrugs. ‘But it’s full of people who survived the Nineties.’

Sasha survived the Nineties too. In December 1991, just months before he was born, the Soviet flag came down over the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor went up, ushering in the decade that hangs like a bad omen in the contemporary Russian psyche. The expectation that Russians would start living like their prosperous Western counterparts gave way to a painful reality: It would be a hard slog to turn a command economy into a market one, to make a democracy out of a society that had lived under absolute monarchy and totalitarianism for centuries.”

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Which Language Uses the Most Sounds? Click 5 Times for the Answer
Bryant Rousseau | The New York Times
“With five distinct kinds of clicks, multiple tones and strident vowels—vocalized with a quick choking sound—the Taa language, spoken by a few thousand people in Botswana and Namibia, is believed by most linguists to have the largest sound inventory of any tongue in the world.

The exact count differs among scholars. Studies commonly cite more than 100 consonants, and some say there are as many as 164 consonants and 44 vowels. English, by comparison, has about 45 sounds at its disposal, total.”

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Inside the Country Where Rapping About the President Can Mean Death
Monica Mark | Buzzfeed
“‘The situation in Gambia is crazy, especially if you come from an environment where you are free,’ said Cham, wearing his usual baseball cap over his crown of spiky locs. ‘You can’t even have a conversation and say the president’s name out loud without somebody becoming scared. You have to use codes to say the president’s name.’

That president, Yahya Jammeh, has ruled with an iron fist for 22 years. Gambians go to the polls on Thursday, but for the first time, they will have a credible opposition to choose from. Gambia has had only two presidents since independence in 1965, so the election raises the possibility of a third one finally being voted in. And for thousands like Cham who’ve fled the regime, the results could decide whether they can finally return home.”

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First Brexit Then Trump. Is Italy Next for the West’s Populist Wave?
Julian Coman | The Guardian
“On a bitterly cold evening, MPs and senators representing the Five Star Movement (M5S), launched by Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-political rabble rouser, implored a packed piazza to use a referendum on the constitution on Sunday 4 December to send the prime minister, Matteo Renzi, packing.

Renzi, the telegenic, youthful leader of the centre-left Democratic party (PD), has placed his authority behind proposals to limit the powers of the senate, Italy’s second chamber. His plan involves cutting the number of senators from 315 to 100, all of whom would be appointed—rather than elected, as at present—and restricting their power to influence legislation.”

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North Korean Volcano Provides Rare Chance for Scientific Collaboration
Rae Ellen Bichell | NPR
“In 2011, when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died, the state news agency reported that Mount Paektu took on a supernatural glow, and that at its summit, Heaven Lake shook with cracking ice.

Those reports were pretty unscientific. But several years earlier, between 2002 and 2005, Mount Paektu had experienced a swarm of little earthquakes.

That wasn't a good sign, because the 9,000-foot mountain straddling the border with China is not merely the subject of paintings and patriotic songs—it's also a huge volcano. And little earthquakes can be a sign that, deep under the mountain, molten magma is starting to swirl.”

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How Fidel Castro Was at the Heart of Middle East Politics
Ishaan Tharoor | The Washington Post
“Though he ruled a small island nation thousands of miles from North Africa, Castro was a titan of 20th-century geopolitics and an inspirational figure for many societies emerging from the yoke of European colonialism.

Not long after his armed revolution won power in Cuba in 1959, Castro’s envoys met with Algerian rebels locked in a bitter liberation war against France. In the years prior, Cuban intellectuals chafing under a pro-American dictatorship had looked on with admiration at the Algerian struggle. The respect was mutual: While in a French prison, Ahmed Ben Bella, the socialist who later became Algeria’s first president, claimed he followed reports of the unlikely victories of Castro’s guerrillas.”