Graeme Wood

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Holy Treasure

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant named Muhammad Ali Samman and his brother wandered away from their village in central Egypt, hoping to scoop up a few buckets of soft dirt to fertilize his crops. Digging next to a large boulder, Muhammad Ali found a mysterious earthenware jar about 3 feet tall. He and his brother backed away from it, worrying that it might contain a genie. Then, on further reflection, they considered that it might contain gold, and they smashed it apart, thereby releasing a force in some ways more disruptive to traditional Christianity than any genie could have been. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Daily, , , ,

The Tenth Parallel

Originally appeared in The American Scholar.

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, by Eliza Griswold, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 317 pp., $27

The 10th northern line of latitude cuts across Africa and southern Asia, marking an arc of dirty little wars from Nigeria in the west to the Philippines in the east. Now and then these persistent conflicts get stitched up with a peace treaty or a ceasefire. But the 10th parallel is a seam between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and wounds infected with religion tend not to stay healed for long.

Journalist Eliza Griswold draws the title of her book from this latitude line, which she travels from east to west, with deviations of a few degrees in Asia, from Nigeria to Sudan to the Philippines (masochistically omitting the 10th parallel’s transit of the Western hemisphere, where she could have taken a break in Aruba). If the conquering of the American West followed a blood meridian that washed across the prai­rie toward the Pacific, then the 10th parallel is the line of control in a much older and more static conflict between Muslims and their local rivals, generally Christians. In a few places the religious nature of the conflict is explicit, as between Sudan’s Islamic government and its aspiring Christian splinter-state, or between Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian and animist south. In others the religious split provides something like a context for national rivalry, between Christian Ethiopia and the alliance of So­mali Is­lam­­ists, for example, and the ecumenically crazy Eri­trean government. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: American Scholar, ,

Iran’s Nuclear Heart

Thirty Ramadans after V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Qom, I visited for the Atlantic, in search of the part of Iran not gripped yet by democratic fervor.   A truncated version of this piece appears here.

Tehran is on the edge of the mountains, and Qom is on a plain.   For a persecuted revolutionary movement, the distinction matters, because in Iran, as in most places, the mountains are where you go to hide, and to do what you can’t do openly.  This fall, after a summer of violent protests in Tehran that rattled the government and convinced it to send out hardline loyalists to club the protesters into submission, the opposition took to the hills that ring the anti-government suburbs of north Tehran.  Instead of painting its messages on buildings, it painted them on rocks.  Around Darband — the neighborhood where for years the northern Tehranis have fled to throw off their veils, eat co-ed picnics, and perhaps drain a thermos of whiskey — the protesters have sprayed furtive graffiti on small rocks. “Mir Hussein Mousavi,” says one, with a V for victory.  Another more direct one pledges “Death to Khamenei,” Iran’s head ayatollah.  Six months ago, cell-phone photos captured scenes of actual heated protest, and today those protesters trade images of these rocks, signs of a revolution gone dormant.

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

¡Hola, Hezbollah!

In the November Atlantic, a short profile of my friend Shaikh Hassan al Burji (pictured here with his very cute kids, Ja’afar and Sara).

Sheikh Hassan al Burji with his kids

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

Security Blanket

Originally appeared in the January/February 2009 Atlantic.

Mullah Masood Akhundzada, guardian of the Shrine of the Blessed Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kandahar, is wary of guests. When his brother was the guardian, 13 years ago, he accepted an insistent visitor. Today, a youngster with a Kalashnikov shadows Mullah Masood around the shrine, just in case the visitor, Mullah Omar, or any of his friends return. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

A Question for Islam

Excerpts from Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina do not make it sound like fiction worthy of the novel’s latest defender, Salman Rushdie. Denise Spellberg, an Islamic historian who reviewed the manuscript, called it “soft-core pornography,” and “ugly” porn at that. Consider a first-person passage from Aisha, who, according to some traditions, married Muhammad at age 6 and had sex with him at 9:

This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It’s always painful the first time.

Yeesh. But do these sentences sound grotesque because of the author’s prose, or because of her subject? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

The Family That Protests Together

Something tells me that today, as hundreds weep not two hundred yards from my office, is not the day to say something nice about the most reviled family in America. But when is the day? Every year, the followers of the Reverend Fred Phelps protest hundreds of funerals — mostly the funerals of soldiers — and each set of mourners deserves better that to have anti-gay fanatics waving signs denouncing them as “fags” and “fag-enablers” (a category that apparently captures everyone but the Westboro members themselves). The bereaved Russerts certainly do. I sympathize with the woman who stopped her car and asked a passerby to run over and snatch away the “Russert in Hell” sign. But if we must choose one funeral as an occasion to rectify the public’s ignorance of the Phelpses’ bizarre history, it might even seem fitting that the occasion would be the death of a man recognized as an emblem of truth-seeking and setting records straight. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

The Muftis of Cascadia

In the UK, during the early days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a similarly buffoonish quasi-governmental body moved to stop the film International Gorillay from being released in Britain. A hit in Pakistan, the movie portrayed Rushdie as a whiskey-soaked Jewish lothario who intended to subvert Islam by running a network of discos and casinos. Rushdie himself intervened to lift the ban, saying the offense was real, but not worth the practical or moral harm done by banning what amounted to just an exceptionally dumb movie — even if it was a movie that encouraged his own murder. British audiences watched the film, and thanks to YouTube, you can too. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , , ,

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