Graeme Wood


The latest from Tahrir

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Project Runaway

Alamo deserter lives on to become Texas’ most infamous coward

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In August 1990, when President George H. W. Bush wanted to send a message to Saddam Hussein, he used the toughest language he knew: that of his adoptive home state of Texas. Bush warned Saddam that “a line has been drawn in the sand,” and that the U.S.-led coalition would remove him from Kuwait by force if necessary. Saddam was not a man of rhetorical subtlety in any language, but he could be forgiven for wondering what “line in the sand” his adversary was talking about. If the dictator did not know his Texas history, the imagery would have perplexed him — and if he did know his Texas history, it might have perplexed him even more. Was he supposed to cross it, or not?
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Trotsky and Tahrir

Originally appeared in Bookforum (Summer 2011).

Bibliomancy—the ancient practice of opening a sacred text to any page, then mining a random line for prophecy and advice—is not one of my
standard journalistic research methods. But for those who write about the Middle East, 2011 has been an exceptionally demanding year. With
autocracies toppling and teetering decades ahead of schedule, untold shelves of books on Arab politics now need revision (or pulping). Could the methods of yore be any worse? The medieval bibliomancers liked to consult Virgil, Protesters and soldiers celebrate in Cairo, February 2011. And the ancient Chinese—along with plenty of hippies— preferred the wisdom of the I Ching. Back home after covering the Egyptian revolution and the fall of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, I tried both. I hoped the Aeneid would yield something apropos about Carthage, but instead I landed on a verse about naval architecture; my random page in the I Ching was “Ta Kuo” through “Wei Tzu” in the index). Any relevance to Arab revolution was opaque.

But I am happy to report that bibliomancy of a more recent vintage has held some promise. It is a special book whose every page offers an insight and an expertly deployed phrase. In this season, more than in most, Leon Trotsky’s energetic and embittered The History of the Russian Revolution is ripe for bibliomancy, and capable on any page of furnishing an aperçu uncannily relevant to the Arab world today. It is also among the most thrilling works of history ever written. Trotsky wrote “a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny,” which should in itself sound similar to much of the masters-of-our-fate liberation rhetoric in common currency in revolutionary Arabia. In its characters, but even more so in its depiction of the eddies and microcurrents of collective action during the crucial February Revolution, it is riveting and intelligent, capable of nourishing any reader who wants to know what the Arab Spring feels like from inside.
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Silent as a Grave

An accused Salem witch pays for the right to say nothing in court

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The right to remain silent is a beautiful thing. In 1692, at the height of the Salem Witch Trials, a gray-bearded farmer was asked whether he was a wizard and he refused to say. He was brutally executed. But if the Constitution has secular martyrs, that old farmer, Giles Corey, is surely the patron saint of its Fifth Amendment, and one of history’s greatest champions of keeping one’s trap shut. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Card Trick that Stumped Houdini

Originally published in The Daily.

The most important rule of magic — other than remembering to check for rabbit-droppings before putting your hat back on — is never to perform the same illusion twice on the same occasion. The temptation can be excruciating: The trick has already proven its ability to fool, and the audience has proven its susceptibility. But the magician who gives his audience a second chance to catch him out always slips up eventually, especially if the audience includes an eagle-eyed fellow magician.
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Playing the hand dealt

Long an outlaw activity, poker gains a respectable reputation

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The World Series of Poker is underway in Las Vegas, and a record number of fools will be lining up for the privilege of being parted from their money. The buy-in is a minimum of $1,000 and a maximum of $50,000. Around 75,000 players will enter, and the very best will walk away with millions in prize money, as well as a champion bracelet that will mark him (they’re all men, so far) as someone you should never, ever play cards with.
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