Big in Hungary: Whips and Axes

The Atlantic has just published my short piece on Baranta, the youngest of the world’s so-called traditional martial arts.

Around this time last winter, at a gymnasium 45 minutes outside Budapest, I was startled to come across a group of roughly 30 men and women with wooden axes. I was in town reporting a profile of Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who was born nearby. The ax-wielders had gathered to practice something called Baranta, which is perhaps the youngest of the world’s so-called traditional martial arts.

While they took turns swinging and blocking, one member of the group, a beefy man with a tight, gray, military-style haircut, walked over to where I was standing and began excitedly talking to me in Hungarian. Even with the help of a translator, I had difficulty keeping up with what he was saying. Perhaps sensing this, he pulled out his phone to show me a series of videos. In one, a group of men was engaged in a sort of synchronized whip-play. In another, a combatant with an ax faced off against an opponent with a saber, while a third circled the fray with a bow and arrow, looking for a shot.

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The Atlantic has just published my profile of the celebrity chef who designed a burger for McDonald’s.

One brisk autumn day in Milan, I walked into Il Marchesino—an upscale eatery inside La Scala opera house—carrying a brown-paper takeaway bag from McDonald’s. My lunchtime companion that day, the Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, was waiting at a small table against a wall. He was dressed in a well-tailored dark-blue suit, his silver hair swept back. On his lapel, he wore a coin-size replica of his most famous dish: a saffron risotto topped with a square leaf of edible gold.

Marchesi, a cherubic 81, managed to seem pleased, surprised, and embarrassed by my offering. With a giggle, he took the bag and set it down on the floor beside his chair. Marchesi is widely credited with elevating Italian food from home cooking to haute cuisine. He earned his first Michelin star in 1977 and eight years later became the first non-French chef to receive three. But I had come to see him about another, more recent, first. In 2011, Marchesi became the first celebrity chef to design a hamburger for McDonald’s—two of them, in fact, and a dessert to go with them. What I had brought in the brown-paper bag was Marchesi’s own creation.

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Building a Better Bug

The Atlantic has just published my piece on how scientists are planning to use genetically modified mosquitoes to fight malaria.

Ridding a region of malaria is, in theory at least, fairly simple. Female mosquitoes transmit the disease when they make a meal of infected blood, gestate the malaria-causing parasites (called sporozoites), and then inject them into the bloodstream of another victim at a later feeding. Break any part of that cycle, and the parasite can’t reproduce; keep up that effort, and you can halt any malaria epidemic. In practice, however, breaking the malaria cycle takes a lot of work. Italy and the American South have all but eradicated the disease by draining swamps, spraying insecticides, improving medication, and introducing air conditioners, screen doors, and mosquito nets. But for many places—including most of Africa—the resources for a broad, sustained effort are out of reach.

Which is why I found myself in a basement laboratory in central Italy last spring, peering into a cage of mosquitoes. The scientist in charge of the lab, Andrea Crisanti, a parasitologist and microbiologist at Imperial College London, has developed a technique that can spread a genetic modification through generations of the insects. “In one or two seasons, you can thoroughly attack an entire wild population at a chosen site,” he says.

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The Father, The Sun, and the Holy Spirit

The Atlantic has just published my piece on Pope Benedict’s plans to green the Vatican.

To say I was standing in the shadow of St. Peter’s would be to some extent getting things backward. To be sure, from my vantage on the curved roof of the pope’s audience hall in Vatican City, the bronze dome of the basilica next door loomed large. But the main attraction for me lay in the full glare of the sun: 2,400 solar panels, curled over the sweep of the hall’s roof, which were busy transmuting photons into electrons—generating electricity and preventing, according to the Vatican, some 230 tons of carbon dioxide from reaching the atmosphere this year.

Yet if the high-tech power plant seemed anachronistic atop an institution better known for swinging censers and festooned Swiss guards, its importance was clear: for the Vatican, the solar panels signify a path forward, silicon monocrystals on which the heir to Saint Peter could continue to build his Church.


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The Vigilante

The Atlantic has just published my dispatch from the Italian city of Oderzo, on a man driven by the death of his parents at the hand of immigrants.

The Italian City of Oderzo isn’t particularly known for its crime. Located a little more than an hour north of Venice on the wine-growing flats between the Alps and the Adriatic Sea, it has a small urban center with clean cobbled streets flanked by well-lit arcades. On its immaculate walls, a tagger’s scrawl stands out like a scar.

So it’s a strange place to find a new program of citizen anti-crime patrols in action, the result of a controversial initiative by the xenophobic Northern League party.

Daniele Pelliciardi, the man who leads Oderzo’s patrols, hunches his shoulders against the last bite of winter. It’s just before sundown as he walks me through his beat. “Our work is to observe,” he says. “Everything strange that we’ll see will get recorded—from the Moroccan selling counterfeit bags to somebody purse-snatching an old lady.”

We haven’t walked more than a few blocks before I realize that the city’s initiative has less to do with anything about Oderzo itself than with the man who’s showing me the streets. The last major crime in the area was a brutal one. And it happened to Pelliciardi’s parents.

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The Scarlet Letters: HIV and Adolescent Life in Africa

The Atlantic has just published my piece about a generation of Africans that is growing up with HIV and the challenges posed in an era where the virus is no longer a death-sentence, but a chronic, contagious disease.

The last time I was in Kampala, I met a brother and sister who had contracted HIV from their mother. The boy, whom I will call Peter (I’ve also changed the names of his friends and family), was just two days shy of his 16th birthday, and betrayed no visible signs of sickness. When I was introduced to him, in the Uganda offices of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, not far from the city center, he was wearing his school uniform, a dark- green sweater over a white collared shirt. He looked a little bookish, with a round face, thin wire-rimmed glasses, and hair cropped tight to his skull.

I sat with Peter at the corner of a long conference table, and he quietly told me his case history. He’d been sick often as a child, he said, fighting off fevers, diarrhea, painful blisters, and hacking coughs. But it wasn’t until he was 10 that he learned that he was infected with HIV. His mother, then expecting her sixth child, had tested positive during a prenatal HIV test and brought her children in to be examined. In Uganda, patients qualify for anti retroviral treatment when their CD4 count, a rough measure of the health of the immune system, falls below 250. Peter’s clocked in at 54. He was immediately started on medication, a cocktail of pills taken twice a day.

With treatment, he remembers, his health improved quickly and dramatically. But then, at age 13, the markers of his illness returned: diarrhea, fevers, vomiting. While we spoke, he pulled up the sleeves of his sweater to show me where the rashes had come back. “These are scars from them,” he said. “They come like sores, too many sores. When you scratch it, there comes a wound.”

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Conspiracy Theory

My article on the parallels between the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s and the beginnings of climate change litigation has just been published in the Atlantic.

During the tobacco wars of the 1990s, attorneys Steve Susman and Steve Berman stood on opposite sides of the courtroom. Berman represented 13 states in what was then seen as a quixotic attempt to recover smoking-related medical costs, and conceived the strategy that would break the tobacco industry’s back: an emphasis on charges of conspiracy to deceive the public about the dangers of cigarettes. Susman had turned down offers to represent Massachusetts and Texas against the cigarette makers; instead he defended Philip Morris—until 1998, when the industry settled for more than $200 billion, the biggest civil settlement ever. Now, a decade later, the two lawyers find themselves on the same side of the aisle, working on a case that seems just as improbable as the ones that brought down Big Tobacco ever did—and with implications that could be at least as far-reaching.

The Eskimo village of Kivalina sits on the tip of an eight-mile barrier reef on the west coast of Alaska. Fierce storms are ripping apart the shores. Residents report sinkholes in nearby riverbanks. Despite emergency erosion-control efforts, the crumbling coast threatens the village’s school and electric plant. In 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concluded that Kivalina would be uninhabitable in as little as 10 years, and that relocating its approximately 400 residents would cost at least $95 million. Global climate change, the Corps report said, had shortened the season during which the sea was frozen, leaving the community more vulnerable to winter storms.

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The Real Roots of Darfur

The Atlantic Monthly has published my piece on the links between global warming and Darfur.

April 2007
The Real Roots of Darfur
The violence in Darfur is usually attributed to ethnic hatred. But global warming may be primarily to blame.

By Stephan Faris

To truly understand the crisis in Darfur—and it has been profoundly misunderstood—you need to look back to the mid-1980s, before the violence between African and Arab began to simmer. Alex de Waal, now a program director at the Social Science Research Council, was there at that time, as a doctoral candidate doing anthropological fieldwork. Earlier this year, he told me a story that, he says, keeps coming back to him.

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Containment Strategy

This article, on the Pentagon’s fight against AIDS in Africa, appeared in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly and is also archived below.

December, 2006
Containment Strategy
Iran. North Korea. Uganda? Why the Pentagon ranks Africa’s AIDS crisis as a leading security threat.

By Stephan Faris

In a dark-green shipping container outside a Ugandan military hospital, a visiting Tanzanian general and four of his colonels encircle a desk. On the desk sits a green plastic paper tray. And from the tray rises a polished wooden dildo. “This weapon,” a Ugandan warrant officer tells them, “I’m sorry for exposing it to you. This is one of the weapons we have used in fighting HIV and AIDS.”

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