On my most recent visit to the Mesopotamian marshes, in March, I arrived at Sayeed Hitham’s for breakfast. The pandemic had kept me away for more than a year.
The sun was just rising, the sky pink and golden. Hana, Hitham’s wife, stood smiling near the door to their reed house. “Tea is ready, bread is ready,” she said. “Come on in.”
We sat on the worn-out carpet around a glowing kerosene heater, sipping tea and dipping the flat naan Hana had just baked into hot buffalo milk. “What took you so long, Emi?” Sayeed asked with a tone of reproach. “We haven’t seen you in forever.”
battle for Mosul was raging, I took the opposite path and headed south. I was in search of another view of the country, something different from the war I’d been covering for the previous year and a half.
It was a moment of real discovery for me — one of those few times when you connectwith a place, with a people.
The Mesopotamian marshes, a series of wetlands that sit near Iraq’s southeast border, feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert — which they are. The ruins of the ancient Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Eridu are close at hand. The broader region, known as the cradle of civilization, saw early developments in writing, architecture and complex society.
The marshes are home to a people called the Ma’dan, also known as the Marsh Arabs, who live deep in the wetlands, mostly as buffalo breeders in isolated settlements, a majority of which are reachable only by boat. Others live in small cities on the banks of the Tigris or Euphrates rivers, which feed the marshes.
Many of the Ma’dan left decades ago, when the marshes were ravaged by war, famine and repression.
During the Iran-Iraq war, waged between 1980 and 1988, the wetland’s proximity to the Iranian border turned the area into a conflict zone, a theater for bloody battles. Later, in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of a Shiite uprising against his Baath Party, Saddam Hussein intentionally drained the region — where many of the Shiite rebels had fled — as a punishment and a way to stifle the insurrection.
The marshes turned into a desert for more than a decade, until the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
By then, damage had already been done. By the early 2000s, less than 10 percent of the area’s original wetland existed as a functioning marshland.
Today, after being re-flooded and partially restored, the marshes are once again endangered — by climate change, lack of ecological awareness on a local level and, perhaps most dramatically, by the construction of dams in Turkey and Syria and upriver in Iraq.
In 2018, an extremely hot summer followed by a lack of rain caused a serious drought. In some areas, the water level fell by more than three feet.
“That’s it,” I remember thinking, as the small boat crossed the marsh where corpses of young buffaloes floated in the water. Buffalo breeders like Sayeed Hitham lost about a third of their livestock, and many had to leave when areas turned into a desert. They migrated to neighboring cities — or farther still, to the poor suburbs of Karbala, Basra or Baghdad.
But then, a few months later, the water began to rise. People returned. I photographed the renewal, just as I’d photographed drought the year before. But it felt then — it still feels now — like a sword of Damocles hung over the region.
The stakes are high, both ecologically and for the people who live here. If the already-depleted marshes dry up again, the Ma’dan may have no choice but to leave, to cast away from a peaceful enclave into a troubled land.
Still, I’ve kept coming back. Over the years, I’ve seen drought and abundance, freezing winters and burning summers. I’ve seen children born, and watched them grow up. I’ve followed Sayeed Hitham and his family as they moved around the marsh, the location of their new home dependent on the water level — and each time built out of reeds.
I’ve even gotten used to the huge water buffaloes, known locally as jamous, which represent the main source of income for most of the Ma’dan.
The buffaloes scared me at the beginning. But I’ve learned to walk through a herd of horns, to let them smell me, to pet the fluffy, friendly calves — the ones that try to lick my hand like oversized dogs.
When I outlined my progress to Sayeed, as we wrapped up breakfast, he burst into his wonderful, exuberant laughter. “You still know nothing, Emi,” he said. “You can’t even tell the mean jamous in the herd.”
Then, serious, and still smiling, he said: “It’s OK. You have time to learn.”
Billionaires have had a pretty good pandemic. There are more of them than there were a year ago, even as the crisis has exacerbated inequality. But scrutiny has followed these ballooning fortunes. Policymakers are debating new taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. Even their philanthropy has come under increasing criticism as an exercise of power as much as generosity.
One arena in which the billionaires can still win plaudits as civic-minded saviors is buying the metropolitan daily newspaper.
The local business leader might not have seemed like such a salvation a quarter century ago, before Craigslist, Google and Facebook began divvying up newspapers’ fat ad revenues. Generally, the neighborhood billionaires are considered worth a careful look by the paper’s investigative unit. But a lot of papers don’t even have an investigative unit anymore, and the priority is survival.
This media landscape nudged newspaper ownership from the vanity column toward the philanthropy side of the ledger. Paying for a few more reporters and to fix the coffee machine can earn you acclaim for a lot less effort than, say, spending two decades building the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
$680 million bid by Hansjörg Wyss, a little-known Swiss billionaire, and Stewart W. Bainum Jr., a Maryland hotel magnate, for Tribune Publishing and its roster of storied broadsheets and tabloids like The Chicago Tribune, The Daily News and The Baltimore Sun.
Should Mr. Wyss and Mr. Bainum succeed in snatching Tribune away from Alden Global Capital, whose bid for the company had already won the backing of Tribune’s board, the purchase will represent the latest example of a more than decade-long quest by some of America’s ultrawealthy to prop up a crumbling pillar of democracy.
If there was a signal year in this development, it came in 2013. That is when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post and the Red Sox’ owner, John Henry, bought The Boston Globe.
“I invested in The Globe because I believe deeply in the future of this great community, and The Globe should play a vital role in determining that future,” Mr. Henry wrote at the time.
led a revival of the paper to its former glory. And after a somewhat rockier start, experts said that Mr. Henry and his wife, Linda Pizzuti Henry, the chief executive officer of Boston Globe Media Partners, have gone a long way toward restoring that paper as well.
Norman Pearlstine, who served as executive editor for two years after Dr. Soon-Shiong’s purchase and still serves as a senior adviser. “I don’t think that’s open to debate or dispute.”
From Utah to Minnesota and from Long Island to the Berkshires, local grandees have decided that a newspaper is an essential part of the civic fabric. Their track records as owners are somewhat mixed, but mixed in this case is better than the alternative.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released a report last year showing that in the previous 15 years, more than a quarter of American newspapers disappeared, leaving behind what they called “news deserts.” The 2020 report was an update of a similar one from 2018, but just in those two years another 300 newspapers died, taking 6,000 journalism jobs with them.
“I don’t think anybody in the news business even has rose colored glasses anymore,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, a nonprofit journalism advocacy group. “They took them off a few years ago, and they don’t know where they are.”
“The advantage of a local owner who cares about the community is that they in theory can give you runway and also say, ‘Operate at break-even on a cash-flow basis and you’re good,’” said Mr. Rosenstiel.
won a prestigious Polk Award for its coverage of the killing of George Floyd and the aftermath.
“The communities that have papers owned by very wealthy people in general have fared much better because they stayed the course with large newsrooms,” said Ken Doctor, on hiatus as a media industry analyst to work as C.E.O. and founder of Lookout Local, which is trying to revive the local news business in smaller markets, starting in Santa Cruz, Calif. Hedge funds, by contrast, have expected as much as 20 percent of revenue a year from their properties, which can often be achieved only by stripping papers of reporters and editors for short-term gain.
Alden has made deep cuts at many of its MediaNews Group publications, including The Denver Post and The San Jose Mercury News. Alden argues that it is rescuing papers that might otherwise have gone out of business in the past two decades.
And a billionaire buyer is far from a panacea for the industry’s ills. “It’s not just, go find yourself a rich guy. It’s the right rich person. There are lots of people with lots of money. A lot of them shouldn’t run newspaper companies,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the former editor of The Chicago Tribune. “Sam Zell is Exhibit A. So be careful who you ask.”
beaten a retreat from the industry. And there have even been reports that Dr. Soon-Shiong has explored a sale of The Los Angeles Times (which he has denied).
“The great fear of every billionaire is that by owning a newspaper they will become a millionaire,” said Mr. Rosenstiel.
Elizabeth Green, co-founder and chief executive at Chalkbeat, a nonprofit education news organization with 30 reporters in eight cities around the country, said that rescuing a dozen metro dailies that are “obviously shells of their former selves” was never going to be enough to turn around the local news business.
“Even these attempts are still preserving institutions that were always flawed and not leaning into the new information economy and how we all consume and learn and pay for things,” said Ms. Green, who also co-founded the American Journalism Project, which is working to create a network of nonprofit outlets.
Ms. Green is not alone in her belief that the future of American journalism lies in new forms of journalism, often as nonprofits. The American Journalism Project received funding from the Houston philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, the Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective, which also bought The Atlantic. Herbert and Marion Sandler, who built one of the country’s largest savings and loans, gave money to start ProPublica.
“We’re seeing a lot of growth of relatively small nonprofits that are now part of what I would call the philanthropic journalistic complex,” said Mr. Doctor. “The question really isn’t corporate structure, nonprofit or profit, the question is money and time.”
operating as a nonprofit.
After the cable television entrepreneur H.F. (Gerry) Lenfest bought The Philadelphia Inquirer, he set up a hybrid structure. The paper is run as a for-profit, public benefit corporation, but it belongs to a nonprofit called the Lenfest Institute. The complex structure is meant to maintain editorial independence and maximum flexibility to run as a business while also encouraging philanthropic support.
Of the $7 million that Lenfest gave to supplement The Inquirer’s revenue from subscribers and advertisers in 2020, only $2 million of it came from the institute, while the remaining $5 million came from a broad array of national, local, institutional and independent donors, said Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of Lenfest.
“I think philosophically, we’ve long accepted that we have no museums or opera houses without philanthropic support,” said Ms. Lipinski. “I think journalism deserves the same consideration.”
Mr. Bainum has said he plans to establish a nonprofit group that would buy The Sun and two other Tribune-owned Maryland newspapers if he and Mr. Wyss succeed in their bid.
“These buyers range across the political spectrum, and on the surface have little in common except their wealth,” said Mr. Friedlich. “Each seems to feel that American democracy is sailing through choppy waters, and they’ve decided to buy a newspaper instead of a yacht.”
The challenges of the past year gave designers every reason to recede into the shadows, but creativity won’t be denied.
If anything, they are finding inspiration in global upheaval. From hundreds of possibilities, here are just a few examples we selected of projects begun or realized despite closed borders, disrupted supply chains and economic collapse.
Designers are recycling the rubble from Mexico City’s streets, for example, creating play spaces so Beirut’s children can find comfort in a city ripped apart by an explosion and proposing textiles as a building material to replace environmentally cruel concrete. More than just surmounting challenges, many are looking ahead to a greener, healthier and more equitable world.
Dadaï, a Thai, Vietnamese and dim sum restaurant that opened in August in the Shibuya district of Tokyo, takes its inspiration from the avant-garde Dada art movement — or at least a 21st-century Japanese interpretation of it.
A chevron, or zigzag, pattern covers the walls, floor and ceiling. Arched bays are filled with classical-style nude statues that look as if they’ve been ensnared in webs of washi tape. And at the center of the dining room, angled vertiginously over the bar, is a giant photographic portrait of a woman interrupted by collaged smears of color.
Located in the new, fashion-centric Miyashita Park retail development, the restaurant’s design, by Yasumichi Morita of the aptly named Tokyo studio Glamorous, makes no obvious concessions to a post-pandemic world. (Japan’s self-described “state of emergency” ended on March 21.)
Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona designs a self-sufficient structure aimed at reducing the effects of climate change. But the class of 2019-2020 chose to take on another global crisis by imagining an architectural response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We had two crises at the same time,” said Vicente Guallart, a director of the master’s program in advanced ecological buildings and biocities. “And the question was what we can learn about that.”
Over five months and under strict quarantine conditions, Mr. Guallart and his co-director Daniel Ibáñez led the group of 17 students in constructing an ecological wood cabin, known as the Voxel, a structure designed with everything one might need to quarantine for 14 days. The design was executed with just 40 pine trees, all harvested less than a mile from the construction site in Barcelona’s Collserola Natural Park. It also includes solar panels, independent battery storage and a rainwater collection and gray-water recycling system.
The roughly 130-square-foot cabin, which rises almost 14 feet, now stands nearly camouflaged among the same pines used to construct it. valldaura.net
17th-century home near Montpellier in southern France with a newly frescoed ceiling in his 250-square-foot bedroom.
The fresco’s single-named artist, Rochegaussen, had worked with Mr. Yovanovitch previously on a restaurant interior in London (he painted cutlery and cookware on a field of cobalt over the chef’s table). Given carte blanche for the bedroom, Rochegaussen arranged woodland animals in his signature energetic line — a motif Mr. Yovanovitch described as “a joyful Mediterranean dance.” The creatures were inspired by fauna from a Provençal forest and include boar, snakes and owls. The designer said that a refreshed environment helped him stay inspired, especially in a period of isolation. And, he added, “there’s something so special about looking up from bed and seeing a painting.” pierreyovanovitch.com, rochegaussen.com
branch institution in Tianjin welcomed its inaugural class of graduate students to a campus designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Located about an hour outside of Beijing, the new 350,000-square-foot complex began construction in 2017 and features performance halls, rehearsal rooms and teaching studios, connected by a ground-level lobby that is open to the public. Expansive windows offer visitors a view into the educational and creative processes.
In China, “there’s still a sense of fascination and curiosity with Western music,” said Charles Renfro, the partner in charge of the project, noting that the building was designed to be a teaching aid for both students and the community.
As the building neared completion in early 2020, Mr. Renfro said he spent many evenings viewing video walk-throughs, trusting that the firm’s partners in China were meeting the precise specifications.
HMC Architects, and his colleagues recently completed a speculative design for a mixed-used project on the Lekki peninsula near Lagos, Nigeria. This relatively sparsely populated area in a region of more than 21 million people is being readied to accommodate millions more in the coming years.
Approached by an environmentally minded local developer who is seeking to acquire 400 acres on the peninsula, the architects envisioned a “forest city” with abundant greenery cleansing the air and a narrow street grid that allows breezes to slip past and passively cool buildings. Rain in the monsoon season would fill basins in parks and gardens. Shaded houses would have communal courtyards and reclaim the climate-responsive earthen materials and decorative patterns of precolonial people like the Yoruba.
an estimated 6,000 buildings, including more than 150 schools. This left Etienne Bastormagi, Sandra Richani and Nada Borgi, local architects and urban planners, wondering how they could help their city as children prepare to return to class.
Their Let’s Play initiative, will rebuild playgrounds at six schools affected by the explosion, with help from other architects and volunteers. Construction on the first, at École Secondaire des Filles de la Charité school in the Achrafieh district, just began.
The public-private initiative also reconsiders what a playground can be, incorporating materials, large-scale objects and landscapes that can be experienced or manipulated in more than one way. Rather than jungle gyms, swing sets or slides, the spaces will have colorful platforms, canopies and pathways that encourage directionless play. Such ambiguities are meant to promote experimentation and social interaction outside of the classroom.
The team also hopes that these new ways to play will help children confront the traumas of 2020, blast and coronavirus pandemic alike, by allowing them to feel safe again in their city. “The therapy effect is not just for the kids,” Mr. Bastormagi added. “I think it starts with us.” instagram.com/lets_play_initiative
Safdie Architects, the hospital opened in January with its more than half a million square feet (and more to come) oriented toward courtyards, gardens and a bucolic lake.
According to Sean Scensor, the project’s lead architect, greenery even determines how visitors move through the building: The main pedestrian corridor parallels a bamboo garden, and five wings stretch perpendicularly from this spine to carve out lush courtyards that open onto a lake. A “healing garden” accessible from the oncology department offers sanctuary in a grove of Indian lilac, red and white frangipani trees and scarlet-blossomed royal poinciana.
Visitors also can steal away to a glass-walled chapel tucked into a bamboo enclosure. The goal, Mr. Scensor said, was to avoid “institutional anonymity” in favor of a “new kind of hospital: highly efficient but inherently humane.” chsm.com
Yinka Ilori, a British-Nigerian artist, has spent the last year designing and installing affirmation-laced murals throughout the city — like one in which bubblegum-pink letters announce “Love always wins” against a backdrop suggestive of ice cream cones.
Mr. Ilori recently extended this “theme of positivity,” as he has called it, to table linens, pillows, rugs and socks sold through his website and a few retailers. The latest designs include bone china mugs and plates emblazoned with his chirpy slogans. This venture compensates for “a loss of projects during the pandemic,” he said. And then some. The line has proved so successful that he has hired additional staff members to manage it into a post-Covid future. Mug 45 pounds, or about $62; plate £70, or about $97. yinkailori.com
Shark Tank”) with his first commercial product: a lamp called Lumio that opens like a book. In October, Mr. Gunawan introduced on Kickstarter a second object that similarly trades in the thrill of the unexpected. Teno is a bowl-shaped sculpture, five inches in diameter, with a jagged golden scar — a reference to the Japanese art of repair called kintsugi. Crack open the bowl, and light pours out (it can be increased or dimmed with a tap). Open the sculpture fully, and it becomes a portable Bluetooth speaker.
MT Objects is a ceramics studio that turns out singular pieces referencing local craft traditions and the architectural splendor and battered infrastructure of its home base, Mexico City, and beyond. Thanks to a masked and socially distant pair of artisans employed by the studio, operations have continued throughout the pandemic, said Tony Moxham, a co-founder with Mauricio Paniagua.
In one recent series, slip-cast vessels were drizzled with black glaze in imitation of the tar used by the Totonac people who occupied what is now the state of Veracruz to represent “the moisture, fertility and darkness of the underworld,” Mr. Moxham said. Another collection, described as “brutalist,” is cast from sidewalk rubble and streaked with traditional colonial lead-based glazes from the western state of Michoacán.
“We wanted to create something that was very different from what everyone else was doing,” Mr. Moxham said. “And in Mexico City, almost any sidewalk you walk down has bits of broken concrete.” Prices range from $1,000 to $5,000 per piece. ceramicalamejor.mx/mt-objects
Aïssa Dione’s 2020 collection of textiles carries the vibrant colors and traditional designs of Senegalese handweaving, though reimagined in various sizes and with fibers like raffia, cotton and viscose. The fabrics are produced in Ms. Dione’s workshop in Rufisque, a town outside of Dakar, where she employs nearly 100 Senegalese weavers who work on looms. They are then sold to luxury interior design companies to cover sofas, armchairs and windows in homes around the world.
Ms. Dione’s 2020 collection also continues the textile designer’s nearly 30-year commitment to revitalize the craft and her continued focus on cultivating raw materials from Senegal, rather than importing them. Working locally and small helped her during a year when the pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in the global supply chain.
It also gave Ms. Dione a chance to develop a client database, organize photos of past work and shoot a film that captures her weavers’ process. “We had time to sit down and develop things we had no time to do,” she said. aissadionetissus.com
DeMuro Das, an interior design studio near New Delhi, unusual materials are a calling card. It has topped a coffee table in unakite, a speckled, metamorphic rock, and lined a cabinet in koto, a West African hardwood. More recently, the founders, Brian DeMuro and Puru Das, tried wrapping a low cabinet with the parchmentlike substance Carta, lending the piece a pretty, mottled surface, like asphalt after a rainstorm.
Pirjo Haikola, a designer in Melbourne, has 3-D-printed coral reefs that are on view at the art and design triennial at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Anna Aagaard Jensen, a Danish artist, and a wig-like lamp by Laurids Gallée, an Austrian-born designer. The lamp is part of a lighting collection, curated by the Brussels dealer Victor Hunt, titled, appropriately enough, “The Lights at the End of the Tunnel.” May 28 to 30. collectible.design
Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm and the curator of a show about the banquet that revels in bespoke table settings, secret menus, eye-popping floral arrangements and glossy evening wear. Timed to open with the — ultimately canceled — 2020 event, it is fully installed and ready for visitors whenever entry is deemed safe.
The show reveals the banquet as a stage for perfectionism — a chance to source the ultimate raspberry for a dessert or prepare the most challenging potato dish.
But it also highlights modest gestures, like the time in 2018 when Victoria, the Crown Princess of Sweden, recycled the Nina Ricci gown her mother, Queen Silvia, wore to the event in 1995.
“She looked fantastic in it,” Ms. Ahlvik said, though the princess is taller than her mother. “We were all wondering how she did it.” nobelprize.org
The site was nearly deserted. A few locals were tidying up after recent restoration work, and young camel drivers were out looking for clients. In the midday heat, the bright glow of the desert helped focus my attention on the pyramids themselves.
Situated on the east bank of the Nile, some 150 miles by car northeast of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, the Meroe pyramids — around 200 in total, many of them in ruins — seemed to be in perfect harmony with the surrounding landscape, as if the wind had smoothed their edges to accommodate them among the dunes.
30-year dictatorship of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who led Sudan through a long series of wars and famines, the pyramids of Meroe saw few international visitors and remained relatively unknown.
Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019 — along with the removal of Sudan in 2020 from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism — was the hope that the country’s archaeological sites might receive broader attention and protections, not simply from researchers and international visitors but also from Sudanese citizens themselves.
ended subsidies on fuel and wheat, leading to a surge in prices. The reaction of the people, exhausted by economic crises, was not long in coming.
A wave of demonstrations filled the streets of several towns, far beyond the capital Khartoum. These were Sudanese of all ethnicities, classes and generations — but above all students and young professionals.
Ancient Nubia, the name of the region that stretches between Egypt and northern Sudan, I discovered that the majority of Sudanese had never had the opportunity to visit these sites — including the doctors themselves.
UNESCO World Heritage site since 2011 — is a four-hour drive from Khartoum, northeast along the Nile River. The pyramids here, built between 2,700 and 2,300 years ago, stand as a testament to the grandeur of the Kingdom of Kush, a major power from the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D.
Compared to the monumental pyramids in Giza, Egypt, the structures at Meroe are significantly smaller — from around 30 to 100 feet tall, against the 455-foot-tall Great Pyramid — and their slopes steeper. As in Egypt, though, the pyramids serve as royal burial sites.
rising floodwaters, as well as the continuing effects of wind and sand erosion.
Plans for new hydroelectric dams also threaten certain archaeological sites in Sudan — as they have in the past, when the construction of the Merowe Dam displaced tens of thousands of residents and led to a frenzied archaeological hunt for artifacts before they were submerged by the dam’s reservoir.
destroyed several of the pyramids in a ruthless search for ancient artifacts.
Alessio Mamo is an Italian photojournalist based in Catania, Sicily, who focuses on refugee displacement and humanitarian crises in the Middle East and the Balkans. You can follow his work on Instagram and Twitter.