LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — Just to move about town, Ukrainian soldiers accelerate to breakneck speeds in their SUVs, screech around corners, zip into courtyards, then pile out and run for cover.
“They see us and they open fire,” Colonel Yuriy Vashchuk said of the need to move quickly or become a vulnerable target for Russian artillery. “There’s no place in this town that is safe.”
He was careering around on the high ground of Lysychansk, across the river from Sievierodonetsk, the site of the fiercest fighting in Ukraine’s East. To be prepared, he placed a hand grenade in the cup holder between the front seats of his vehicle. A box of pistol ammunition slid back and forth on the dashboard as he drove.
Signs of Ukraine’s tenuous military positions are everywhere: On the hills overlooking Sievierodonetsk, smoke from a dozen or so fires testify to weeks of seesaw urban combat. The single supply route to the west is littered with burned vehicles, hit by Russian artillery.
The clanging, metallic explosions of incoming shells ring out every few minutes.
These two cities, separated by the Seversky Donets River, have become the focal point of the battle in the East, though weeks of bombardment have driven away most civilians, and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine recently referred to them as “dead cities.’’
Russia’s goal is clear: It aims to capture the cities, even if that means flattening them, and continue its march westward.
Yet Ukraine’s strategy there remains unclear. Analysts say Sievierodonetsk, with its empty streets and hollowed-out buildings, is of limited military significance, and in recent days, Mr. Zelensky has spoken both of the merits of pulling back and the longer-term risks of doing so.
On Wednesday night, he swung back toward emphasizing its importance, framing the fighting here as pivotal to the broader battle for the region. “In many ways, the fate of our Donbas is being decided there,” he said in his nightly speech to the nation.
“We defend our positions, inflict significant losses on the enemy,” Mr. Zelensky said. “This is a very fierce battle, very difficult. Probably one of the most difficult throughout this war.”
Still, the government’s mixed signals emerged again on Thursday when Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, made a desperate plea for more powerful weapons. “We have proved that, unlike many others, we do not fear the Kremlin,’’ he said. “But as a country we cannot afford to be losing our best sons and daughters.”
He warned that as many as 100 Ukrainian soldiers were being killed every day.
Indeed, the fighting on the plains in eastern Ukraine has become a race between Russia’s tactic of making slow, methodical advances that gain ground even as they reduce towns to rubble and kill untold numbers, and the delivery — far too slow, Ukrainians say — of powerful Western weapons needed to halt the invaders.
The Ukrainian military and government are now making no secret of the challenges they face in the East, three and a half months after Russia invaded. Their daily updates that highlight real setbacks are atypically honest by the standards of military press offices, a tactic perhaps intended to add a sense of urgency to their daily calls for heavy Western weaponry
Russia has also been moving swiftly to punish Ukrainian soldiers captured on the battlefield.
On Thursday, two Britons and a Moroccan who fought for the Ukrainian military were sentenced to death by a court in a Russian-occupied region of eastern Ukraine, after they were accused of being mercenaries, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.
The death sentences for the men — Aiden Aslin, 28, and Shaun Pinner, 48, of Britain and Brahim Saadoun of Morocco — alarmed human rights advocates and raised questions about the protections for thousands of foreign-born fighters serving in Ukraine, some of whom have been taken prisoner.
In Russia, investigators said on Thursday that they had opened 1,100 cases of potential “crimes against peace” committed by captured Ukrainian service members, possibly paving the way for a mass show trial.
The fighting in Sievierodonetsk has come down to bloody, block-by-block combat, though a senior Ukrainian official, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, suggested Thursday that Russia may have partially withdrawn to clear the battlefield for further artillery bombardments.
Sievierodonetsk lies on the mostly flat, eastern bank of the river and the Ukrainian forces’ sole supply line is a partially obstructed bridge. Two other bridges were blown up earlier in the fighting. On the river floodplain below one of the ruined bridges lies the upside-down wreck of a truck that plunged when the span was destroyed.
On the high, western bank is the city of Lysychansk. The two cities form a single metropolitan area, separated only by the river. Lysychansk, on the high bank, is seen as a more defensible fallback position for the Ukrainians fighting in this area.
In Lysychansk, asphalt chunks, sheared-off tree branches and other debris from shelling litter the city’s streets, which were otherwise mostly empty on a visit this week. Broken power lines droop from poles. At one spot, an unexploded Russian rocket juts out of a sidewalk.
Across the river, the streets in Sievierodonetsk were at moments eerily quiet, at other times a cacophony of gunshots and explosions.
Rapid fire from the large-caliber guns on armored personnel carriers, sounding like a jackhammer at work, echoed around the area.
A few miles to the west, another battle is raging across a pastoral landscape of rolling steppe and small villages, as Russian forces try to cut supply lines, surround the two cities and trap the Ukrainian fighters there. The two armies continually fire artillery at each other, with the Russians getting the upper hand for now.
A maze of rural back roads is now the only route in for the Ukrainians, and it is vulnerable to Russian artillery. In a field a few hundred yards off a road on Wednesday, a Ukrainian military vehicle burned and sent up a plume of black smoke.
“They are trying to make a circle, to trap all soldiers inside and destroy them,” said Mariana Bezugla, the deputy head of the Security, Defense and Intelligence Committee in Ukraine’s Parliament.
The military does not disclose troop numbers, but Ms. Bezugla said several thousand Ukrainian soldiers are now deployed in the area at risk of being surrounded.
Ms. Bezugla wears a military uniform and gold-tinted aviator glasses while driving about in a van once used as an armored vehicle for a bank. She has been living in the potential encirclement zone for the past two weeks, she said, working to ensure that military aid to Ukraine is not misused. That issue is likely to rise in importance as billions of dollars in Western aid arrives.
That weaponry is flowing in, but not reaching the front quickly. Poland has promised tanks and armored vehicles, according to the Polish government. Norway has sent self-propelled howitzers, along with spare parts and ammunition. The United States and allies sent towed howitzers. And earlier this month, the United States and Britain promised advanced, mobile, multi-rocket launchers, what the Ukrainian military has said it needs to hit Russian targets far from the front.
But it’s unclear how much of it has arrived in the places it is most needed, and whether it will be enough.
“I cannot say that I am satisfied with the tempo and quantity of weapon supplies. Absolutely not,” said Mr. Reznikov, the minister of defense. “But at the same time, I am extremely grateful to the countries that support us.”
Ms. Bezugla said she was also thankful. “But for me, it’s hard to understand why help is given in doses, just enough to survive but not enough to win,” she said. “It worries me. Our people are dying every day here.”
Out in a field of green wheat shoots, one sign of the need for additional American military aid was the blown-up debris of earlier assistance. An American M777 howitzer had lost an artillery duel; it was blasted into several blackened, charred pieces amid craters from Russian artillery.
Reporting was contributed by Oleksandr Chubko from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Warsaw, Michael Levenson from New York, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia and Valerie Hopkins from Chernihiv, Ukraine.
ISTANBUL — The first signs of significant progress in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine emerged on Tuesday, but there was no hint of an imminent end to the suffering, with Russia appearing determined to capture more territory in eastern Ukraine and officials predicting that weeks of further negotiation were needed.
After three hours of talks in Istanbul, Ukrainian officials said their country was ready to declare itself permanently neutral — forsaking the prospect of joining NATO, a key Russian demand — and discuss Russian territorial claims in exchange for “security guarantees” from a group of other nations. An aide to Ukraine’s president called the Russian delegation “constructive,” while Russia said it would “drastically” scale back its military activity around Kyiv to “increase mutual trust.”
Russia’s statement that it will de-escalate the fighting around Kyiv — even as it keeps pounding other parts of Ukraine — may be little more than putting a positive gloss on its military being stymied in its attempts to seize or encircle the capital. In recent days, Ukrainian counteroffensives around the city have forced back Russian forces in some of the fiercest street battles of the war, though they remain within striking distance of Kyiv.
Now, Russian officials said, the goal will be to take more territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russia has installed two separatist statelets that President Vladimir V. Putin recognized last month as independent, but that no other nation has formally acknowledged.
Western officials and security analysts cautioned against taking at face value Russia’s statements about its aims in Kyiv or elsewhere.
President Biden said he would not draw any conclusions about Russia’s intentions “until I see what their actions are.” Speaking after a White House meeting with the prime minister of Singapore, Mr. Biden added, “We’ll see if they follow through with what they are suggesting.”
“In the meantime,” Mr. Biden said, “we’re going to continue to keep strong the sanctions and will continue to provide the Ukrainian military with the capacity to defend themselves.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, on a diplomatic trip to Morocco, told reporters, “There is what Russia says and there’s what Russia does,” adding, “and what Russia is doing is the continued brutalization of Ukraine and its people.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has worked hard to present Mr. Putin with a negotiated way to end the war, accompanied by Ukrainian concessions that would not go so far as to make his country a Russian satellite.
The offer to declare a permanent neutral status, Ukrainian officials in Istanbul said, means it would neither join the NATO alliance nor host foreign troops — a scenario that Mr. Putin used as one of the justifications for his invasion.
Ukrainian officials envision an arrangement in which a diverse group of countries — potentially including the United States, Germany, Turkey and China — would commit, if Ukraine were attacked, to providing it with military assistance and to imposing a no-fly zone if necessary. It was not clear that any of those countries had signed on to such guarantees.
“This is probably the best outcome that could’ve been hoped for today,” said Samuel Charap, who studies Russian foreign policy at the RAND Corporation. “The Ukrainians have at least come up with something concrete to address the core Russian demand for Ukraine’s neutrality.”
Ukraine also signaled readiness to consider concessions related to the parts of its territory already occupied by Russia. It proposed a 15-year negotiating process for Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in 2014, and said it was ready to rule out trying to retake it by force. Questions surrounding the eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian officials said, could be discussed at a possible meeting between Mr. Putin and Mr. Zelensky.
Russia, for its part, said it was prepared to accelerate planning for such a summit meeting — something that Mr. Zelensky had long sought and that Moscow had resisted, casting Ukraine’s government as a mere puppet of Washington. But now, the Kremlin appears to be increasingly prepared to deal with Mr. Zelensky — in part because Ukraine’s resistance on the battlefield is leaving it no other choice.
Vladimir Medinsky, the head of Russia’s delegation, said that he viewed Ukraine’s proposals as “a constructive step in the search for a compromise.”
“If the treaty is worked out quickly and the required compromise is found, the possibility of making peace will be much closer,” Mr. Medinsky said.
Ukraine and Russia would need at least two more weeks for talks with Russia and potential guarantor countries, Oleksandr Chalyi, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, told reporters after Tuesday’s session. Turkey said it was prepared to host a meeting of the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers to flesh out Tuesday’s talks, followed by a possible meeting between the two presidents.
“You have shouldered a historic responsibility,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who hosted Tuesday’s talks at a 19th-century Ottoman palace on the banks of the Bosporus, told the Russian and Ukrainian delegates. “All the world is expecting good news from you.”
Turkey has emerged as a pivotal intermediary in the talks, one of the few countries to maintain close ties to both Russia and Ukraine after the invasion. Though it is a NATO member, Turkey has refused to put in place sanctions against Russia, even as it offers military support to Ukraine. To underscore the latter, a member of the Ukrainian delegation, Mykhailo Podolyak, posted on Twitter on Tuesday a selfie with Haluk Bayraktar, a close associate of Mr. Erdogan and the head of a Turkish company that makes armed drones used by Ukraine.
But despite the positive signals, myriad diplomatic pitfalls remained. For example, Ukraine said that the international security guarantees would not apply to the disputed Donbas, but it is not clear how that area would be defined; the separatists claim far more territory than they controlled before the war.
“The Russian delegation is constructive,” Mr. Podolyak, who is an aide to Mr. Zelensky, said. “This doesn’t mean that the negotiations are easy. They are difficult.”
There was also no reprieve on the ground in Ukraine. On Tuesday morning, a Russian cruise missile strike destroyed part of the main regional government office building in the southern city of Mikolaiv, killing at least nine people and injuring at least 28, Ukrainian officials said.
It was one of many attacks since the Feb. 24 invasion that appeared aimed at disabling government operations; the regional administrator, Vitaly Kim, said his own office was destroyed, but he was not in the building at the time. The Russian advance along the Black Sea coast west of Crimea stalled outside Mikolaiv, in an area that has seen intense combat.
Another Russian missile struck an oil depot on Monday night in the Rivne region in northwestern Ukraine, the second to be destroyed there, according to the regional administrator.
“The scale of the challenges has not diminished,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement. “The Russian army still has significant potential to continue attacks against our state. They still have a lot of equipment and enough people completely deprived of rights whom they can send to the cauldron of war. Therefore, we stay alert and do not reduce our defense efforts.”
The U.S. and British governments confirmed Ukrainian gains in towns around Kyiv — notably Irpin, scene of some of the fiercest street fighting — but advised skepticism about claims that Russia’s stance had changed.
“Has there been some movement by some Russian units away from Kyiv in the last day or so? Yeah, we think so, small numbers,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. But, he added, “We believe that this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal, and that we should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas in Ukraine.”
The British Defense Ministry warned that “Russia still poses a significant threat to the city through their strike capability.”
Russia has signaled that it was narrowing its war aims to focus on taking more territory in the Donbas. Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, on Tuesday offered a possible justification for winding down the war effort elsewhere in the country by declaring, in televised remarks in Moscow, that Russia’s initial mission was accomplished.
“In general, the main goals of the first stage of the special operation have been completed,” Mr. Shoigu said. “The combat potential of the Ukrainian Armed Forces has been significantly reduced, which makes it possible to focus the main attention and main efforts on achieving the main goal — the liberation of Donbas.”
Russian forces have taken control of a land bridge along Ukraine’s southeastern coast linking Crimea to the Donbas. The lone holdout in that strip is the center of the devastated port city of Mariupol, where, the Institute for the Study of War reported on Tuesday, the Russians are still gaining ground, slowly tightening the noose around the fighters and civilians who remain.
Thousand of civilians have been killed in Mariupol, according to local officials — a claim that cannot be independently verified — and much of the city has been flattened. It remains under “continuous heavy shelling” by Russian forces, the British Defense Ministry said on Tuesday.
In the nearby port of Berdyansk, captured by the Russians, an evacuation convoy took 34 buses full of civilians out of the city, headed into territory held by Ukraine. In anther occupied city in the region, Melitopol, the mayor said the schools chief had been detained after she and local teachers refused orders by the occupying forces to change what was taught and to teach in Russian, not Ukrainian.
The war has cost Ukraine $564.9 billion in damage and lost economic activity — roughly three times its prewar gross domestic product — Yulia Svyrydenko, the economy minister, said in a Facebook post on Monday.
There are as yet no reliable estimates of civilian casualties, and some four million people have fled the country, along with about six million who are internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko and Safak Timur from Istanbul; Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland; Michael D. Shear from Washington; and Lara Jakes from Rabat, Morocco.
Africans who had been living in Ukraine say they were stuck for days at crossings into neighboring European Union countries, huddling in the cold without food or shelter, held up by Ukrainian authorities who pushed them to the ends of long lines and even beat them, while letting Ukrainians through.
At least 660,000 people have fled Ukraine in the five days following the start of Russia’s invasion, the United Nations refugee agency U.N.H.C.R. said. Most are Ukrainians, but some are students or migrant workers from Africa, Asia and other regions who are also desperate to escape.
Chineye Mbagwu, a 24-year-old doctor from Nigeria who lived in the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, said she had spent more than two days stranded at the Poland-Ukraine border crossing in the town of Medyka, as the guards let Ukrainians cross but blocked foreigners.
“The Ukrainian border guards were not letting us through,” she said in a phone interview, her voice trembling. “They were beating people up with sticks” and tearing off their jackets, she added. “They would slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue. It was awful.”
The African Union and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria have condemned the treatment of Africans fleeing Ukraine following social media reports about border guards hindering them from leaving. Africans have also reported being barred from boarding trains headed to the border.
“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist” and violate international law, the African Union said.
Ukraine’s deputy interior minister, Anton Heraschenko, denied that his country was obstructing foreigners from leaving.
“Everything is simple,” he said. “We are first to release women and children. Foreign men must wait for women and children to come forward. We will release all foreigners without hindrance,” he added, in a written response to questions. “Same goes for blacks.”
Ms. Mbagwu, the Nigerian doctor, managed to reach Warsaw, but said she crossed the border only by struggling and pushing her way through.
“They would say ‘only women and children can pass through,’” she said. “But they were letting some Ukrainian men through. And whenever a Black lady would try to pass, they said: ‘Our women first,’” Ms. Mbagwu added.
“There was no shelter from the cold. It snowed. There was no food, water, or a place to rest. I was literally hallucinating from sleep deprivation,” she said.
She said her 21-year-old brother, a medical student, had been blocked at the border since Friday, but made it into Poland after four days of trying.
Not all foreigners reported ill treatment by Ukrainian authorities at the border crossings.
A Pakistani student and an Afghan national who crossed from Ukraine into Poland on Saturday said the only problem was very long lines. And a group of Vietnamese workers crossed easily into Moldova on Monday.
Mohammed Saadaoui, a 23-year-old Moroccan pharmacy student who traveled from the Ukrainian city of Odessa to Warsaw, said he did not have any problems.
“But we took a long time to find the good border crossing where there would not be too many people,” he said. “There, we were treated the same way as the Ukrainians.”
The International Organization of Migration estimated that there are more than 470,000 foreign nationals in Ukraine, including a large number of overseas students and migrant workers. At least 6,000 of them have arrived in Moldova and Slovakia alone over the past five days, according to the I.O.M., and many more have crossed into Poland.
Many of the foreigners fleeing Ukraine said they were warmly welcomed in neighboring Poland, Moldova, Hungary and Romania. But Mr. Buhari, the Nigerian president, said there were reports of Polish officials refusing Nigerians entry.
Piotr Mueller, the spokesman for the Polish prime minister, denied this, saying, “Poland is letting in everyone coming from Ukraine regardless of their nationality.”
Piotr Bystrianin, head of the Ocalenie Foundation, a Polish refugee charity, said that so far, “problems were on the Ukrainian side.”
More than 300,000 people have fled from Ukraine to Poland since the Russian invasion began, according to Poland’s interior ministry. Makeshift accommodation is being set up across the country, and Poles are helping Ukrainians on a massive scale, transporting them through the border, hosting them in their homes, feeding and clothing them.
On Monday, Poland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Krzysztof Szczerski, said his country welcomed all foreign students who were studying in Ukraine, and invited them to continue their studies in Poland.
In the years leading up to the Russian invasion, Poland had taken a hard line on migrants trying to enter the country. The army and border guards have pushed asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa back into Belarus. Last week, aid organizations said a 26-year-old man from Yemen froze to death at that border.
Some of the foreigners arriving in Poland from Ukraine over the past few days were exhausted and freezing, according to local aid organizations on the ground. Some were taken directly to hospitals because of their injuries.
Ahmed Habboubi, a 22-year-old French-Tunisian medical student, said all foreign nationals, including Africans, Israelis, Canadians and Americans, were told to go to one gate at the Medyka crossing from Ukraine to Poland, which would only process four people every couple of hours, while Ukrainians were allowed to pass freely through another gate.
“The Ukrainian army beat me up so much I couldn’t properly walk,” he said in an phone interview. “When I finally managed to enter Poland, the Polish authorities took me straight to the hospital,” he added.
“It was absolute chaos. We were treated like animals. There are still thousands of people stranded there.”
He said that Poland had welcomed him warmly.
Dennis Nana Appiah Nkansah, a Ghanaian medical student, said he saw the same discrimination at the crossing from Ukraine into the Romanian town of Siret — one rule for Ukrainians and another for everyone else. Thousands of foreigners, including Zambians, Namibians, Moroccans, Indians and Pakistanis, were directed to one gate that was mostly closed, while another reserved for Ukrainians was open and people flowed through.
Over about three hours, four or five foreigners were allowed to leave, while there was a “massive influx” of Ukrainians crossing, he said. “It’s not fair,” he said, but “we understood that they have to see to their people first.”
Mr. Nkansah, 31, said he had organized 74 Ghanaian and Nigerian students to pitch in and hire a bus to flee together. They reached the border early Saturday morning, he said, but it took them 24 hours to cross over.
Emmanuel Nwulu, 30, a Nigerian student of electronics at Kharkiv National University, said that when he tried to board a train in Ukraine going west toward the border, Ukrainian officials told him, “Blacks could not board the train.” But Mr. Nwulu and his cousin managed to force their way aboard.
Taha Daraa, a 25-year-old Moroccan student in his fourth year studying dentistry in Dnipro Medical Institute, started his journey out on Saturday around noon and crossed the border into Romania in the early hours of Monday morning after days without sleep.
“We were treated so badly. We took buses to the Romanian border. It was very scary then we had to walk across the border while hearing gunshots,” he said via WhatsApp. “All we did was pray. Our parents prayed as well for our safety. It’s the only protection we had,” he added.
“I witnessed a lot of racism.”
He said he was in a group with two other Moroccans and many other Africans and he asked a Ukrainian border guard to let them through. The guard started firing his gun in the air to scare them and so they stepped back.
“I have never felt so much fear in my life,” Mr. Daraa said. “He asked us to move back. Snow was falling on us. As the crowd got bigger, they gave up and let everyone through.”
He said the Romanians were taking good care of him and other foreigners and providing them with food and other necessities.
“They gave us everything,” he said.
Abdi Latif Dahir contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine, Ben Novak from Zahony and Beregsurany, Hungary and Aida Alami from Rabat, Morocco.
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A pregnant Saudi woman, far from home, finds herself stalked by inner and outer demons. A wannabe Saudi vlogger and his friends, menaced by the internet’s insatiable appetite for content and more mysterious dangers, try to escape a dark forest. At a wedding, the mother of the bride panics when her daughter disappears with all of their guests waiting downstairs.
These were just a few of the 27 Saudi-made films premiering this month at a film festival in Jeddah, part of the conservative kingdom’s huge effort to transform itself from a cultural backwater into a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East.
The Saudi push reflects profound shifts in the creative industries across the Arab world. Over the past century, while the name Saudi Arabia conjured little more than oil, desert and Islam, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad stood out as the Arab cultural beacons where blockbuster movies were made, chart-topping songs were recorded and books that got intellectuals talking hit the shelves.
to promote pro-government themes.
In many ways, the region’s cultural mantle is up for grabs, and Saudi Arabia is spending lavishly to seize it.
At the Red Sea International Film Festival, held on a former execution ground, Jeddah residents rubbernecked as stars like Hilary Swank and Naomi Campbell strutted down a red carpet in revealing gowns, and Saudi influencers D.J.-ed at dance parties.
All this in a country where, until a few years ago, women were not allowed to drive, cinemas were banned and aspiring filmmakers often had to dodge the religious police to shoot in public.
Although Saudi Arabia’s population is about a fifth of Egypt’s, the Saudis are more affluent and wired, making them more likely to pay for streaming services and movie tickets. At about $18, a ticket in Saudi theaters is among the most expensive in the world.
But the kingdom only allowed cinemas to reopen only in 2018 after a 35-year ban. Before that, Saudis escaped to nearby Bahrain or Dubai to go to theaters.
Now, the country has 430 screens and counting, making it the fastest-growing market in the world, with a target of 2,600 screens by 2030, Mr. Abdulmajeed said.
Film Clinic, a Cairo-based production company.
Several Saudi-Egyptian collaborations are in the works, and an Egyptian “Hangover”-style comedy, “Wa’afet Reggala” (“A Stand Worthy of Men”), was the highest-grossing release in Saudi Arabia this year, beating the Hollywood blockbusters.
Saudi productions may also continue to draw acting, writing and directing talent from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt — and will most likely need to do so to reach non-Saudi audiences, said Rebecca Joubin, an Arab studies professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.
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“With Saudi opening up, they say in Egypt that it’s saving Egypt’s movie industry,” said Marwan Mokbel, an Egyptian who co-wrote “Junoon,” the Saudi horror film about the vlogger that premiered at the Jeddah festival.
Shahid, its Dubai-based Arabic counterpart.
That has created a big market for Arabic-language content.
Netflix has produced Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian-Lebanese shows, with varying degrees of success, and just announced the release of its first Arabic-language feature film, “Perfect Strangers.”
Syrian and Lebanese studios that used to depend on gulf financiers — who, they complained, often forced them to water down their artistic ambitions by nixing political themes — are also turning to web series and Netflix for new funding and wider audiences.
a hip alternative to the somnolent broadcast television. Mohammad Makki recalled dodging the police, guerrilla style, to film the first season of his show “Takki,” about a group of Saudi friends navigating Saudi social constraints, a decade ago. Then, it was a low-budget YouTube series. Now, it is a Netflix hit.
“We grew up dying to go to the cinema,” he said, “and now it’s two blocks from my house.”
Saudi women in the industry faced even greater challenges.
When “Wadjda” (2012), the first Saudi feature directed by a woman, was filmed, Haifaa al-Mansour, the director, was barred from mixing in public with male crew members. She worked instead from the back of a van, communicating with the actors via walkie-talkie.
“I’m still in shock,” said Ahd Kamel, who played a conservative teacher in “Wadjda,” which portrays a rebellious young Saudi girl who desperately wants a bicycle, as she walked through the festival. “It’s surreal.”
As a young actress in New York, Ms. Kamel hid her career from her family, knowing they, and Saudi society, would not approve of a woman acting. Now, she said, her family pesters her for festival tickets, and she is preparing to direct a new film to be shot in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi political, religious and cultural sensitivities are still factors, of course.
Marvel’s big-budget “Eternals” was not released in Saudi Arabia — or in Qatar, Kuwait or Egypt — because of gay romantic scenes. Several of the non-Saudi films screened at the Jeddah festival, however, included gay scenes, nudity and an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
Hisham Fageeh, a Saudi comedian and actor, said officials had told him future films should avoid touching directly on God or politics.
Sumaya Rida, an actress in the festival movies “Junoon” and “Rupture,” said the films aimed to portray Saudi couples realistically while avoiding onscreen physical affection.
But the filmmakers said they were just happy to have support, accepting that it would come at the price of creative constraints.
“I don’t intend to provoke to provoke. The purpose of cinema is to tease. Cinema doesn’t have to be didactic,” said Fatima al-Banawi, a Saudi actress and director whose first feature film the festival is funding. “It comes naturally. We’ve been so good at working around things for so long.”
Vivian Yee reported from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and Nada Rashwan from Cairo.
LONDON — As the still-mysterious Omicron variant reached American shores, the World Health Organization on Wednesday scolded wealthy countries that imposed travel bans and dismissed those that poured resources into vaccine booster campaigns when billions in poor countries had yet to receive their first shots.
The comments by W.H.O. officials reopened fraught questions of equity in how the world has handled the coronavirus pandemic since a stark divide over the availability of vaccines emerged between rich and poor countries earlier this year.
But amid fears of a new wave of Covid-19, that seemed unlikely to sway leaders in Europe, Asia, and the United States, which reported its first confirmed Omicron case, in California, on Wednesday. They are scrambling to shield their populations from the variant — about which much remains unknown — by topping up their protection and tightening restrictions on incoming travel.
Travelers reacted with confusion and dismay to news that the United States plans to toughen testing requirements and the screening of inbound passengers. That decision came after Japan, Israel, and Morocco barred foreign travelers and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks.
revealed to the world — and Dr. Tedros warned that the number would rise.
The W.H.O. also voiced skepticism about ambitious booster plans that it claimed come at the expense of first-time vaccinations in less wealthy nations. Britain this week announced a massive new campaign to deliver booster shots to all adults by the end of January. Other European countries and the Biden administration are also pushing these shots as a first line of defense against the variant, buying time for scientists to unravel its genomic code.
Japan joined Israel and Morocco in barring all foreign travelers, and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks. The C.D.C plans to increase testing and screening of international fliers to the U.S.
A patchwork of regulations. As the new Omicron variant spread around the world, two KLM flights from South Africa became emblematic of the scattershot and lax global approach to coronavirus containment. Of the more than 60 people who tested positive for the virus, at least 14 had Omicron.
A new type of treatment. An expert panel voted to recommend that the F.D.A. authorize a Covid pill from Merck for high-risk adults, the first in a new class of antiviral drugs that could work against a wide range of variants, including Omicron. The pill could be authorized within days, and available by year’s end.
Vaccine hesitancy in Africa. The detection of the Omicron variant in Africa signals the next stage of the battle against Covid-19: getting more people inoculated in poorer nations. But though vaccine supplies are becoming sufficient, the new hurdle is overcoming local skepticism or outright hostility.
The borderless nature of the virus, Mr. Guterres said, means that “travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive — they are ineffective.”
Although the United States is not weighing the kind of blanket travel ban on foreign visitors imposed by Japan, the restrictions being weighed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States are stirring widespread concern. The agency is considering requiring travelers to provide a negative result from a test taken within 24 hours before departure, a spokesman said on Tuesday night.
Though the C.D.C. has yet to officially announce the changes, the prospect sent travelers searching for updates, booking pre-emptive tests where they could, and scouring airline websites for reservation changes, as the pandemic threatened to upend another December travel season.
Carlos Valencia, a dual Spanish-American citizen whose Seville-based company operates a study abroad program for American students, had planned to return to the United States in January. But he said that he would put the trip on hold until “there is at least some clarity about whether the new rules make a trip feasible.”
Whatever shape the restrictions take, he said, they are “way overdone — especially when you consider how lax the U.S.A. has been with getting people to wear face masks and its own health safety measures.”
Emanuela Giorgetti, a teacher in northern Italy, was hoping to join her fiancé, whom she has not seen for almost two years, for Christmas in Chicago. “When I heard the news,” she said, “I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”
Given the potential threat posed by Omicron, she said she understood the impulse to tighten the rules. But it still seemed unfair.
“We have more vaccinated people in Italy than in the U.S., we wear masks indoors and try to go by the rules,” Ms. Giorgetti said.
Reporting was contributed by Nick Cumming-Bruce, Rick Gladstone, Raphael Minder, Gaia Pianigiani, Michael D. Shear and John Yoon.
Poland has massed thousands of troops on its border with Belarus to keep out Middle Eastern migrants who have set up camp there, as Western officials accuse Belarus’s leader of intentionally trying to create a new migrant crisis in Europe.
The standoff along the razor-wire fence separating the two countries has intensified a long-simmering confrontation between Belarus, a repressive former Soviet republic, and the European Union, which includes Poland.
Western officials say that President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus is allowing asylum seekers from the Middle East into his country by the thousands and then funneling them westward toward Poland and the E.U., and has escalated that strategy this week. They say he is retaliating against sanctions imposed after his disputed 2020 election victory.
The sharp increase in tensions has rattled European officials, with images of desperate migrants evoking the refugee crisis of 2015. The confrontation with Belarus, a close Russian ally, also raises new security concerns.
Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights, have accused Poland of illegally pushing migrants who had crossed the border back into Belarusian territory.
warned the West: “We stopped drugs and migrants for you — now you’ll have to eat them and catch them yourselves.”
Until recently, migrants were scattered the length of the border, but now Belarusian authorities are collecting them at the Kuznica crossing, said Anna Alboth of the Minority Rights Group in Poland.
On Tuesday, Belarus’s border service released a video showing a tent camp squeezed into a narrow strip of land just a few yards from a line of Polish security forces in white helmets. The video showed a low-flying helicopter, military vehicles and a water cannon truck on the Polish side, and a thicket of tents and smoky bonfires on the Belarusian side.
video posted by the Polish Ministry of Defense on Monday showed a crowd of people trying to break down the razor wire border fence with long sticks.
sent financial aid to Turkey to do so in 2016.
“We see that the Belarusian specialists are working very responsibly,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters.
Polish officials said that in addition to those at the border, more than 10,000 migrants were elsewhere in Belarus, also hoping to get to the E.U. On Monday, Piotr Müller, a Polish government spokesman, said the country’s borders were “under attack in an organized manner.” A top security official, Maciej Wasik, said a “real battle” had taken place against people trying to enter Poland illegally near Kuznica.
The standoff comes at a particularly difficult moment in Poland’s relations with the E.U., and in the country’s domestic politics. The conservative Polish government’s longstanding feud with the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, over the independence of Poland’s judiciary escalated in recent weeks, and the commission has been withholding the payment of the country’s $41 billion share of the E.U. coronavirus fund.
At home, the Polish governing party, Law and Justice, has seized on the image of a nation besieged by migrants to parade its nationalist credentials and brand its critics as unpatriotic at a time of national crisis. Both the opposition and nationalist groups that support the government are scheduled to rally in the center of the capital on Thursday, Poland’s Independence Day.
Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, and Tolek Magdziarz from Warsaw. Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting from Moscow, Jane Arraf from Suleimaniya, Iraq, and Andrew Higgins from Cluj, Romania.
ALGECIRAS, Spain — No one knew the man’s name when he washed ashore. His body had floated in the ocean for weeks, and it then sat much of the summer unidentified in a refrigerator in a Spanish morgue.
He was one among thousands lost at sea during what has been a record year for migrant drownings in Spain. And he might have been sent with the other unclaimed dead to an unmarked grave if Martín Zamora had not figured out that the body had a name, and a life.
He was Achraf Ameer, 27, a mechanic from Tangier. He had been missing for weeks when Mr. Zamora reached his family by WhatsApp. He had found their son’s body. He could bring it to them in Morocco, for a price.
“Sometimes, I get the feeling that some years ahead — in 30, 40, 50 years, I don’t know how many — they will look at us like monsters,” he said. “They’ll see us all as monsters because we just let people die this way.”
tracks the deaths. The International Organization for Migration, a United Nations body that keeps a more conservative count, has recorded more than 1,300 deaths so far this year.
Helena Maleno Garzón, who heads Caminando Fronteras, said Spain’s situation was especially perilous because it is the only European country with smuggling routes on both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. “These include some of the most dangerous routes which are now being used,” she said.
Dozens of boats have gone down this year near the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off West Africa.
Migrant boats also are tempted by the narrowness of the Gibraltar Strait, only nine miles wide in one section, despite strong currents that sink many boats. Some migrants drown only hours after leaving Africa, their bodies later washing ashore on beaches in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia.
The Spanish media sometimes carry stories about the latest bodies. Then, when the headlines recede, Mr. Zamora’s work begins.
The World We Live In
The body is the mystery. The clothes are often the only clues.
“It can be hard to identify someone’s face,” Mr. Zamora said. “But a shoe, a jersey, a T-shirt — suddenly a family member will recognize it, because it once was a gift.”
His first clue came in 1999, when he found a note inside the clothes of a dead Moroccan man. Back then, the government was outsourcing to funeral homes the job of burying unclaimed remains in a field alongside the local cemetery.
Mr. Zamora was on call when that body and 15 others were discovered on the beaches. He brought the corpses back to his mortuary and discovered the damp note with a phone number in Spain.
He called and a man on the other end of the line claimed to know nothing. But a few days later, Mr. Zamora recalled, the same man called back and admitted he was the brother-in-law of the young man who had drowned.
“I told him, ‘I’ll make you a deal: I’ll charge you half the price to get the body home, but you have to help me look for the rest of the families,’” Mr. Zamora said.
The man agreed to guide him to the region in southeastern Morocco where his brother-in-law had lived. Mr. Zamora first took care of the body of the young man, embalming it and sending it back to Morocco. Then he got permission from a local judge to take the clothes of the other dead migrants to Morocco.
Mr. Zamora and the relative went from village to village, carrying a large rack on which they hung the clothes of the dead migrants, along with rings and other personal effects, which they took to markets where they knew people would go.
After two weeks they had identified the remaining 15 relatives and repatriated every body.
Mr. Zamora realized he had a solution to what had been seen as a lost cause in Spain. Yet it costs thousands of euros to repatriate the bodies. And the families that he was meeting had far less than he did.
“You find the family, you get the father and the mother, they take you to where they live and you see it’s a tin shack on the side of a mountain with two goats and a rooster, and they tell you they want their son back,” he said. “What do you do? Be a businessman or be sentimental?”
Mohammed El Mkaddem, an imam at the mosque in Algeciras which makes collections for the families of the dead, said he understood Mr. Zamora’s constraints. “In the end, they run a funeral home and it’s a business,” said the imam. “But they do what they can, and we’re thankful for it.”
José Manuel Castillo, the director of the city morgue in Algeciras, said Mr. Zamora filled a gap left by the authorities. “Someone has to take care of the paperwork and the repatriation of the bodies, and if it’s Martín Zamora, that is great,” he said.
Even in the heat of southern Spain, Mr. Zamora wears a tie and loafers, looking more like a lawyer than an undertaker. On a recent afternoon, he was working on a body with his son, Martín Jr., 17.
“They found him in his work clothes,” Martín Jr. said of the corpse. “Maybe he went straight from work into the boat.”
The boy wandered off for a moment, and Mr. Zamora began to speak, almost to himself. His son was 15 the first time they worked together, after a boat carrying 40 people capsized off the coast of Barbate, just north of Algeciras, leaving 22 dead.
He was afraid his son would have nightmares, but Martín Jr. wanted to work, he said.
“No father wants his son to see these things,” Mr. Zamora said. “But this is the world we live in.”
A Mechanic From Tangier
Just before the summer, Mr. Zamora said he received a WhatsApp message from a man who identified himself as Yusef and said he worked at a mosque in the city of La Linea, across the border from the Rock of Gibraltar.
“There were two boys we don’t know if they are alive or dead — surely they are dead,” began the voice message. “The family was looking everywhere and I said we would ask someone we know who is involved in this kind of thing.”
The next message contained a picture of three men in a dinghy with homemade life vests, taken moments before they left Morocco. One was Achraf Ameer, the illiterate mechanic from Tangier.
With that, Mr. Zamora contacted the local authorities, who had a body in the morgue. They gave Mr. Zamora photographs of the man’s clothes, and Mr. Zamora — helped by Yusef — located Mr. Ameer’s sister in Tangier and showed her a photo of the clothes. These days, Mr. Zamora rarely needs to make the trips to Morocco that he used to, making identifications from afar.
“The paint on his clothes was the paint he has on his clothes at work,” the sister, Soukaina Ameer, 28, said in a telephone interview from Tangier.
She said her brother had tried once before to cross into Spain, only to be deported. This time, he didn’t tell anyone but left cryptic hints when the family began making plans to move to a new home.
“He was always telling us: ‘I won’t be living with you in the new house,’” Ms. Ameer recalled.
He left on April 13, she said, his boat likely sinking the same night. His body floated in the sea for much of April before it came ashore around the end of the month. For the rest of the spring and part of the summer, it was placed in a morgue, where it deteriorated from not being frozen.
And so on a sweltering day, Mr. Zamora loaded Mr. Ameer’s body into his hearse and, with his son, drove past pines and sunflower fields. The body was wrapped in blankets from the Red Cross, which had found him. A hospital tag was affixed to one leg. At the mortuary, Mr. Zamora and his son arrived dressed in hazmat suits and began embalming.
Ten pumps from a long needle into Mr. Ameer’s shoulder. Another 10 into his chest. After an hour, Mr. Zamora wrapped the body in a shroud which he covered in a green cloak and sprinkled it with dried flowers, recreating a Muslim rite that an imam had once shown him. Then he shut the lid on the coffin and he and his son took off their hazmat suits. The two were covered in sweat.
Yet the work hardly felt finished. In the adjoining room sat stacks of case files, people whose bodies Mr. Zamora was still trying to locate after their relatives had gotten in touch with him. There was an Algerian man, born in 1986. There were two Moroccans who had been lost at sea; and a Syrian man, who once had a wife and lived in Aleppo.
And there was a ringing from the other room, and with it, another possible lead.
“Martín, go get my phone,” Mr. Zamora said to his son, taking off his gloves.
Aida Alami contributed reporting from Rabat, Morocco, and José Bautista from Madrid.
The consortium did not disclose how it had obtained the list, and it was unclear whether the list was aspirational or whether the people had actually been targeted with NSO spyware.
Let Us Help You Protect Your Digital Life
Among those listed were Azam Ahmed, who had been the Mexico City bureau chief for The Times and who has reported widely on corruption, violence and surveillance in Latin America, including on NSO itself; and Ben Hubbard, The Times’s bureau chief in Beirut, Lebanon, who has investigated rights abuses and corruption in Saudi Arabia and wrote a recent biography of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
It also included 14 heads of state, including President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly of Egypt, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan, Saad-Eddine El Othmani, who until recently was the prime minister of Morocco, and Charles Michel, the head of the European Council.
Shalev Hulio, a co-founder of NSO Group, vehemently denied the list’s accuracy, telling The Times, “This is like opening up the white pages, choosing 50,000 numbers and drawing some conclusion from it.”
This year marks a record for the discovery of so-called zero days, secret software flaws like the one that NSO used to install its spyware. This year, Chinese hackers were caught using zero days in Microsoft Exchange to steal emails and plant ransomware. In July, ransomware criminals used a zero day in software sold by the tech company Kaseya to bring down the networks of some 1,000 companies.
For years, the spyware industry has been a black box. Sales of spyware are locked up in nondisclosure agreements and are frequently rolled into classified programs, with limited, if any, oversight.
NSO’s clients previously infected their targets using text messages that cajoled victims into clicking on links. Those links made it possible for journalists and researchers at organizations like Citizen Lab to investigate the possible presence of spyware. But NSO’s new zero-click method makes the discovery of spyware by journalists and cybersecurity researchers much harder.
She was a gifted agricultural scientist educated at prestigious universities in Shanghai and Tokyo. She said she wanted to help farmers in poor areas, like her hometown in Xinjiang, in western China. But because of her uncle’s activism for China’s oppressed Muslim Uyghurs, her family and friends said, the Chinese state made her a security target.
At first they took away her father. Then they pressed her to return home from Japan. Last year, at age 30, Mihriay Erkin, the scientist, died in Xinjiang, under mysterious circumstances.
The government confirmed Ms. Erkin’s death but attributed it to an illness. Her uncle, Abduweli Ayup, the activist, believes she died in state custody.
Mr. Ayup says his niece was only the latest in his family to come under pressure from the authorities. His two siblings had already been detained and imprisoned. All three were targeted in retaliation for his efforts to expose the plight of the Uyghurs, he said.
called a genocide, prompting foreign governments to impose sanctions.
Now the Chinese authorities are pushing back against overseas Uyghurs by targeting their relatives.
The Communist Party has long treated the relatives of dissidents as guilty by association and used them to pressure and punish outspoken family members. With the courts under the control of the authorities, there is little recourse to challenge such prosecutions. Liu Xia, the wife of Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo, spent nearly eight years under house arrest after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Her younger brother, Liu Hui, served two years in prison for a fraud conviction she called retaliation.
But with the Uyghurs, the authorities seem to be applying this tactic with unusual, and increasing severity, placing some Uyghur activists’ relatives in prison for decades, or longer.
Dolkun Isa, the German-based president of the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur rights group, said he believes his older brother is in detention. He learned in late May that his younger brother, Hushtar, had been sentenced to life in prison. “It was connected to my activism, surely,” Mr. Isa said.
Radio Free Asia, a United States-funded broadcaster, says that more than 50 relatives of journalists on staff have been detained in Xinjiang, with some held in detention camps and others sentenced to prison. The journalists all work for the broadcaster’s Uyghur language service, which has in the past several years stood out for its reporting on the crackdown, exposing the existence of camps and publishing the first accounts of deaths and forced sterilizations.
The sister of Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur American activist, was sentenced in December to 20 years in prison for terrorism. The sister, Gulshan Abbas, and her aunt had been detained in 2018, days after Rushan Abbas spoke at an event in Washington denouncing the crackdown and widespread detention in Xinjiang.
use of the Uyghur language. The government regarded even the most moderate expression of ethnic identity as a threat and Mr. Ayup was arrested in 2013 and spent 15 months in prison. After he was released, he fled abroad, but his experience emboldened him to continue campaigning.
a leaked government document outlining how Uyghurs were tracked and chosen for detention.
The circumstances of Ms. Erkin’s death remain unclear.
Radio Free Asia, which cited a national security officer from Ms. Erkin’s hometown as saying she had died while in a detention center in the southern city of Kashgar. Mr. Ayup said he believed it was the same place where he himself had been beaten and sexually abused six years earlier.
Ms. Erkin’s family was given her body, Mr. Ayup said, but were told by security officials to not have guests at her funeral and to tell others she died at home.
In a statement to The New York Times, the Xinjiang government said that Ms. Erkin had returned from overseas in June 2019 to receive medical treatment. On Dec. 19, she died at a hospital in Kashgar of organ failure caused by severe anemia, according to the statement.
From the time she went to the hospital until her death, she had always been looked after by her uncle and younger brother, the government wrote.
Before she returned to China, Ms. Erkin seemed to be aware that her return could end tragically.
“We all leave alone, the only things that can accompany us are the Love of Allah and our smile,” she wrote in text messages to Mr. Ayup when he tried to dissuade her from going home.
“I am very scared,” she admitted. “I hope I would be killed with a single bullet.”
TRAPPES, France — It all began when a high-school teacher warned that Islamists had taken over the city. The teacher went on TV, issuing alarms from inside what he called a “lost city” of the French Republic. In Trappes, he said, he feared for his life.
“Trappes, it’s finished,” the teacher said. “They’ve won.”
The mayor, a strong believer in the Republic, saw the teacher on television and didn’t recognize the city he described. He knew his city, west of Paris and with a growing population of immigrants and Muslims, had problems but thought it was being falsely maligned. The mayor also happened to be a Muslim.
“The truth doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.
For a few weeks this winter, the fight pitting the mayor, Ali Rabeh, 36, against the teacher, Didier Lemaire, 55, became a media storm that, beneath the noise and accusations, boiled down to a single, angry question that runs through the culture wars rippling through France: Can Islam be compatible with the principles of the French Republic?
Lupin.” But Trappes also saw about 70 of its youths leave for jihad to Syria and Iraq, the largest contingent, per capita, from any French city.
article about Mr. Lemaire, who said he was quitting because of Islamists.
Within a few hours, a conservative politician eyeing the presidency tweeted her support for Mr. Lemaire and “all those hussars on the front line in the fight for the Republic.” Next, the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, attacked “certain elected officials” for failing to protect the teacher from Islamists.
That the words of a virtually unknown teacher resonated so much was a sign of the times. A few months earlier, an extremist had beheaded a middle-school teacher for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a class on free speech. President Emmanuel Macron was now pushing a bill to fight Islamism even as he pledged to nurture an “Islam of France.”
Mr. Lemaire’s words also resonated because of the outsized role in France of public schoolteachers, who are responsible for inculcating in the young the nation’s political values and culture. In the Republic’s mythology, teachers are the “hussars” — the light cavalry once used for scouting by European armies — fighting to preserve the nation’s sanctity.
In the article, Mr. Lemaire said he had been under police escort for months. Trappes’s mayor, he said, had called him an “Islamophobe and racist.” He said he was waiting for an “exfiltration” from deep inside “a city lost for good.”
Overnight, the soft-spoken, longhaired teacher, who said he preferred curling up with Seneca than going on Facebook, was issuing dire warnings on top television news shows.
“We have six months to a year,” he said, “because all these youths who are educated with the idea that the French are their enemies, they’ll take action one day.”
Mr. Lemaire arrived in Trappes, a banlieue, or suburb, in the outer orbit of Paris, two decades earlier. Once a village that grew around a millennium-old Roman Catholic parish, Trappes is now a city of 32,000.
Mr. Lemaire’s high school, La Plaine-de-Neauphle, stands at the heart of an area built to accommodate immigrant workers from France’s former colonies in the 1970s — a mixture of rent-subsidized high-rises, attractive five-story residences and a constellation of parks. The mosque is nearby. So is a market where vendors offer delicacies from sub-Saharan Africa and halal products.
Parti républicain solidariste, which espouses a hard line on France’s version of secularism, called laïcité. He now favors taking girls away from their parents, after a second warning, if the children violate laïcité rules by putting on Muslim veils during school field trips.
“We have to protect children from this manipulation,” of being used “as soldiers or as ideologues,” he said.
‘I See Myself In Them’
remarks to the newspaper Le Monde, the local préfet, the top civil servant representing the central government, praised Mr. Rabeh’s administration for its “total cooperation” in combating Islamism. The préfet also refuted the teacher’s claim to having been under a police escort.
The teacher’s story began wobbling. He admitted to the French news media, as he did to The Times, that he had “not received explicit death threats.” He had also accused the mayor of calling him a “racist and Islamophobe” in an interview with a Dutch television network.
But the network denied the mayor had said any such thing.
‘France Really Doesn’t Like Us’
letter to the students at the teacher’s high school.
“Don’t let anybody ever tell you that you’re worth nothing and that you’re lost to the Republic,” he wrote.
debate was scheduled that evening between Ms. Le Pen and Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister leading the government’s crackdown on Islamism. Hours before the debate, he announced that the teacher would be granted police protection.
That evening, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the national education minister, issued a statement supporting the teacher. He also accused the mayor of trespassing into the high school to distribute tracts — the letter — that morning. “Political and religious neutrality is at the heart of the operation of the School of the Republic,” the minister said.
The city officials at the school that morning told The Times that no copies were distributed inside. The regional education office and Mr. Blanquer’s office refused to make the school principal available for an interview. The minister’s office declined to comment.
The trespassing accusations led to such an avalanche of threats against the mayor that he, too, was put under police protection — a shared destiny, for a while, for the two men of Trappes, who had each lost something.
The teacher was forced to leave the school where he had taught for 20 years and, despite his criticisms of Trappes, said “you really feel you’re on a mission.” He said he should have been more careful with the facts and had made “many mistakes,” but stuck by his interpretation of Trappes as “lost.”
His words, he said, had led to a “clarification of positions today in France.”
The mayor questioned the very Republic that once inspired him. He had believed that “the people who embody the Republic will come, the government will eventually express its solidarity with me.”
“Stunned,” he said, “I find that’s not the case.”
He declined his worried father’s request to resign.
“For a moment during the crisis, I told myself, well, if this is the Republic, I’m abandoning the Republic, just as it’s abandoned me,” Mr. Rabeh said. “But the truth is they’re not the Republic. The kids of Trappes are the Republic.”