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Dublin: 1°C Friday 22 January 2021

Sitdown Sunday: Meet the White Helmets, the civilians saving their fellow Syrians

Grab a comfy chair and sit back with some of the week’s best longreads.

IT’S A DAY of rest, and you may be in the mood for a quiet corner and a comfy chair.

We’ve hand-picked the week’s best reads for you to savour.

1. The White Helmets of Syria

whit ehelmtes Source: Time

As a terrible war takes place in Syria, it’s often left up to the civilians themselves to try and protect their fellow citizens from death or injury. Enter the White Helmets, a group of ordinary Syrians who have taken it upon themselves to search rubble, rescue attack victims, and be heroes in a time of crisis.

(Time.com, approx 18 mins reading time)

When the uprising began, Ammar Salmo was teaching English in the town of Safira, southeast of Aleppo. He joined the protests against the Assad regime in 2011, and after one demonstration, in June of that year, police arrested him at his home. He spent about a month in prison until his father paid a bribe equivalent to about $10,000 to free him. When the regime withdrew from the town, he and other activists helped restore services in the area. Their work became another nucleus of civil defense.

2. A gruesome night in November

Sue Duncan and Leo Fisher were relaxing at home when the doorbell rang. Answering it, they met a man who said he was going to arrest Fisher. What followed was a bizarre and frightening night of interrogation at the hands of a very troubled man.

(The Washingtonian, approx 32 mins reading time)

All the while, Sue couldn’t stop thinking about Leo’s heart. Doctors had performed quadruple-bypass surgery the year before. He still took medication. Now he seemed to be having trouble breathing and said he felt as if he were having a heart attack. Sue asked the man to call an ambulance. He said no. A doctor then? He refused. Sue remembered that the chicken was still in the oven and asked to go downstairs and turn the oven off. The man said he’d do it himself.

3. Leonard’s song

An Evening With Leonard Cohen Source: AP/Press Association Images

Leonard Cohen is one of the classic songwriters, with a long musical history and a big impact on the world of music. But as he inches into his 80s, he’s more aware than ever of his mortality.

(The New Yorker, approx 55 mins reading time)

Cohen’s songs are death-haunted, but then they have been since his earliest verses. A half century ago, a record executive said, “Turn around, kid. Aren’t you a little old for this?” But, despite his diminished health, Cohen remains as clear-minded and hardworking as ever, soldierly in his habits. He gets up well before dawn and writes.

4. In memorium

When Eugenia Kuyda’s best friend Roman Mazurenko died too young, she decided to find a way to get him back. So she created a bot, using his old texts, which enabled him to ‘talk’ to her – and the rest of friends.

(The Verge, approx 32 mins reading time)

As she grieved, Kuyda found herself rereading the endless text messages her friend had sent her over the years — thousands of them, from the mundane to the hilarious. She smiled at Mazurenko’s unconventional spelling — he struggled with dyslexia — and at the idiosyncratic phrases with which he peppered his conversation. Mazurenko was mostly indifferent to social media — his Facebook page was barren, he rarely tweeted, and he deleted most of his photos on Instagram. His body had been cremated, leaving her no grave to visit. Texts and photos were nearly all that was left of him, Kuyda thought.

5. Chabuduo

China Airport Source: Ng Han Guan

Chabuduo translates to ‘close enough’ in Chinese. It is, says James Palmer – a British man who lives in China – also a state of mind. It’s both a negative thing (shoddy workmanship) and a positive thing (doing your best in the circumstances). Here, he looks at chabuduo and corner-cutting in China, but through a distinctly British lens – what would a Chinese native make of it?

(Aeon, approx 17 mins reading time)

The apartment is five years old. By Chinese standards, it’s far better than the average. Our toilet works, while in many of my friends’ houses, flushing the loo is a hydraulic operation akin to controlling the Nile floods. The sockets do not flash blue sparks when plugged in, and all but two work. None of the lightbulbs have ever exploded; and the mirror merely broke away, rather than falling spontaneously from the frame. The shower is not placed next to the apartment’s central wiring and protected by nothing more than rotting drywall.

6. Melania

Fancy a bit of fiction? Then here’s a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie short story about one Melania Trump.

(The New York Times, approx 24 mins reading time)

Melania decided she would order the flowers herself. Donald was too busy now anyway to call Alessandra’s as usual and ask for “something amazing.” Once, in the early years, before she fully understood him, she had asked what his favorite flowers were. “I use the best florists in the city, they’re terrific,” he replied, and she realized that taste, for him, was something to be determined by somebody else, and then flaunted.


Obama Medal of Freedom President Barack Obama presents rock legend Bob Dylan with a Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House in Washington in 2012. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Now that he’s a Nobel Prize winner, no better time than to read this profile of a young Bob Dylan from back in 1964.

(The New Yorker, approx 36 mins reading time)

Wiry, tense, and boyish, Dylan looks and acts like a fusion of Huck Finn and a young Woody Guthrie. Both onstage and off, he appears to be just barely able to contain his prodigious energy. Pete Seeger, who, at forty-five, is one of the elders of American folk music, recently observed, “Dylan may well become the country’s most creative troubadour—if he doesn’t explode.”

More: The best reads from every previous Sitdown Sunday>

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