Ravid Kahalani of Yemen Blues belts it out at The Independent in San Francisco.

Back in June, Yemen was embroiled in political unrest, and the long-standing dictator had already begun a series of brutal crackdowns on protesters that would shortly bring the country to the brink of civil war. That was serious business, and you might have thought a band with musical and family ties to that country would be, you know, on edge about it. Not really, Yemen Blues frontman Ravid Kahalani told me then.

"I hear some things, but I really focus on something that's much more basic than [politics]," he said.

To judge by a recent show in San Francisco (wrapping up a summer-long US tour), Kahalani's non-interest in politics belies a singular musical focus that leaves him free to disregard pretty much everything else, including the cultural barriers that separate musical genres. No one in the band claims Yemen as their homeland, yet traditional Yemenite folk music figures heavily; you won't see a guitar on stage, yet the blues wails in every song.

An uninhibited Kahalani ruled the stage with octave-jumping vocals, James Brown dance steps, and mic-stand dry-humping skills that would have made Elvis blush. Meanwhile, the octet behind him rocked the hell out of violas, trombones, and the Egyptian proto-guitar known as an oud, and an impressive spread of hand drums. If that sounds like a cacophony, it was anything but. The ensemble maintained a rich balance, with ample space for soloists—nearly every musician played alone on the stage at some point during the set.

Weezer's Rivers Cuomo

Last year, beloved geek-rock band Weezer hit the road with a "Memories Tour," playing The Blue Album (1994) and Pinkerton (1996) in their entirety over two nights. Front man Rivers Cuomo told MTV that the tour was an "emotional, cathartic experience" and that "to see 5,500 people singing along to every last word through every song on the album, even the really difficult ones, was incredibly validating for me."

Similarly, in 2005 the Lemonheads regrouped after a nine-year hiatus and are now touring exclusively to the tunes of their 19-year-old It's A Shame About Ray. Likewise, after a 12-year breakup, the Pixies reunited in 2004, and have spent parts of the past two years on the road celebrating their 1989 release, Doolittle, by playing the 15-song album in its entirety. All of these bands are selling out shows. But are they also, well, selling out?

The answer lies somewhere between rock and a hard place. There's a reason why certain albums are described as timeless. (Not gonna lie—just reading reviews of the Memories Tour made me want to break out The Blue Album, and I haven’t listened to Weezer in years. Say it ain't so, whoa-oh!) It's not unusual for touring bands to focus on the hits that made them legendary, and indeed, if one is going to have a decades-long career, it's practically a necessity to revert to the classics from time to time. But a time-travel tour also feels a bit like the band has given up, or that they've become, as MoJo editor Mike Mechanic puts it, "the antithesis of RAWK."

a dance with dragonsA Dance With Dragons (Book Five of "A Song of Ice and Fire")

By George R.R. Martin


At 62, novelist and former Hollywood screenwriter George R.R. Martin is more famous than he's ever been. "A Song of Ice and Fire," his epic fantasy series, just finished its first season as an HBO television show, and his latest book, a 1,040-page tome called A Dance With Dragons, recently hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The HBO show, dubbed Game of Thrones after the first book in the series, has been a commercial success, spurring sales of all five novels. Martin has been praised as the American J.R.R. Tolkien and profiled in The New Yorker, and HBO has vowed to continue making Game of Thrones "as long as [Martin] keeps writing."

Martin is popular because his books are "fantasy for people who hate fantasy," or "The Wire in Middle Earth,"  as some reviewers have explained. Fair enough: Martin's descriptions are rich, his plotting detailed, and his writing engrossing. I'm a fan—I've read all of the books several times, and even the most flawed bits of the series (and A Dance With Dragons may be the most flawed) leave you desperately wanting to know what happens next.

But all is not well in Westeros. A Dance With Dragons is the fifth of at least seven books. At this point in the narrative, readers have been following the action in Martin's magical, medieval world for years. The number of named characters has risen into the hundreds, the series is laboring under its own weight, and Martin's most pedantic critics are beginning to negatively affect his work.

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

Dominic Cooper plays Uday Hussein in "The Devil's Double."

The Devil's Double


108 minutes

It's terribly difficult to resist the premise of The Devil's Double: The film is based on the true story of Latif Yahia, an Iraqi soldier conscripted into working as the fiday, or body double, for Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein's eldest son. In his four years as Uday's decoy and double, Latif witnessed warfare, political repression, and family politics from within the walls of Saddam's sumptuous palace. He also had a front-row seat to Uday's voracious appetite for coerced sex, gore, and luxury.

With a story like that, a film brimming with pulpy violence, human drama, scenery-chomping acting, and jet-black humor (with a dash of Arab politics and war) is pretty much guaranteed, right? Not quite.

The movie does pack quite the wallop with its gritty content and some truly accomplished performances. At its best moments, The Devil's Double is a brutal, dizzying head-rush of a movie—a lusciously shot drama that stimulates and challenges the senses with its torrent of excess and unthinkable cruelty.

The debauched, nihilistic son of Saddam is portray as the spoiled "dark prince" of Iraq, riding high on a life in which he can party, butcher, and rape children with impunity. The movie sidesteps most of the political scenery (Shiite rebellion, Saddam's prison state, the consequences of the Gulf War), focusing largely on Uday's outrageous mafioso-like persona. "I love cunt more than I love God!" he screams as he abducts a trembling 14-year-old schoolgirl from the noisy streets of Baghdad in broad daylight.

SeekingArrangement.com—a website where young women known as "sugar babies" request financial assistance in exchange for dates with wealthy older men known as "sugar daddies"—gave data to the Huffington Post about the top 20 colleges attended by sugar babies.* At first glance, the numbers seem a little high: 498 NYU undergrads are on the site? That's 4% of women enrolled. Another 4% of Tulane's girls are allegedly sugar babies too. Or what about Harvard: 231 students are supposedly sugar babies on SeekingArrangement.com, which would equal 7% of the Ivy League school's female undergrads.

These figures seem especially high when you consider the number of women registered at similar sites: the founder of EstablishedMen.com estimates that 611,000 of his members are female co-eds. Another one of his sites, ArrangementSeekers.com, has around 120,000 college girls on it. Could the recession and student loans really be turning so many smart college girls into pay-to-play sugar babies?

The devil's in the details: SeekingArrangement.com considers any person a student if they register using a .edu email address OR if they write the name of a school in their profile. Even if you don't have a .edu email address, you can identify as a "student" at any number of universities. Or (as I found out when playing around with the site today) if you register using the still-valid .edu address from your undergrad days a decade ago, you'll still be an undergrad to the site's eyes, which entitles you to upgraded membership privileges for free. Perhaps these rewards and the ease of identifying as a struggling student is part of the reason why SeekingArrangement.com's founder Brandon Wade says he's seen a 350% uptick in collegiate sugar babies since 2007.

To learn more about the sugar baby life, I highly recommend Mac McClelland's essay about SugarDaddy.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that the Huffington Post explicity argued that 7% of Harvard undergrads were sugar babies. It didn't. Sorry.

A controversial San Francisco initiative to ban infant circumcision hit a dead end after a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled last week the bill must be removed from the November ballot. But this doesn't mean the contentious national debate about whether parents should have the right to remove their child's foreskin is over—not if "intactivist" and "Foreskin Man" comic creator Matthew Hess has anything to do with it. He and his activist group MGMbill.org plan to appeal the ruling, and his superhero Miles Hastwick (aka Foreskin Man) will continue to battle circumcisers in comic books. "We'll keep pushing to protect boys," Hess said.

Hess wrote the San Francisco circumcision ban, and he's an outspoken member of the intactivist movement, a cleverly named group of activists seeking to end all medical and religious circumcisions of infants. After realizing he "was never going to get through... to a certain number of people" using reason, Hess said he created "Foreskin Man" in 2010 to "get people talking about circumcision." In that regard, he's been successful. People have certainly been talking about Foreskin Man and his cause.

At first, the media and public weren't sure if Hess was serious about a comic meant to gather support for his ballot initiative. Some find humor in Hess's blonde, blue-eyed, muscular superhero, who defends the foreskins of young boys with the help of sidekicks like Vulva Girl. Others have been deeply offended by the comic's equation of male circumcision to female genital mutilation and its vilification of those who perform circumcisions—including doctors (Issue No. 1), Jews (Issue No. 2), and African tribes (Issue No. 3).

Vulva Girl: MGMbill.orgVulva Girl. MGMbill.org

The second issue of "Foreskin Man" was particularly controversial because it criticizes the Jewish circumcision tradition and features a villainous orthodox rabbi called Monster Mohel whom "nothing excites… more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy."

Monster Mohel: MGMbill.orgMonster Mohel. MGMbill.org

"There is such dripping anti-Semitism and anti-female rhetoric in this [comic]," Abby Porth, the associate director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, said. "It's outrageous." The Jewish Community Relations Council is one of the plaintiffs who sued MGMbill.org over the ban.

"It's not intended to be anti-Semitic: it's intended to be anti-genital mutilation," Hess said in his defense. "You can see that the common theme is all the villains are circumcisers. They're not all Jewish," he said.

But for Porth and other critics, including the Anti-Defamation League, the comics cross the line with their imagery. "Monster Mohel… appears to be lifted straight out of Nazi propaganda. [He's] a hook-nosed orthodox rabbi who's bloodthirsty for circumcision, which smacks of the centuries-old blood libel," Porth said.

Hess disagrees. "The first issue had a villain, Dr. Mutilator, who turned into an actual monster… I didn’t hear anyone complaining that that was anti-doctor or anti-medicine," he said. "So in the next issue, [when] we dealt with Jewish circumcision… naturally the villain was also drawn evil, and it was done intentionally—to make a point."

Religious tradition isn't the only reason some object to "Foreskin Man" and the MGM Bill. Based on studies showing circumcision lowers men's risk of urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is considering whether or not to recommend it as an HIV prevention method. But Hess criticized the accuracy of these studies, including one showing that in Africa, male circumcision reduces a man's chance of contracting HIV by 60 percent. "The data is very conflicting at a macro level," he said. "Even if it could be shown that circumcision provided 100 percent protection against AIDS, I would still be opposed to forcing that onto a child who can't consent."

When asked if he thought there was a way to better navigate the sensitivities of minority religious groups while criticizing their circumcision practices in "Foreskin Man," Hess replied, "I'm not concerned about that when it comes to this issue. I think it's far more important to fight for human rights for all people, rather than give any specific group a free pass."

Immediately after last month's terror attacks in Norway, Islamic extremism shot to the top of almost every list of suspected culprits. Among the soothsayers of creeping Shariah, there was never any doubt who was responsible. Others' more rational, if hasty, assessments of Norway's threat matrix pointed to the same (wrong) conclusion. For all their differences, both lines of reasoning shared a common assumption: that the sheer volume of Muslim terrorists out there made their involvement likely. Or as Stephen Colbert skewered the media's rush to judgment: "If you're pulling a news report completely out of your ass, it is safer to go with Muslim. That's not prejudice. That's probability."

Charles Kurzman begs to differ. In his new book, The Missing Martyrs, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sociology professor rejects that Muslims are especially prone to violent extremism. "If there are more than a billion Muslims in the world, many of whom supposedly hate the West and desire martyrdom," he asks, "why don't we see terrorist attacks everywhere, every day?"

In theory, we should. After all, there's any number of ways a terrorist committed to murdering civilians could attack (and our gun lobby certainly isn't making weapons harder to get a hold of). But we don't. No Islamist terrorist attack besides 9/11 has killed more than 400 people; only a dozen have killed more than 200.


"The Bid"

from Ximena Sariñana (Warner Bros.)

Liner notes: Mexico's Ximena Sariñana fuses dance-floor energy and a grandiose melody, exclaiming, "I don't think you notice me/Don't know who I really am," on this alluring track, one of many songs on her English-language debut exploring the difficulties of making meaningful connections.

Behind the music: The daughter of director Fernando Sariñana, the 25-year-old acted in movies and telenovelas and fronted the jazz-funk band Feliz No Cumpleaños before releasing Mediocre, her self-deprecatingly titled solo debut, in 2008. Producers on this new project include TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek and Greg Kurstin of The Bird and The Bee.

Check it out if you like: Smart singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple, Norah Jones, and Lily Allen.

Click here for more music features from Mother Jones.

Front page image: Natan Vazquez/Flickr