What to binge and read during a pandemic

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“Night Draws Near” by Anthony Shadid, recommended by Louisa Loveluck, Baghdad bureau chief. Washington Post photo by Julia Ewan.

With much of the world locked down – borders sealed, flights canceled, movement limited – it can be hard to discover new things.

The Washington Post’s foreign correspondents are here to help. Based in 22 bureaus across the globe, they’ve recommended their favorite books, movies and series about the regions they cover.

There’s some serious nonfiction on this list, if you’re looking to brush up your knowledge of the Middle East or European history. But there are also lighter offerings, guilty-pleasure, binge-worthy series and novels.

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WHAT TO WATCH: BINGE-WORTHY SHOWS

Asia

“Crash Landing on You” (Netflix)

Recommended by Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief

This addictive series combines the soppiness of K-drama with a nuanced, three-dimensional portrayal of North Koreans as people rather than the usual caricature, thanks in no small part to the fact that one of the writers is an escapee from North Korea.

Europe

“The Bureau” (“Le Bureau des Légendes”) (Canal+, available on Amazon)

Recommended by Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief

This spy series follows the twists and turns of the Syrian war entwined with the machinations of France’s premier spy agency, brilliantly capturing the mood and the politics of the time. The third season, which takes us to the heart of the Islamic State caliphate, is harrowingly painful to watch. I’m only sad that Season 5 hasn’t come out in time for lockdown in Lebanon.

Russia

Recommendations by Isabelle Khurshudyan, Moscow correspondent

“Chernobyl” (HBO)

The award-winning miniseries doesn’t get everything right about one of the worst nuclear disasters of all time, but the show’s creator was meticulous with minor scene and costume details and adopted firsthand accounts of survivors to authentically re-create the Soviet Union of the 1980s.

“Icarus” (Netflix)

If you’re missing sports, this documentary could help scratch that itch. It takes you inside Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme through Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping lab who ultimately blew the whistle on the operation.

“The Americans” (Amazon Prime)

Set during the Cold War, the spy drama (with six seasons!) follows two Soviet KGB officers posing as an ordinary married couple in America – a fictionalized account of an actual sleeper-cell operation.

Middle East

“Fauda” (Netflix)

Recommended by Ruth Eglash, Jerusalem correspondent

“Fauda” follows the adventures of Doron Kavillio and an elite team of Israeli undercover agents as they track and attempt to capture a group of Palestinian terrorists. Launched in Israel in February 2015, the show captures the complicated personal relationships and geographical tangle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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WHAT TO WATCH: MOVIES

Asia

“Burning” (2018)

Recommended by Simon Denyer, Japan & Koreas bureau chief

If “Parasite” awakened a desire to see more South Korean cinema, try this one. A psychological mystery drama that will leave you thinking.

“Four Sisters and a Wedding” (2013)

Recommended by Shibani Mahtani, Southeast Asia correspondent

Four radically different sisters team up to sabotage their brother’s engagement in this modern Filipino classic that has fueled many a meme.

“In the Mood for Love” (2000)

Recommended by Shibani Mahtani, Southeast Asia correspondent

This classic from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai is heralded as one of the greatest films of all time, a melancholic drama about a man and woman whose spouses are having affairs and soon develop feelings for each other.

Middle East

“For Sama” (2019)

Recommended by Louisa Loveluck, Baghdad bureau chief

An astonishing film that documents one of the bloodiest battles of Syria’s war. Intimate, often agonizing, “For Sama” is an ode to love, to family and to survival.

“Six Windows in the Desert” (2020)

Recommended by Sarah Dadouch, Beirut correspondent

These striking Netflix-produced short movies from Saudi Arabia range from a quirky Wes Anderson-like film about extremists attacking a theater to a comically dark 12-minute feature about a restaurant date between a young man and woman. The six shorts offer a glimpse into everyday life in the conservative kingdom.

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WHAT TO READ: FICTION

Africa

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Recommended by Danielle Paquette, West Africa bureau chief

The star of Braithwaite’s debut novel is a nurse at a hospital in Lagos, Nigeria – but the story is juicy enough to keep your mind off the pandemic. I came for the fictional look at life (and crimes) in the continent’s biggest city. I stayed for the darkly funny love triangle, which made a four-hour plane ride feel too short.

Europe

“Austerlitz” by W.G. Sebald

Recommended by Michael Birnbaum, Brussels bureau chief

This haunting, astonishing novel is a puzzle-piece look at one man’s Holocaust-shattered life but also a story about an entire European civilization that was swept away by World War II.

“In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust

Recommended by James McAuley, Paris correspondent

This needs no introduction, and you definitely have the time now. No excuses!

“Rain Dogs: A Detective Sean Duffy Novel” by Adrian McKinty

Recommended by William Booth, London bureau chief

I am inhaling this detective series. Duffy is a Catholic cop working cases north of Belfast during the 1980s Troubles, the guerrilla war that saw hard men doing terrible things. The torn, decent, humane Duffy is a great character, the setting is vivid and the dialogue snaps.

“Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky

Recommended by James McAuley, Paris correspondent

This is a beautiful – and unfinished – novel about life in France under Nazi occupation. It was intended to contain five parts, but its author, a Ukranian-born Jew who had become one of the best-selling novelists of her day, was arrested in hiding, deported to Auschwitz and murdered before she could complete the text. Decades later, her daughter discovered the manuscript in a forgotten suitcase.

The Kurt Wallander novels, by Henning Mankell

Recommended by Michael Birnbaum, Brussels bureau chief

The guilty pleasure on my list, a well-crafted Swedish mystery series that paints an incredibly vivid world of rural Sweden and desolation and crime in the 1990s and 2000s.

Middle East

“Beirut Blues” by Hanan al-Shaykh

Recommended by Sarah Dadouch, Beirut correspondent

Originally published in 1992, this novel is set during the Lebanese Civil War, which ravaged the country from 1975 until 1990. The book brings us into the thoughts of Asmahan, a young woman from Beirut, as she struggles to live through the war.

“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” by Sarit Yishai-Levi

Recommended by Ruth Eglash, Jerusalem correspondent

“The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” spotlights four generations of women from a Jewish Jerusalem family, weaving in the history and tensions of this holy and often contentious city from World War II to the present day.

“Girls of Riyadh” by Rajaa Alsanea

Recommended by Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief

This is what marketers would call a riotous romp through the romances, heartbreaks and aspirations of four young women in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. It’s been described as a Saudi version of “Sex and the City,” but it’s also a fascinating and rare glimpse into the little understood and secretive lives of elite Saudi women.

“The Map of Salt and Stars,” by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar

Recommended by Ruth Eglash, Jerusalem correspondent

This novel captures the hardship and heartbreak of those fleeing war and poverty through the perilous and adventure-filled journeys of two young, female heroines: Nour, a Syrian refugee who flees across the Levant and North Africa in search of safety, and Rawiya, who takes the same route 800 years earlier and must disguise herself as a boy.

“The President’s Gardens” by Muhsin al-Ramli

Recommended by Louisa Loveluck, Baghdad bureau chief

“If every victim had a book, Iraq in its entirety would become a huge library, impossible ever to catalogue,” writes Muhsin al-Ramli at the start of this Iraqi epic. Beautiful, haunting and often moving, this is the story of Saddam Hussein’s maniacal excesses, seen through the eyes of men sent to war in his name.

Russia

“The Master and Margarita,” by Mikhail Bulgakov

Recommended by Isabelle Khurshudyan, Moscow correspondent

Russian literature is famed, and this is my personal favorite. It’s also not as dark as the other classics – and we could use something on the cheerier side during a pandemic.

Asia

“The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye” by Sonny Liew

Recommended by Shibani Mahtani, Southeast Asia correspondent

This acclaimed graphic novel is an allegory for Singapore’s postwar political situation, when the former British colony was on the cusp of independence. It won three Eisner awards in 2017.

WHAT TO READ: NONFICTION

Asia

“The Scientist and the Spy” by Mara Hvistendahl

Recommended by Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief

This is the surprisingly gripping true story of Chinese industrial espionage in Iowa cornfields, and the FBI’s totally excessive response on behalf of corporate interests. It’s a great read and puts the U.S.-China trade war and many current tensions in context.

“Billion Dollar Whale” by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope

Recommended by Shibani Mahtani, Southeast Asia correspondent

This book by two Wall Street Journal reporters is so epic, mind-blowing and over-the-top, it is hard to believe it is all real. Global intrigue and financial crimes, mixed with a dose of B-rate celebrities, come together in the story of Malaysian financier Jho Low, now one of the world’s most wanted men.

Europe

“French Lessons” by Alice Kaplan

Recommended by James McAuley, Paris correspondent

This is a wonderful memoir about what it means to learn a new language and about the self you become in that language. It’s also a terrific book about France written by one of the leading scholars of French literature, Alice Kaplan.

“Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice” by Janet Malcolm

Recommended by James McAuley, Paris correspondent

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas were the iconic doyennes of Paris in the 1920s, when the city was home to writers, painters and artists like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Pablo Picasso. Written by Janet Malcolm, this is a short book about Stein and Toklas during World War II, where they somehow made it through Vichy France. This is Malcolm’s jumping-off point: “How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians escaped the Nazis?”

“Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames” by Lara Maiklem

Recommended by William Booth, London bureau chief

I was planning to go out and look for buried treasure in the muck of the foreshore of the Thames with Lara Maiklem, author of this delightful work on the obsessives who scour the low-tide river banks looking for Tudor buttons, Neolithic flints, Victorian toys. All that history hidden in the mud, dropped there years or centuries ago. When the damnable contagion recedes, we shall go on our adventure.

“Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country” by Jan Morris

Recommended by William Booth, London bureau chief

I cover Wales but have barely begun to tap into its deep natural and human history, its folklore, the old ways of this small nation within the kingdom. Morris is a lively guide. This isn’t so much a straight history, more of a ramble.

“A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani

Recommended by Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief

This is a nerdy classic, one of those works hailed as “seminal” that has become a standard university text. It’s also a magical read, describing in vivid detail the political and social evolution of ordinary people’s lives over centuries of Arab history, in ways that illuminate the contradictions and complexities underpinning the conflicts of today.

“Assad or We Burn the Country” by Sam Dagher

Recommended by Liz Sly, Beirut bureau chief

Many great books have been written about the Syrian war, mostly from the vantage of point of the more accessible, rebel-held parts of the country. Dagher’s book is the only one to tell the story from government-held Damascus, and it is essential to an understanding of why the Assad regime unleashed such brutality on its own people and how it has been able to survive.

“Black Wave” by Kim Ghattas

Recommended by Sarah Dadouch, Beirut correspondent

Released in January, “Black Wave” explores the Iranian-Saudi tensions that have simmered and cooled over the decades. Ghattas, a journalist, expertly weaves the narratives and histories of affected countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Pakistan, demonstrating how the Iranian-Saudi rivalry played out beyond their borders.

“Night Draws Near” by Anthony Shadid

Recommended by Louisa Loveluck, Baghdad bureau chief

Unlike much of the literature written in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Shadid’s masterful reporting puts Iraqis at the heart of their own story. And as a new generation rises up against the system that war forged, this account feels more relevant today than ever before.

The Americans

Recommendations by Mary Beth Sheridan, Mexico correspondent

“Dreamland” by Sam Quinones

This book tries to understand the origins of the opioid epidemic in the United States – hardly a light topic. But it’s a stunning piece of work, full of fascinating characters, from dogged U.S. police officers to Mexicans in an obscure sugar-farming town who helped revolutionize the way heroin was sold in America.

“The Lost City of Z” by David Grann

This is a can’t-put-it-down tale about the search by a British explorer in 1925 for a “lost city” in the Amazon. It’s a true story, full of surprises and great characters. Speaking of David Grann: In my view, the best-structured magazine story ever is his 2011 New Yorker piece, “A Murder Foretold.” It’s nonfiction, but with the plot twists of a well-crafted mystery novel.

“The Art of Political Murder” by Francisco Goldman

The New Yorker writer tries to solve the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, an outspoken defender of human rights in Guatemala. The book is insightful and a terrific read.

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