Postcard — July 8, 2014, 1:40 pm

World Cup Boom and Bust

Will a four-game stint as a World Cup host city improve life in Manaus?

Rua 3, barrio Alvorada, Manaus © Chris Feliciano Arnold

Rua 3, barrio Alvorada, Manaus © Chris Feliciano Arnold

The day before the United States played Portugal, the third of four World Cup games in Manaus, I watched a match on TV with Moeses Martins, a father of three who lives less than three miles from the city’s new stadium. Like thousands of families in the urban heart of the Amazon rainforest, the Martins live in a wooden house along one of the hundreds of igarapés — little rivers — that course through the city like veins.

That afternoon, the igarapé outside the family’s window was placid, but at halftime of the Germany–Ghana match in Fortaleza, Martins shared a cell-phone video of the stream swollen into a raging river, sweeping away pieces of nearby houses. “This was just last month,” he said, adding that when the annual floods run as high as they did this year, his neighbors will sometimes find alligators or snakes swimming in their living rooms. Then he showed me another clip from last May, when an electrical transformer across the stream exploded, igniting homes on the bank and sending black plumes of smoke across the neighborhood.

Incidents like these have made some people in Manaus furious about the World Cup. The argument that the money spent on preparations should have been dedicated to basic services has particular force in the capital of Amazonas, a city of nearly 2 million people surrounded by 2 million square miles of dense rainforest and accessible from Brazil’s other big cities only by plane or boat. Though the local soccer club, Nacional, hasn’t competed in the nation’s top division since 1985, the city is now home to the Arena Amazônia, a state-of-the-art $350 million, 40,000-seat stadium designed to look like a native straw basket, built for the Cup from steel imported from Portugal.

The Brazilian government argued that it was vital for Manaus to be a host city, in order to raise awareness of the country’s cultural and biological diversity, and to boost ecotourism. Yet despite Manaus’s location on earth’s largest watershed, one in four of its homes lacks running water, and its century-old sewer system accommodates under 10 percent of the population. A bright orange sign in the middle of the igarapé outside the Martins’ window warns against bathing, drinking, or fishing.

Yet the family was still watching the matches, sometimes gathering with thousands of others to view games on a giant screen at the FIFA Fan Fest in Ponta Negra, a river beachfront decked out with carnival games, a zip line, and hundreds of bored police officers toying with their stun guns. “We’re open to everyone who wants to visit,” said Martins, “but building hotels and everything doesn’t benefit that many people.”

Nearly 200,000 foreign and Brazilian visitors came to Manaus during the first two weeks of the Cup, the vast majority of them arriving at the city’s new international airport, where they were greeted by Budweiser girls offering free beers. It had been eight years since I’d been to Manaus, and although it hadn’t received a promised light-rail system, evidence of recent construction was everywhere. The central market by the port had been refurbished. A two-mile-long bridge now spanned the Rio Negro, the largest tributary of the Amazon, connecting Manaus to farmers and businesses in surrounding counties. The city’s booming industrial district and construction businesses had attracted thousands of new immigrants from Argentina, Colombia, Haiti, Venezuela, and far-flung parts of Brazil. And thousands of miles of new fiber-optic cable had been laid to link the region to the country’s broadband network (though the connection often falters when the rains come). It was boom season in a city long haunted by cycles of boom and bust. 

Outside the Teatro Amazonas © Chris Feliciano Arnold

Outside the Teatro Amazonas © Chris Feliciano Arnold

On the night of the U.S.–Portugal match at the Arena Amazônia, the historical center of Manaus was packed with fans, vendors, and security. Tourists and Brazilians alike were gathered at the foot of the Teatro Amazonas, an opulent opera house that was built during the rubber boom more than a century ago and briefly turned the city into the Paris of the Tropics. In those days, enterprising traders would loan boats and tools to local indigenous people for rubber-tapping season. At the end of the season, the traders would often collect the rubber, repossess their gear, and run off with tappers’ daughters as “payment” for false debts.

Such practices afforded the new rubber barons a lavish lifestyle of yachts, race horses, and pet lions — and enough extra coin to send their laundry to Europe. The public services they built in Manaus included an electric-trolley system, piped gas and water, and one of the world’s first street-lighting systems. In commissioning a Portuguese architect to build the Teatro with materials mostly imported from Europe, the state governor, Eduardo Ribeiro, scoffed at the cost. “When the growth of our city demands it,” he said, “we’ll pull down this opera house and build another.” But then a fellow named Henry Wickham smuggled thousands of rubber seeds back home for cultivation in Britain’s Asian colonies, and within a generation the price of Brazilian rubber had crashed.

Aside from a brief resurgence during World War II, Manaus was finished as a rubber town, and the Teatro went dim. But in 1967 Brazil’s military regime instituted a free port in the city, using tax incentives to draw manufacturers despite the lack of transportation infrastructure. These days the Free Economic Zone of Manaus hosts hundreds of factories, which produce cell phones and microwaves and Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and the Teatro Amazonas is once again a jewel in the town’s center. In 2005 the White Stripes played there, and during the World Cup the city’s elites gathered outside with foreigners to get smashed and take snapshots with whoever was sweating inside the Fuleco the Armadillo mascot costume.

When U.S.–Portugal ended in a dramatic 2–2 draw, a clutch of fans draped in American flags swarmed the commemorative statue in the plaza, singing “Seven Nation Army” to celebrate. “I didn’t even see the first goal,” one of them said. “I was too busy trying to get it on video.” The arrival of so many tourists had created beer vendors out of anyone with a bucket and some ice. Police marched through the drunken crowd in lazy formation. Half the men I talked to seemed to be P.E. teachers from Brazil, Portugal, or the United States, and all of them were using the same corny English pick-up lines to get women’s attention.

Beyond the security perimeter, rats and street dogs were already sniffing through the waste. I retreated to a small bar across the street from Plaça da Saudade, a quiet park built on what used to be a cemetery, where I found locals who hadn’t wanted to pay triple the normal price for beer playing dominoes and listening to Brazilian pop.

Marcelo Henrique Soares, a former dentist turned detective, told me he hadn’t been to a game. “I’m not giving a dime to FIFA,” he said. “You know they’re not paying taxes on any of this?”

On my last night in Manaus, I was sitting on a friend’s patio when we heard sirens and looked out to see a glittering motorcade escorting a bus to the new stadium. I counted sixty police vehicles before giving up. The Swiss team was en route to practice before its match the next day against Honduras — the final game to take place in the Amazon. A helicopter traced their every turn with a spotlight.

On the living-room television, the local news was broadcasting an update on an accident earlier that afternoon. A tugboat had collided with a nearby bridge, collapsing the structure and crushing a critical water line. By match day, it would emerge that 300,000 people in thirty neighborhoods were without service. The president of the local water-and-sanitation company, Manaus Ambiental, was on vacation, but he announced that he would return immediately to find a solution. He advised people to start saving water in the meantime. There was no telling how long it would be before the system was fixed.

Single Page
is the recipient of a 2014 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.

More from Chris Feliciano Arnold:

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Futebol and family in Belo Horizonte during the opening week of the World Cup

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Acres of crossword puzzles Americans fill in each day:


In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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