The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: 2020 in Review

Tuesday, December 29, 2020 | Kassel, Germany

Best Nine of 2020: My most popular shots from the year on Instagram (@ibnibnbattuta)

More than any year in recent memory, 2020 made "have nots" of a great many "haves," highlighted the yawning gulf between the two, and pushed many to the edge of survival.

Nina and I were among the lucky few for whom the year's challenges were inconvenient, not existential. We worked hard to make the most of that chance.

I. Life

We began the year by hosting friends and family in Algeria for an off-the-grid desert excursion. My debut as a reality television host followed soon after, with the launch of Andi Hulm. Shortly before the pandemic arrived, I left my job to focus on writing the book I envisioned as the grand finale to my seven-year Algeria experience. At the same time, Nina and I also planned our next adventure: a long-anticipated, multi-month grand tour we imagined would include unwinding on beaches in Southeast Asia, sailing and snorkeling in the Philippines, hiking in the Himalayas, visiting friends in Tokyo and Jerusalem and Pretoria, and more.

Then the coronavirus turned the world upside down. Rather than an extended celebration of our time in Algeria, our "Bourexit" took the form of a hasty escape to Germany. And rather than embarking on the voyage of a lifetime, we've hardly budged since our arrival here. (Just one exception: After Algerian authorities rejected my visa application, Nina briefly returned alone to Algiers in August to collect our dogs and close out our apartment.)

Germany has managed the pandemic better than many countries—not least my own—allowing us to live in a comfortable bubble amid a world in crisis. We held backyard barbecues with her family and took sailing lessons on a nearby lake. I wrangled with German grammar and joined a local lacrosse team (an unexpected return to a chapter of my life I thought was long gone). While I drafted my book at a snail's pace, succumbing often to distraction, Nina finished out her annual contract with the UN, earning her piece of a Nobel Peace Prize in the process. And I announced my book, The Algerian Dream, to the world through a successful pre-sale campaign.

Nina and I close the year somewhere neither of us expected to be: living in an 18th-century farmhouse, surrounded by pigs and cows and sheep, in a tiny village in the German hinterland. Though that wasn't in the plans, there's probably no better place we could hope to ride out the remaining months of the pandemic, or to prepare for the next adventure we've opted to embrace: parenthood. Das Baby is due in March 2021.

A new life for us, and for Bourek and Chorba, in Germany

II. Current Events

I spent much of 2020 trying to process the pandemic and its many aftershocks. Just weeks into the crisis, I wrote "The Confusion Compounds the Contagion: 10 Lessons about our World from Covid-19," a list I'm proud to say has held up well over the subsequent months. At Middle East Eye I published "Plagued: Misreading Camus in the Age of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter," a reflection on Albert Camus' The Plague written just as flagrant racial and social inequities, exacerbated by the pandemic, were sparking historic protests in the US, France, and elsewhere.

Political theater intertwined with the year's events as much as ever, though in politics as in life writ large, the pandemic had a way of separating the men—or more often than not, the women—from the boys. Rational, technocratic, science-heeding leaders faced the year's tests far more ably than the nationalist, populist blowhards, whose negligence and malevolence cost even more lives than usual in 2020. Donald Trump was impeached and then bludgeoned (repeatedly, at his own insistence) at the polls, a long-overdue humiliation for a monster who has inflicted a long litany of horrors upon American democracy, the global order, and the wellbeing not just of Americans but of people worldwide.

In the New Year, I hope to share an article on the great lessons that human society must take away from 2020's crises if we are to survive those to come.

III. Media & Influences

Here's a selection of favorite media and related influences that colored my year:

Quote of the Year

If you thought you had it bad in 2020, consider this professor's predicament: "Against my best wishes, I have been shot and am being treated in the ER. I also have COVID, and the divorce is getting messy."

Thinkers & Ideas

If you could travel back in time a year ago to deliver a single popular press article to humanity, to explain to them in plain language what was coming and how they should and shouldn't confront it, which would you choose? To save the most lives possible, you probably couldn't beat "This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic" (subtitle: "It's not R."), Zeynep Tufekci's brilliant overview of the pandemic's most critical characteristic: dispersion rates. The Pareto Principle strikes again. Read it.

Tufekci, it's worth noting, is not an epidemiologist. Rather, she's a social science with a deep understanding of network dynamics in human society. Well before others, she sounded the alarm on the perverse effects of social media, and this year she was a lone voice calling unambiguously for universal mask wearing long before many public health officials. In August, the New York Times ran a deservedly admiring profile of her; that was a month before she published the article above.

In my continual search for thought-provoking reading material, this year I sought more of both the highly random and the highly curated. I leaned further into Twitter (which led to some interesting finds but lots of lost hours) but also subscribed to The Browser, which provided a steadier drip of great long-form content. I also began following several new publications, like Newlines Magazine and Rest of World and subscribing to more newsletters, of which Patrick Tanguay's Sentiers is consistently the best.

Alongside Tufekci, several of my other perennial favorite public intellectuals remained great sources of information, ideas, and insight, including Agnes Callard, Tyler Cowen, and Laila Lalami.

A few key ideas stuck with me throughout the year:

Essays

Few were as delighted as satirists when the pandemic peeled back the curtain, exposing many of our fellow citizens' idiocy. And none published better satire this year than McSweeney's. Here's just a small sampling:

On the serious side, these 10 pieces struck important chords for me this year:

  • "Acceptance Parenting" by Agnes Callard (The Point, October 2) "Unlike my forebears, I don’t know the things I need to know in order to be a good parent, and none of the people telling me to calm down know those things either. The only one who might know, my grown child, doesn’t yet exist."
  • "The Four Quadrants of Conformism" by Paul Graham (personal blog, July) Silicon Valley veteran Graham's contribution to this summer's raging debates over free speech and cancel culture gave me more to think about than any other.
  • "The Man Who Refused to Spy" by Laura Secor (New Yorker, September 14)
  • "The Pandemic is a Portal" by Arundhati Roy (Financial Times, April 3) "Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."
  • "The Real 'Lord of the Flies': What Happened When Six Boys Were Shipwrecked for 15 Months" by Rutger Bregman (The Guardian, May 9) "While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year."
  • "Ten Years Later – How the Arab Spring changed the world" by multiple authors (Reaction, December 17) "What most observers fail to see is that the Arab Spring is not an event that took place in 2010-11; it is an era of the Middle East and North Africa’s history that began in 2010-11. I’m not writing these words ten years after the Arab Spring but ten years into the Arab Spring."
  • "The Unrelenting Horizonlessness of the Covid World" by Nick Couldry and Bruce Schneier (CNN, September 22) "What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It's that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless."
  • "We Are Living in a Failed State" by George Packer (The Atlantic, June) and "A Political Obituary for Donald Trump" by George Packer (The Atlantic, December) "The election didn’t end his lies—nothing will—or the deeper conflicts that the lies revealed. But we learned that we still want democracy. This, too, is the legacy of Donald Trump."
  • "Wikipedia, 'Jeopardy!,' and the Fate of the Fact" by Louis Menand (New Yorker, November 16) "In the Internet age, it can seem as if there’s no reason to remember anything. But information doesn’t always amount to knowledge."

Podcasts

I rarely missed an episode of Jordan Schneider's ChinaTalk, Tyler Cowen's Conversations with Tyler, Edge.org Conversations, NPR's How I Built This, or Monocle's The Foreign Desk.

This year I also discovered Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway's Pivot. Though it sometimes verges on the tawdry, it's high-quality infotainment offering real insight into the tech giants shaping our world.

TV Series

My favorites this year were Halt and Catch Fire, which brought the 1990s dot-com gold rush to life with vibrant characters; quirky and touching British-Japanese detective tale Giri/Haji; and Danish political saga Borgen.

1983, a Polish alt-history thriller, was intriguing, while American alt-history drama The Plot Against America was as unsettling as intended.

Some of my old favorites continued to shine: Le Bureau des Légendes, Deutschland 83/86/89, and The Handmaid's Tale.

Movies

Movies had already long been slipping from my media diet, a trend only accelerated by movie theatres' disappearance from cultural life. Of the short list of films I saw, the ones I found most stimulating were all documentaries: 13th, David Attenborough's Life on Our Planet, and The Social Dilemma.

Music

The songs I listened to most this year are here, featuring Tamikrest, Claude Fontaine, Tame Impala, Papooz, and more.

Bonus: Did you ever wonder, "Why Do We Even Listen to New Music?"

Books

Tim Mackintosh-Smith's Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires was as epically long as its title suggests, yet consistently fascinating. It rightly places the Arabic language at the center of the story.

After devouring Peter Hessler's Country Driving, about his wanderings in a rapidly transforming rural China, I eagerly dove into The Buried: An Archaeology of the Egyptian Revolution, probably my favorite book of the year.

IV. Looking Ahead to 2021

Next year holds great promise.

For the world, there is the possibility of turning the corner and beginning to chart a post-Trump, post-Covid course, though global inequality will cause toxic nationalism and the pandemic to linger on.

As for me, you might think that a baby and a book release would be enough excitement to plan for one year. But Nina and I have more up our sleeves. I am slated to begin a part-time Master's program at the Sorbonne in Paris next month, and during the course of the year at least one of us expects to re-enter the job market, which could entail moving away from our quaint German village.

Apart from a potential international move, travel is likely to be complicated by continued restrictions and by our new family member's arrival. That grand trip will have to wait.


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