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Giving Back

Nothing routine about these assignments

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Journalist and novelist Michael Castleman, who wrote our story about the San Francisco Mint (p. 56), traces his interest in it to his days as a coin-collecting kid growing up outside New York City. “The San Francisco Mint was the nation’s smallest and struck the fewest coins,” he says. “Anything carrying its ‘S’ mint mark was more valuable than coins minted in Philadelphia or Denver.” Castleman abandoned numismatics in 1965, but he remained fascinated by the mint and, shortly after he moved to San Francisco in 1975, made a beeline for the little museum housed in it. “I learned what happened there in 1906,” he recalls, “how 60 men literally endured the fires of hell and lived to tell about it. They were quiet heroes, the kind history forgets—until someone remembers. I feel honored to tell their story.”

Freelance journalist Afshin Molavi first went to Saudi Arabia in 1993 as a journalism intern on a program sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. He’d been told that as an American of Iranian and Shiite descent, he might not feel welcome in the majority-Sunni kingdom. Then he was selected by Khaled al-Maeena, editor in chief of Arab News.

“Was it my journalism background, my skills, my writing samples? Actually,” Molavi reports, “it was none of the above. ‘It was your tennis,’ al-Maeena told me years later. ‘You had written that you were once a tennis instructor. I wanted to improve my tennis, so I thought, why not bring you aboard?’ It was my first introduction to something I have learned over the years as a reporter on the ground in the Middle East: that academic theorizing about Muslims often clashes with the more mundane reality, in this case a choice based on tennis. As it turned out, al-Maeena had a bad ankle when I landed in the kingdom, so we never played. On my recent visit he told me: ‘I’m still looking for a good instructor.’” Molavi’s report begins on page 68.

Richard Conniff traveled 17 hours by air from New York City to Antananarivo, Madagascar, and then 12 hours by car over rough, unpaved roads to reach Ranamofana National Park. There primatologist Patricia Wright conducts research on lemurs, primates endangered due to habitat loss and poaching. Conniff was struck not only by the park’s beauty but by the skill of the Malagasy tourist guides, who, he says, “know the area so well that they can find you a tiny mouse lemur, which will eat bananas out of your hand.” Recently removed from the government payroll, the guides did not even have uniforms, so when Conniff got back to the United States he ordered lemur-illustrated T-shirts for them. Conniff says he often feels that he and his readers get more out of the articles he writes than his subjects do. In providing the T-shirts, he says, he feels that he has “given back a little.”

About Carey Winfrey
Carey Winfrey

Carey Winfrey was Smithsonian magazine's editor in chief for ten years, from 2001 to 2011.

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