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Aryn Baker

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Aryn Baker

Presidential elections are always a time for hope. Nowhere is that more clear than in Iran, where a fervent desire for change is tempered by fears that the people’s voice might not be heard, or, worse yet, altered through fraud and manipulation. Still, Iranians thronged the election rallies, vibrant and noisy affairs that took place in gymnasiums and sports stadiums across the country. As Election Day loomed, candidates, get-out-the-vote volunteers and Iran’s own Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei exhorted citizens to vote, and they did, in record numbers. Polling station hours were extended late into the evening of June 14th, and, unlike the elections of 2009, when the results were announced almost immediately, the count took an agonizing 24 hours.

But on Saturday evening, hope blossomed into joy. Hassan Rouhani, the sole moderate on the ballot, exceeded all expectations to sweep a field made up of five other candidates, winning 51% of the vote and narrowly avoiding a runoff.  Iranians celebrated in the streets with dancing and music, an infectious jubilation that led even the White House to grudgingly admit that despite expectations for fraud, the Iranian people finally had their say.

Newsha Tavakolian is based in Tehran. LightBox previously featured Tavakolian’s portrait series, Look.

Aryn Baker is the Middle East bureau chief for TIME. Follow her on Twitter @arynebaker.

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Original author: 
Aryn Baker

With its vast oil wealth, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest concentrations of super rich households in the world. But an estimated 20 percent of the population, if not more, lives in crippling poverty. Beggars panhandle in the shadows of Riyadh’s luxury shopping malls, and just a few kilometers away families struggle to get by in the capital’s southern slums. While the government has finally acknowledged that poverty is a problem in the kingdom, the world of the Saudi poor is largely hidden from sight (to read more, see the new article on Saudi Arabia in the international edition of TIME, available to subscribers here).

Accessing this world is a difficult undertaking for foreign journalists, granted only with the assistance of a few dedicated social workers who risk government opprobrium to expose the realities of life lived on the margins. The Saudi state offers free health care and education, but little in the way of income assistance or food stamps. Many poor Saudi families rely on handouts from private citizens instead. Muslims are expected to give a portion of their annual income to charity, and many go beyond the bare minimum. Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s richest investor, estimates that he has given several billions of dollars in charity over the past 30 years, much of it wired directly to the accounts of petitioners who apply to his office for assistance with paying back loans, buying a car or getting married. It’s not necessary, but most of those supplicants visit the prince in person as part of a weekly ritual dating back to the early days of the al Saud dynasty. They line up to deliver their requests. Several pause to recite poems in praise of his generosity. The government has pledged to eradicate poverty, but it is a difficult and long-term undertaking made all the more complex by a rapidly growing population and a paucity of jobs.

Lynsey Addario is a photographer based in London and a frequent contributor to TIME.

Aryn Baker is the Middle East bureau chief for TIME. Follow her on Twitter @arynebaker.

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Nobody expected Sadaf Rahimi, the female boxer originally selected to represent Afghanistan at the Olympic Games this week, to do well in the ring. The mere fact that she would be representing her country was triumph enough. To get to the selection stage, she had to fend off social opprobrium, religious condemnation and even the disapproval of some of her own coaches who believed that women’s boxing shouldn’t go any further than the hobby stage. Rahimi won every one of those battles. Her path to London was but the latest leg of an extraordinary journey for Afghanistan’s women, who, little more than a decade ago, were forced to stay at home, denied the right to obtain an education, to work — and to play sports. She might have won over her countrymen, but in the end, she couldn’t make it past the International Boxing Association (AIBA), who decided on July 18 that she could not compete, citing concerns that boxing against opponents of much higher standards might threaten her safety in the ring. Not only is this a disappointment for Rahimi, her family and the aspirations of female Afghan athletes, it strikes a blow to the International Olympic Committee’s goal to have female athletes represent every country, just a week after Saudi Arabia, the last holdout, reluctantly agreed to send two female athletes.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

Rahimi had been preparing for the Olympics since February, when she was first notified that she would receive what is known as a wild-card invitation — a special berth granted to nations that would not otherwise be able to qualify an appropriately skilled athlete. Later that month she traveled to the U.K. to train in a special AIBA boxing camp, where she had her first taste of Olympic-caliber boxing. At first, she told TIME, she was getting knocked down “two to three times a day.” But by the end of the two-week program, she was starting to hold her own in the ring. Still, she was sanguine about her chances in London. “I am sure I will be punched like a bag. Like I am a pillow being pummeled,” she told TIME in April. “Whether I win a medal or not, I will be a symbol of courage as soon as I step into the ring.”

(Related: How to Compete in the Olympics While Fasting for Ramadan)

It is unclear why the AIBA waited until just over a week before the Olympics to revoke Rahimi’s invitation. In May, when Rahimi attended the women’s world boxing championships in China, her fight was stopped short, after a minute and 20 seconds, because she was doing so poorly. Her coach, as well as the Afghan National Olympic Committee, felt that her performance in China was an aberration, saying she had performed well in other international competitions. Rahimi, say close friends in Kabul, is disappointed. But she is looking forward to competing in other international events and still holds out hope that with a few more years to train, her chances in Rio 2016 will be even better. And back at home, in the ramshackle studio Rahimi shares with Afghanistan’s other boxers, she has already started winning some converts to her side. As the women’s club trickled out of the gym to make way for the men’s boxing team a few months ago, I stopped to ask one of the men’s coaches what he thought about the idea of women boxing. “At the beginning it was strange,” admitted Sayed Haroon. “Everything new is strange at first, but you can get used to anything if you see it enough times.” Rahimi may not be boxing in London this year, but she will continue the fight back home in Afghanistan.

To read more about Rahimi, read Baker’s piece here

Aryn Baker is TIME’s Middle East bureau chief based in Kabul.

Andrea Bruce is a photographer based in Afghanistan. She was previously featured on LightBox after winning the Chris Hondros Award.

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Out at the Kabul Military Training Center, Colonel Fazl Karim is giving a new batch of recruits his usual pep talk on a hilltop not far from the barracks. It’s two weeks before the graduation of the latest group of soldiers in the Afghan National Army, and the troops sit cross-legged in the dirt, aligned in neat rows. Construction crews build more barracks nearby—another 100,000 recruits are expected to go through the training in the next three years, gearing up for a final tally of 352,000 that will replace foreign soldiers. “You are all going to die one day,” shouts Karim. “You might as well die protecting your country!”

In Afghanistan, fatalism trumps optimism as a rallying cry. But perhaps that just reflects the realities of Afghan soldiering: by the end of 2014 the country’s armed forces will take over security from the international troops that have been stationed here for more than a decade. And yet the insurgency continues. What the Afghan troops lack in equipment, logistics, air support and training they more than make up for in sheer bravery.

But is it enough? Even the U.S. soldiers tasked with overseeing training are skeptical. “As long as training continues when we leave there is no reason to think that Afghanistan can’t continue to grow a professional army,” says Captain Jason Reed. “But it’s going to take generations.”

Adam Ferguson is a frequent contributor to TIME. Represented by VII, Ferguson has covered conflict for several years, primarily in Afghanistan.

Aryn Baker is the Middle East Bureau Chief for TIME.

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