The ultimate holiday gift guide for the world news lover in your life

December 14, 2012

A Christmas decoration depicting Santa Claus is displayed near the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai, China. (AP)

If you're trying to find a good gift for the foreign affairs nerd or world news junkie in your life, then look no further. We've got tchotchkes, cooking classes, music, and more. Later today, I'll post a special stand-alone guide to that most important of foreign affairs gifts: books.

I solicited a few of my favorite world news sites and blogs for their contributions, so you've got gifts here for everyone from the China-watcher to the Middle East enthusiast to the generalist. Add your suggestions in the comments.

One of these amazing contemporary news photographs. Not long after the Libyan government finally admitted that its soldiers had shot and killed freelance photographer Anton Hammerl, despite weeks of claiming he was alive and in captivity, his compatriot photojournalists joined with Reporters Without Borders to raise money for his family. Their site, FriendsofAnton.org, sells what are truly some of the great world news photographs by some of the great photojournalists of our time. The full collection is here. This David Burnett print, of President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev meeting at the 1985 Geneva Summit, is maybe my favorite news photo ever. Whatever you get, be sure to frame it.

"North Korea's most wanted" playing cards. Produced as a fund-raising tool for NK News, a start-up news site on all things Hermit Kingdom, the cards are meant as a parody of the 2003 Iraq's most wanted playing cards. The deck is $20 and features top North Korean figures. As a bonus, you'll help support a worthwhile site. They've also got a great North Korea wall calendar.

Foosball art. U.K. artist Terry Lee uses old figures from Foosball tables, also known as Subbuteo, to reconstruct classic moments in world soccer (or, as most customers probably call it, football). Sean Jacobs of the excellent Africa-focused site Africa Is a Country recommends, adding, "To impress your friends when watching the African Cup of Nations in late January through February 2013."

Indian, Mexican, or Spanish cooking classes. This one is for readers in the District or their gift-ees. A local cooking school called CulinAerie offers great cooking classes, often focusing on regional or national cuisines, taught by chefs from there. There's a great-looking upcoming class, for example, on food from Punjab, a region that spans India and Pakistan. Other classes focus on the Mexican region of Oaxaca, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. They're a bit expensive, typically $175 for two people, but a great couples activity.

A rare, antique, or historical map. Regular readers know that I have a thing for specialized maps, which can be a fascinating and revealing way of looking at the world. And there's no better collection anywhere than David Rumsey's, whose thousands of maps are free to download as high-resolution images. You could get lost for hours on his site, and there are great opportunities here for gifts. I've got three of his, including this 1811 map of the world's great empires, hanging above my desk.

Lao Gan Ma Chili Crisp Sauce. You'll have to head to your nearest Asian or Chinese grocer for this, but it's essential ingredient to cooking one of the greatest regional variations of the one of the greatest national cuisines in the world: from Szechuan, China. David Wertime, co-founder and co-editor of the excellent China-watching news site Tea Leaf Nation, writes, "This pungent, spicy and salty sauce leaves an unforgettable taste that truly is the flavor of Sichuan province. You can put it on many things and the sauce taste dominates; an easy way to give oneself a taste of Chinas heartland."

Traditional Bedouin coffee pot. This great gift idea comes from Ahmed Al Omran, formerly of NPR and now running the great Riyadh Bureau, a blog on Saudi Arabia. Ahmed suggested the Saudi version linked above, though Americans might have more luck with one of the many variations on Amazon. It's popular in the Gulf, Ahmed writes, passing along this photo if one such pot in traditional Bedouin use.

Japanese-style wrapping paper. This one isn't actually a gift itself but would be a fun way to internationalize any present. These instructions, by New York-based Shiho Masuda (who also teaches classes), show you how to deploy traditional, Japanese elegance on a wine bottle- or book-shaped present.

Yes, specialized luggage. This one is a bit more traditional but it comes endorsed by world-traveling international relations theorist, academic, and blogger Daniel Drezner, who writes: "I can't advise gifts that reduce one's political baggage, but I can recommend the best piece of travel luggage for that foreign policy wonk on the go. The Victorinox Standard Issue Overnighter does not have wheels -- it has to be carried with a shoulder strap. It has also been the most elastic piece of luggage I own, good for overnight trips and those lasting a week. The folded garment bag works extremely well. As an overnight bag, it fits into the narrow overhead bins on commuter planes. As an expanded bag, it can carry enough clothes for a week. It's the most useful piece of luggage I own."

Antique Persian-style tea set. This idea comes from Kelly Niknejad, who edits the excellent Tehran Bureau, which covers all things Iran. They're not always easy to find, and the best, silver sets can be expensive, but that's part of what can make it so special. Kelly points to this set as a high-end example. Try eBay or other auction sites.

Maotai Chinese liquor. This one will require some work to find, but it will be worth it. Anthony Tao, of the China blog Beijing Cream, writes, "A classic, but you can't go wrong with a 50-year Maotai, the liquor shared between Nixon and Mao. Legend has it that you won't find many bottles older than 50 years because the Red Army, after pouring it over their feet for medicinal purposes during the Long March, burned all the supply to keep their pursuers from finding any."

A great album of world music. Yes, the phrase "world music" is a bit of an anachronism, but it's a good shorthand for exploring traditional or contemporary music from cultures and milieus that might sound new and different for you or your gift recipient. Here are a few of my favorite selections, with links to YouTube clips so you can listen:

From Egypt, Amr Diab: The Cairo pop mega-star, famous for making what music critics have termed "the sound of the Mediterranean," is best known for the hit Nour El Ain. Like most of his songs, it's romantic and a bit syrupy but quite catchy.

From South Africa, Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens: This group is one of the originators of a poppy, sunny genre called Mbaqanga, which Paul Simon borrowed for his 1986 album Graceland to great success.

From China, Cui Jian: The "father of Chinese rock" is, sadly, tough to find on American music sites. You can listen to lots of his great songs online. Both iTunes and Amazon carry a good album of covers, called Who is Cui Jian. The story of his dramatic Tiananmen Square performance of "Nothing to My Name" during the 1989 protests shows why he's such a cultural force.

From Israel, Avishai Cohen: The bass player is one of the stars of Israel's stellar jazz scene.

From Mali, Amadou and Mariam: The duo from West Africa is becoming better and better known in the U.S., and it's not hard to see why. They're part of a large and phenomenal Malian music scene, so there's more to check out.

From Iran, Niyaz: A touch of traditional Persian music, a touch of contemporary electronic.

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Olga Khazan · December 14, 2012