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Reporters on the Job

Senior Privileges: The Monitor's Dan Murphy and photographer Kael Alford spent a night at a low-level Mahdi Army leader's house while reporting Wednesday's story and were treated to typically gracious Arab hospitality, with a spread of chicken and rice, bread in gravy, fresh figs, dates, and salads laid out on a mat in the furnitureless front room that served as the home's public area.

But in this religiously conservative household Dan didn't meet his host's wife, or any of the other women, with one exception: His host's nearly 80-year-old mother, her face adorned with green tribal tattoos. "At her age, a lot of the conservative rules don't seem to apply. She shook my hand firmly, interjected when she wanted to make a point, and even lit up a cigarette, usually a strict no-no for women among religious Shiites here," says Dan. "She had a lot to say but, unfortunately, we didn't have a translator with us at that point."

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Hollowed-out Hamlets: Correspondent Mark Rice-Oxley grew up in a bucolic English village and is determined one day to return to his roots. But reporting his latest Monitor story he became aware of how forlorn and deprived parts of England's green and pleasant land have become. "Poets have waxed lyrical about rural Britain for centuries - but they didn't have to wait half a day for a bus to take them to the nearest hostelry," he says. Sure, the English hinterland remains as idyllic as ever, and city-dwellers have long sought the prestige and serenity of a place in the country. But logistically it's become a tough place to get by.

"I was always struck while traveling in Eastern Europe in the 1990s by how barren the villages were. 'Where do people get their basic provisions?' I thought. It's entirely possible to ask the same question while passing through some parts of rural England today."

Amelia Newcomb
Deputy world editor

Cultural snapshot