In Bangladesh, Reimagining What a Mosque Might Be

May 9, 2019 – T Magazine

THE AMBER DENIM mosque sits at the back of a factory compound deep in the industrial sprawl north of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s frenetic capital (population: more than 18 million). Its walls are a Tetris grid of concrete blocks that recess in tiers toward open centers, like molds for tiny Aztec pyramids. Pipes left over from a plumbing job serve as pillars. Steel struts branch upward toward the 18-foot roof like the skeletons of umbrellas open against a monsoon. On a hot spring morning, the punishing deltaic sun bounces off the shallow moat that surrounds the structure, drifting over the concrete.

The mosque, completed in 2016, was the second project by the seven-year-old Dhaka firm Archeground to be built at the Amber Denim garment factory, which produces reams of fabric for the garment manufacturers that are the engine of Bangladesh’s new economy. A year earlier, the firm had constructed an open-air loom shed of bamboo, concrete and the same repurposed pipes that would be used in the prayer hall: It was an affordable prototype for humane industrial architecture in a nation plagued by deplorable, sometimes fatal working conditions. The loom shed originally contained a small prayer hall at its western end, but the weavers complained that the clacking from the looms disrupted their prayers, and so Jubair Hasan, 39, one of Archeground’s principals, approached the factory’s owner for another patch of land on which they could build a mosque. “We wanted to create a prayer space that would be connected to our climate,” Hasan says. “So there are no windows, no doors. Light comes in from all sides.” Since its completion, Hasan has encouraged the 1,500 employees who work, and in some cases live, on the compound to make their own adjustments by, say, fashioning bamboo curtains to block cold morning air in the winter. “Really, the people are making their own mosque,” he says.

Read more at the New York Times.

The Lost City of Aguachile

March 13, 2019 Eater

I Saturday morning and a crowd of 30 people has already clogged the narrow central aisle of Mexico City’s Mercado de San Juan, the gourmet food market in the historic center. Bottles of Pacifico pass from hand to hand as waiting customers dance to banda music blaring from a precariously placed loudspeaker over chef Luis Valle’s cramped, chaotic kitchen. Flames leap as Valle throws a whole octopus onto the charcoal grill. Plates of crab tostadas, raw scallops as wide as beer bottles, and grilled tacos stuffed with smoked marlin pass over the counter by the dozen.

The dish that made Valle and his eight-seat stall, Don Vergas, famous within months of its opening in February 2018 is aguachile, the unofficial state dish of his native Sinaloa. The backs of six small shrimp crest a shallow pool of lime juice, their tails cozy under a tangle of red onion, cucumber, and cilantro criollo. Valle crumbles a pair of tiny, spherical chiltepín, a wild chile from Sinaloa’s eastern foothills, between his thumb and forefinger, showering the plate in a red flurry of capsaicin. The shrimp, still uncured by the lime (as they would be in ceviche), are slick and sweet and snap like cucumber.

The dish tastes like the sea and the dry inland forest, as bright and dazzling as Valle himself, cracking jokes to customers who, in the span of just a few minutes, have become his new best friends. Among his favorite subjects was the origin story of the dish itself, its beginnings as an indigenous preparation that had drifted out of Sinaloa’s eastern hills and west toward the Pacific, a version of the dish that he’d never actually tasted himself.

Read more at Eater


The Perfect Dish: Bombay Toast

March 8, 2018 – Roads & Kingdoms

There is no perfect dish in Bombay.

You’ll find very good idli and dosa in the leafy South Indian enclave of King’s Circle, but nothing to compare with what you’ll find in Tamil Nadu. There are some outstanding Keralite and Gujarati thalis—at Deluxe and Thacker’s, respectively—but they pale in comparison to what you might eat in Kerala or Gujarat. Chaat—that seemingly infinite variety of snacks made from fried doughs and chutneys, whose mixture of sweet and sour, hot and cold, spicy and sweet is a favorite culinary metonym for the Island City’s hopelessly mixed-up character—is better, though I’m loath to admit it, in the smog-choked alleys of Old Delhi. Even the spicy, seafood-heavy cuisine of the city’s pre-colonial inhabitants is better down the coast where the sea’s not murky with grey water.

But then there is the Bombay sandwich, available on virtually every corner of this cramped metropolis and all but impossible to find beyond the limits of its shockingly compact urban footprint. (more…)

Our Fish

October 2018 – The Believer

It was sunset along the Lago Mentiroso, or Lying Lake, a narrow bow of water north of the Madre de Dios River, deep in Bolivia’s Amazon Basin. Blue macaws shrieked high over the dark, still water. Fireflies gathered in the water hyacinth that fringed the lake’s edge. Every so often, a deep porcine grunt and a heavy splash echoed out from under the tall, dark naves of half-submerged roots. “Una vaquita,” whispered Jairo Canamari, one of four fishermen from the nearby village of Trinidadcito who’d brought me out to the lake that day—a little cow. It’s one of several names used for the giant, invasive fish that, in the last forty years, has become both a plague and a blessing in this remote corner of Bolivia.

Twenty-six and slight with close-cropped hair, Canamari stood at the helm of our ten-foot canoe, parting the reeds and canes as his older brother Rafael, who sat silently at the back of the boat, rowed us to shore. Gabriel and Ahismed Justiniano Montaño, also brothers, took the middle of the boat, Ahismed with paddle in hand, Gabriel rolling sticky tobacco into graph paper. The hull was already filled with the still bodies of red, yellow, and silver piranhas caught earlier that afternoon for the next morning’s breakfast. At any hint of the big fish, Ahismed’s attention darted like a cat’s toward the origin of the sound. Gabriel blew fragrant smoke through his nostrils: “It keeps the caimans and snakes away,” he explained. He was whispering too. That’s what you do when there are paiche around.

Read more in the October 2018 issue of The Believer, or in Spanish in Gatopardoreporting sponsored by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

Masala y Maíz

July 16, 2018 – Food & Wine

In June of 2016, while picking out ingredients for a dinner in Mexico City, chefs Norma Listman and Saqib Keval had a revelation.

As they wandered the aisles of the Mercado San Juan, Listman, who grew up in the historic town of Texcoco just outside Mexico City, talked through family recipes with ingredients like tamarind and corn, staples of Mexican cooking. Keval, born and raised in California to a family with roots in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat by way of Kenya and Ethiopia, rattled off his own family’s uses for the same ingredients. “It would be so similar but one degree off,” he recalls, “like two sides of the same dish.”

Though Listman and Keval had cooked together many times before back in the Bay Area, where both lived, they had never developed an entire menu together. “That was an aha moment,” Listman says. That dinner became the first in a series of pop-ups that they called Masala y Maíz.

Did Tacos Win a Presidential Election?

July 2, 2018 – Taste

In December of last year, as Mexico was gearing up to replace its much-loathed president, Enrique Peña Nieto, the three-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whose party, Morena, won a sweeping victory in last night’s elections, tweeted a brutal insult at his anticipated opponents from the bizarre right-left alliance known as Frente Ciudadano por Mexico, and the establishment PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000: “The posh candidates for ‘the power mafia,’” he wrote, “on top of not visiting villages to understand the feelings of the people, have missed out on eating the succulent barbacoa at ‘El Carnalito.’”

The tweet included an image of López Obrador, better known to his supporters as AMLO, pulling fat-slicked nobs of mutton from the charred surface of an agave leaf, a beneficent smile illuminating his handsome, grandfatherly face. To date, that tweet has garnered 9,902 likes, 3,454 retweets, and 2,105 replies. To know the people, he suggested, is to know their food. The people seemed to agree. (more…)

Mennonite Cheese is Mexican Cheese

December 2018 – MAD Dispatches

It is seven a.m. in the Mennonite colonies, dead in the center of the northern Mexican state of Durango. In the Mexican settlement across the highway, where they observe daylight savings, it’s already eight and but nothing will open for another two hours. Here in the Mennonite colonies, it’s a different world: the morning still starts with the sun and work stops for no one but god.

Abraham Klassen started his day at five am, colony time, milking his eighteen cows then sitting down with his wife and , three children, and in-laws for a silent prayer and breakfast of coffee and homemade bread spread with homemade butter and homemade jam. Just before seven, he hitches a rickety wooden cart to the back of his brother-in-law’s faded orange tractor and heads out to collect milk from the neighbors.

Last night, giant storm clouds walked in on tall stilts of rain, leaving the oat fields drenched. Low stalks of corn, just a few weeks into their summer flush, were neck deep in standing water; the rutted dirt roads, cut with Teutonic rectitude past white fences and white churches, were totally waterlogged.

“Days like today, it’s too muddy to work in the fields,” Klassen tells me in Spanish as he hefts steaming metal canisters onto a rickety wooden cart hitched to the back of his brother-in-law’s orange tractor. He squints up at the clouds, rolling in like gauze to bandage the huge frontier sky. “There’s always something to do. You get a break from one thing, it’s just a chance to do another.”

Read more in the book You and I Eat the Same, published by MAD Dispatches

Escaping Hate: A Trans Woman’s Journey North

March 13, 2018 – The Nation

In the early hours of a humid morning in March 2017, Alexandra Acevedo made her way to the railroad tracks that skirt the edge of Tenosique, a border town in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. The sun wouldn’t come up for a few more hours, but the gravel path was already crowded with immigrants. Most of them were from Honduras like her, and all of them were trying to board the cargo train known as La Bestia, or The Beast, which they hoped to ride to the US border.

While Alexandra waited at the station, three masked men emerged from the darkness and dragged her to a hidden corner behind the platform, where they robbed, beat, and raped her. It was the worst attack she’d suffered in the months since leaving Honduras, but certainly not the first. When the assault ended, she gathered herself, and limped up the slope to a migrant shelter called La 72. Founded by Franciscan monks in 2011, La 72 was the first shelter in Mexico to open a dormitory exclusively for LGBTQ migrants like Alexandra; it was also the place where, as Alexandra tells it now, her new life as an openly trans woman began. (more…)

In Campeche, Pyramids Are Everywhere. Crowds Are Not.

February 2, 2018 – The New York Times

Of the nearly 1,000 registered archaeological sites scattered across the southeast Mexican state of Campeche, Xcalumkín is far from the most impressive. Just over 40 miles northeast of the state capital (also called Campeche), it looks, at first glance, like little more than a few half-excavated hillsides. On the stifling May morning that I visited, the scrubby forest was dry and radioactively bright, baked under a sky the color of a pilot flame. It didn’t take long for this abstraction of a city to come to life. Hills revealed themselves as pyramids. Fields became plazas. A cave opening suddenly in the ground — a tree, like an umbilical cord, growing from its center — became a reservoir.

I had come out that morning with Rubí Peniche Lozano, who runs a restaurant called Capuchino in the historic center of Campeche, an extravagantly pretty town on the west of the Yucatán Peninsula. She’d brought along her sister, Ada, a local teacher, and Lirio Suarez Améndola, a former delegate for the National Institute of Anthropology and History, or I.N.A.H.

Ms. Suarez walked us through the site, pointing out the hidden mouths of cisterns and offering I.N.A.H.’s best guesses as to what each structure might have been. Xcalumkín, she told us, had likely existed since the beginning of the millennium but, like most settlements in this part of the peninsula, would have flourished between the 8th and 10th centuries, part of a vast network of city-states and vassal towns that made up the classical Maya world. By 950 A.D., that world had all but disappeared.

“To make the stucco they used to cover the buildings and pave the roads, they needed charcoal, so imagine how many trees they needed,” she said as we looked down into the reservoir that was now a cave. “They emptied their water sources, cut down all their trees. The temperature raised two degrees. They changed the climate completely.” She sounded almost exasperated. “Lots of people look at the Maya very romantically, that they lived with nature and all that, but it’s not true. They were just like us: human beings.”

Read more at the New York Times


The Lady of the Istmo has no patience for earthquakes

November 26, 2017 – Saveur

On October 4th, the Saint’s day for St. Francis, the village of Santa María Xadani in southern Oaxaca should have been thronged with devotees. The narrow streets should have been lined with vendors selling sweet buns and crisp rounds of masa called totopos, pulled straight from the hot clay walls of a tandoor-like oven called a comezcal. There should have been paper flowers hung between the houses, cases of beer to stave off the afternoon heat, and music late into the night. Instead, a small crowd gathered at 11 a.m. under a covered patio alongside the church of St. Francis. A somber mass echoed through an empty nave. The streets were lined with piles of rubble and empty lots and makeshift encampments, the scars of an 8.2-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of the neighboring state of Chiapas on the night of September 7th, bringing down half the houses in Xadani and decimating much of the surrounding area, a region of Oaxaca state called the Istmo de Tehuantepec. (more…)