Detroit’s American Dream

21 November 2016 – Eater

(all images are the work of Ali Saloum)

The line that divides Detroit and Dearborn, coterminous cities in the sprawling grid of roads that traverse southeast Michigan, is invisible — but it’s almost impossible to miss. On one side, there’s a city that lost a quarter of its residents between 2000 and 2010, is home to tens of thousands of vacant buildings, and is at its smallest population since 1850. On the other, there’s a suburb where the number of businesses on its main commercial corridor has doubled in the last decade, the median income is nearly twice Detroit’s, and housing demand has seen bidding wars for single-family homes end over a hundred thousand dollars above asking prices. (more…)


The Prawn War

19 September 2016 – Roads & Kingdoms and Slate

(text and photos by the author)

Victos Fernando had been missing for four days when his body washed up, bruised and salt-soaked, off Sri Lanka’s northern coast. He’d disembarked with three other fishermen on April 2, 2011, from the crowded harbor of Rameswaram, a small island off India’s southeastern coast, to sail for the fertile breeding shoals on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Strait, the narrow body of water that separates the two nations. The day before, the governments of India and Sri Lanka had both issued warnings against going out to sea. The two countries were slated to play a cricket match that day and tensions would be high.

Someone, after all, would have to lose. (more…)

Bhopali Cuisine

Autumn 2015 – The Art of Eating

The New Afghan Hotel, owned by Karim Khan, lies hidden down a blind alley in the bazaars of old Bhopal, the capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. From the bylane that passes for a main road, the restaurant is completely invisible, blocked by a second restaurant, which is confusingly, and inaccurately, called simply the Afghan Hotel and is owned by Jameel Khan, one of Karim’s ten brothers. The front of that second “hotel,” a word that in India often means a simple, canteen-like restaurant, opens directly onto the street. Bright lights from inside shine on skewers of mutton and chicken that dangle over a row of grills sending banks of smoke like ghosts into the night. The pungent smells of meat, charcoal, and oil from deep-frying would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the historic Muslim quarters of Old Delhi or Hyderabad, cities celebrated for their rich courtly cuisines. The specialty at Khan’s restaurant, a dish simply known as Afghan machli, or Afghan fish, would almost certainly come as a surprise.

The full essay appears in issue 95 of The Art of Eating.

The Unreachable Place

Lucky Peach – August 2015, The Fantasy Issue
Shidi ValleyI first heard about the Shidi valley from my friend Max over drinks one evening in my living room in Mumbai. He said it was the most remote place in India. The people who live there still have to carry anything they want from outside into the valley on their backs. Except for the salt, sugar, powdered milk, and oil, people here eat only what they can grow, raise, or hunt in the forest. There’s no phone and no electricity. Despite the promises of the government, and despite the fact that the valley has been part of India since 1961 when the army marched in and planted the tricolor, there is still no road.

Before Shidi even becomes a glimmer, you’ll travel for two days on two flights and two rickety tin-can buses to reach Miao (pronounced “meow”), a charmless frontier town in the tribal hill state of Arunachal Pradesh, which wraps like a mountainous stole around the floodplain of the Brahmaputra River, where China breaths cold and hard down India’s neck. Miao is where the last dusty road in India ends. From here it’s barely forty-five miles southeast to Shidi as the crow flies, and if you have the means and the patience to wait out the intermittent chopper service connecting Miao to the military outpost of Vijaynagar at the far eastern end of the valley, it will only take you another five hours once the helicopter lands to walk down to Shidi.

Read the full essay in the Summer 2015 issue of Lucky Peach: The Fantasy Issue

Check republic

June 2015 – The Caravan

LIKE MANY AMERICAN KIDS, I read SE Hinton’s angsty Bildungsroman The Outsiders in middle school. First published in 1967, the book features teenage characters with names like Ponyboy, Sodapop and Cherry, who drink and smoke and get into knife fights. The boys belong to two rival gangs, divided along socio-economic lines: the Greasers—the eponymous “Outsiders”—characterised by their long hair and leather biker jackets; and the Socs, short for “Socials,” who have “good grades, good cars, good girls, madras and Mustangs and Corvairs.”

“Madras” here refers to the Socs’ predilection for clothing made of madras check, a fabric that was, and is, a powerful metonym for preppy fashion—that whole peculiar complex of styles and affectations with its roots in the Ivy League and Country Club cultures of the north-eastern United States. The Official Preppy Handbook, an obscenely popular satirical guidebook first published in 1980, used madras checks on its dust jacket, as did Christine Nunn’s Preppy Cookbook, published over 30 years later. The book Tipsy in Madras is not a long-lost Graham Greene novel, but rather, as its subtitle proudly proclaims, “A Complete Guide to 80s Preppy Drinking.” In 2011, a website called Ivy Style launched its summer season coverage with what it called “Madras Week,” and in July 2013, the New York Times published a story titled “Preppy Drinks Never Go Out of Style” featuring a cocktail called—you guessed it—The Madras. (more…)

Café Society

June 2015 – Voyeur (Virgin Australia Magazine)

The Byculla Restaurant faces a particularly furious Mumbai streetscape in the once upscale, now decidedly down-at-the-heel, neighborhood of the same name. One of the city’s many elevated roadways (known euphemistically as ‘flyovers’) touches down at street level here, disgorging its blaring traffic at the feet of once elegant apartment buildings. Across the overpass, behind the faded stepped-pyramid façade of the Palace Cinema and the hawkers selling pomegranates and oranges and watermelons, the corrugated tin roof of Byculla railway station seems to rattle every time a local train screeches through, which is often. Pedestrians cluster together to maneuver their way into traffic, eyes straight ahead, palms stretched defiantly toward the windshields of the cars that have overrun the city like rats.


Penance Food

May 2015 – Lucky Peach

Penance food in Palitana

The most difficult meal I’ve ever eaten involved a sum total of ten ingredients, prepared as sixteen distinct dishes: boiled mung beans and a warm broth made from the cooking water; boiled chickpeas, boiled yellow lentils, and boiled split chickpea lentils; boiled rice, a porridge called kichdi made from lentils and rice, and another made from split wheat; sorghum chapattis and pan-roasted flatbreads called thikara, half made from mung and half from chickpeas; dense, rectangular steamed cakes also made from either mung or chickpeas; bitter, doughy little morsels of mung flour and lentils; a tea made from an ayurvedic herb called kariyata (it tasted like an ultra-bitter yerba mate, which made it far and away the most flavorful thing on the menu that day); and a “chutney” made from chickpea flour and water. Anywhere else, you’d call that a batter, but I was in the northwestern Indian state of Gujarat, in a town called Palitana, the holiest place on earth for the Shvetambar sect of India’s small but influential (read: wealthy and highly educated) Jain community, and this was a meal for penitents.

Read the full essay in the “Plant Kingdom” issue of Lucky Peach (Summer 2015)

The Honey Hunters

August 2014–Lucky Peach: The Seashore Issue (reprinted on Longreads)

1. Liquid Gold

It was morning, ebb tide, when our launch slid up to the shore—shiny and metallic and unstable as mercury—and stuck its nose resolutely into the mud. Felt clouds sulked overhead, temporary protection from the blazing April sun. The honey collectors hopped one by one down onto the shore, which swallowed them up to their calves before releasing a thick, flatulent squelch.

Zahangir, short, dark, and strong, with a deep scar across his left cheek, trudged up the bank and into the forest first. Then came Abdul Roshid, who had organized the group; Aliur Rahman, scholarly and wispy with wire-framed glasses and a scraggly goatee sprouting from his narrow chin; Abdul Joleel, practically silent for three days running; Haleem, whose voluptuous lips seemed almost indecent in his otherwise spare and angular face; Nurul Islam, compact and smiling and warm; Kholil, a big man with a penchant for big stories; and Aminool, Nurul Islam’s nephew, the youngest in the group, who spent the day hacking absently at the underbrush with a small machete (they call it a daa in Bengali) and looking after me with mute, gesticulatory enthusiasm. (more…)

Why I Hated “The 100-Foot Journey” So Much More than I Needed To: A Review

August 2014 – Unmapped

Back in 2008, as I was preparing to visit India for the first time as a study abroad student in Delhi, I went to see Slumdog Millionaire with my parents in Baltimore. I don’t remember thinking too highly of the movie, but I also don’t remember disliking it much. I do remember several people asking me in the course of the weeks that followed—that is, between the film’s release and my departure for New Delhi—why I would want to go spend the next four months in a place like that. (Keep in mind, Maryland is not exactly a backwater; it is, in terms of college degrees per capita, the best-educated state in the US.) I shrugged, having a hunch, though certainly not knowing for certain, that Danny Boyle’s version of Mumbai couldn’t possibly represent the reality of India, or at least not the whole reality. Most people in the US, still largely cut off from the outside world despite (or perhaps because of) our socio-political centrality, didn’t necessarily have that hunch. Slumdog told the two India stories that everyone in America wants to hear: spectacular squalor and economic miracle. That the characters were essentially cardboard cutouts made no difference: This was India.


Why You Should Live Here: Bombay

July 2014 – Unmapped

That I love Bombay as unreservedly as I do is a fact that’s often met with some combination of incredulity, disbelief and bemused condescension, particularly by people born and raised here.

One close friend has warned me not to “get stuck in India.” The wife of an extremely wealthy developer and self-proclaimed “proud Indian” (emphasis very much hers) once told me that, if asked to come up with a list of great things about Bombay, she would have trouble naming even ten. New acquaintances from Bombay, when they find out that I’ve been here voluntarily for the last 30-odd months and that I have no intention of leaving any time soon, will often introduce me to the next person entering the conversation (especially, for some reason, when that other person is old), by saying ‘This is Michael. He really loves Bombay!’ as though explaining that I have an extra appendage or a deep academic interest in higher math. One friend and colleague, a well-known chronicler of the city, responded, when I told him (maybe a touch too effusively?) that I really like it here, with the simple question: “Why?”