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Detroit doings

July 30, 2011

Two weeks ago when I remarked in my blog that Boston is exciting and that Detroit can be dreary, my hosts in the largest city of Michigan reminded me of all the exciting places that I had visited during my last three visits. Just to prove me wrong this time they take me to Frankenmuth, a Bavarian village, at an hour’s driving distance from their home in picturesque Rochester Hill, a suburb of Detroit. The trip deserves a full-fledged write up. All I can say now is that it’s a wonderful experience to be in Germany without having to go there.

The following day we drive to the DIA (Detroit Institute of Art), a museum which has 6,000 invaluable pieces of art, from antiquity to the 21st century, on display. The remaining 54,000 works of art are stored securely on its vast premises.

A visit to their website shows that there is a gallery dedicated entirely to Islamic Arts. With two chirpy grandsons to keep me company all I can devote are a couple of hours to assimilate, and not just see, the awesome pieces on display. Initially, I am a bit disappointed because there are not many miniature paintings among the 170 exhibits; there is only one from the subcontinent. Dated back to the later Mughal period, it shows a king mounted on his royal steed. Then there is a more attractive one, titled ‘Lady with a Mirror’. The verse is in Persian so it can be from Iran or North India. Two miniatures by Raza-i-Abbasi, a 16th century miniaturist from Iran, are eye-catching too. I wonder if there are some more pieces among the several thousand kept under lock and key.

My spirits are, however, raised when I see a good number of finely preserved manuscripts. For anyone looking for the Holy Quran in the Kufic script, the DIA is just the right place to visit. The exhibits are from Iran and Iraq. A good number of urns, jugs, plates and dishes are in what can be described as mint condition. I wish I could reproduce their pictures. They are right from Moorish Spain to Deccan in India.

A word about jewellery: two pieces are truly enchanting. First there is the Egyptian crescent-shaped pendant, made of gold, pearls, sea pearls and metal. Almost a contemporary of this 11th century piece of jewellery are a pair of openwork earrings from Iran. They too are made of gold, pearls and metal.

The collection of carpets from the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal periods, though not large, is exquisite and shows the distinct nuances of the art of weaving, practised in the three diverse dynasties.

If I am allowed to walk away with one exhibit, I would unhesitatingly pick up a gorgeous (can’t think of a better adjective) 16th century Turkish dish (titled ‘Dish with carnations, roses, tulips and saz leaf’) and make a beeline for the nearest exit. It seems to have come out from a ceramic factory only day before yesterday.

In all my previous visits to Detroit, I have never missed having Chicken Makhani at Ashoka Restaurant. It is just as mouth-watering as it had been in 2004 when I tried it for the first time. But a more thrilling ritual every time is a visit to a branch of the Barnes and Noble chain of bookshops. With the piles of unread books gaining height on my bedside table, back in Karachi, I promise myself that on this occasion I will not buy even a single volume. But promises are made to be broken. The Barnes and Noble outlet at Rochester Hills, which I visit for the first time, has a used books (in the US they don’t use the term ‘second hand’ for books, maybe they do so for divorcees) section.

I am dropped there for two hours but they are just not enough. I buy two books. One is on the idiosyncrasies in different languages. While waiting to be picked up from outside the giant bookshop, which is at least seven times the size of the largest supermarket in Clifton, Karachi, I browse through it. On page 84 I discover that several words in the Japanese language have two versions, one for male and the other for female. For example, if someone is referring to a man’s ‘stomach’, he will use the word ‘hara’ but for the fair sex the word will be ‘onaka’. Likewise, the first person singular pronoun ‘I’ has different versions too, a man will say ‘boku’ or ‘ore’, while a woman will use the word ‘watashi’.

The second book that I buy is a coffee table book on India, and I am particularly fascinated by two chapters, one on classical music and the other on Indo-Islamic calligraphy.

Make a guess, how much I paid for the two volumes. Only six dollars, which means about Rs 500! I shall go there again on Monday and spend an entire afternoon and quite a few dollars. Let the pile of unread books on my bedside table gain another six inches in height. There is no immediate threat of an earthquake in Karachi. A chat with a young lady on the counter proves rewarding. She informs me that the Barnes and Noble branch at Rochester Hills is one of the five out of hundreds, to have a used books section. She laments that the sales of books have gone down, partly because of the wider availability of e-books and partly because people have started ordering them online. How boring, I tell myself. There is no substitute to browsing books in stores where no one breathes down your neck. In Karachi, I love visiting the Clifton branches of a chain of bookstores, where one additional attraction is to run into a book loving friend. 

A substitute for a morning walk at Seaview these days is an evening walk around the Carter Lake in Rochester Hills’ Spencer Park, where I find people from different parts of the world. Every day I see two women from Yemen, a jogger from Sri Lanka, a frail old lady from the Philippines, a couple chatting incessantly in Spanish, and quite a few from the US itself. There is one difference: the original Americans greet you with a smile and an audible ‘hi’. I reciprocate with equal cheerfulness.

The writer, who jointly authored the bestselling ‘Tales of Two Cities’ with KuldipNayar and more recently compiled and created ‘Mehdi Hasan: The Man and his Music’ writes and lectures on music, literature and culture. He also reviews books and pens travelogues and humorous pieces and can be contacted at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.