Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
March 22, 2019 (posted March 25)
Mr. President: Something is infinitely wrong in the picture, a juxtaposition of polar
opposites: New Zealand, a country of unfailingly courteous and kind people, and an
extremist terrorist killing 40 Muslims at prayer. Of course, modern guns made it
possible, a hate-filled extremist of Australian origin set the stage, and a country not
familiar with such violence -- thus an easy target. All together they broke the
proverbial camel's back.
My own experience of New Zealand -- visiting universities and delivering the
occasional lecture as academics do -- was uniformly pleasant. It was as if a piece of
1950s England had been sliced off and transported to the Pacific, down to the egg,
sausage, bacon and tomato breakfast. The numerous small kindnesses of the
people one met left a warm glow.
I was therefore, quite unprepared for Australia, the only country where I have been
taken aside into a room to be grilled by an immigration official for what seemed an
eternity. People are people: The hotel receptionist was welcoming and helpful.
At the Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland was appearing in The Daughter of the
Regiment to a sold-out first night. As luck would have it, a ticket return was my ticket
in . Quenching a thirst during intermission, the withering looks of fashionably-dressed
matrons is now an aide-memoire. Otherwise, I might have forgotten, as I have, for
example, the performance at Schloss Schonbrunn outside Vienna.
Universities are different of course, and students and professors tend not to harbor
such prejudices or exhibit them within the ivory towers. The conference was much like
others. Australians in person seem friendly, unselfconscious and lacking the class
prejudice common in England. I must add that I have counted quite a few as friends
and academic colleagues over the years.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's outburst at New Zealand following the shooting
was a trifle premature. Of Turkish origin, 40-year old Gorkmen Tanis opened fire
inside a tram in Utrecht, Netherlands killing 3 and wounding 3 others. Hate and more
hate in a world of conflicting values and customs, coming into sharper focus as
people travel outside their own countries (and comfort space) in quest of greater
economic reward. Necessity or greed, opportunism or adventure, each individual has
his own motivation for leaving home.
The situation is not improved by jingoist politicians exploiting it during elections or
otherwise (Modi in India or Trump in the US) trying to boost standing with their base
Calamities other than from the barrel of a gun but perhaps not unaided by human
hand gave us an historic deluge mid-March, flooding almost the whole state of
Nebraska. Rich countries have the resources to limit deaths in these catastrophes
but not the devastation and the ruined lives of those who have to start all over again.
In Mozambique, however, President Felipe Nyusi fears the death toll will be far higher
than the present 200 estimate in the aftermath of cyclone Idai which hit the port city of
Beira. We are told it is possibly the worst storm ever to hit the southern hemisphere;
its path of destruction enveloped Zimbabwe, Malawi and of course Mozambique. In
addition to the deaths in the latter, another 150 at least have perished in the other
two countries, and thousands injured. The inundation and loss of crops are expected
to impact the lives of more than 2.6 million people.
Calamities engineered by man or by nature aided by man are the story this week.
Can we change?