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
September 4, 2020
Mr. President: Throughout history civilizations have been overtaken by successors.
These in turn decline and fall as time marches on. Often all that remain are
monuments, an occasional palace or temple often a tomb, usually in ruins unless of
relatively current vintage.
The ancient Egyptians built massive pyramids to bury their pharaohs, projects lasting
a lifetime and ensuring a reliable source of income for the workers and others
The Greeks favored exquisitely proportioned temples and statuary rendered with a
skill that was not matched again until the Renaissance. One would be remiss not to
mention their vast output of the mind from philosophy and logic to the poetry and
drama played out in the amphitheaters.
If Roman entertainment relied on blood and gore, it was part of a culture of brutal
wars, subjugation and suppression of foreign peoples welded into an empire. Then
there was Roman law, even if it applied only to citizens.
Of more recent vintage are the great cathedrals of Europe like Chartres, tall, massive,
constructed in a span of time unimaginable in our era of haste. Preceding them were
the great mosques of the Muslim era decorated in geometric shapes and colors to
dazzle the eye. Damascus and Isfahan come to mind.
Then there are the Nasrid kings of Grenada in southern Spain, al Andalus to these
descendants of North African Berbers and Arabs who ruled there for several
centuries. A time when the three Abrahamic religions coexisted in relative harmony it
saw the flowering of a civilization noted for its mixture of opposites.
The city of Cordoba with its great mosque was an early fruit of this admixture
becoming the largest city in Europe during the 10th century, although civil wars had
diminished it considerably by the 13th century. Yet the 13th century began the
growth of a city on a hill now called Alhambra probably due to the reddish color
(alhamra in Arabic) of the rock face. Housing some 40,000 citizens then, not many of
the buildings survive. Notable are the defensive citadel Alcazaba, three palaces --
the Mexuar, the Comares and the Court of the Lions -- and an encircling wall with
battlements and towers. The great mosque was replaced by a Franciscan monastery
in the 15th century and is now a parador -- a government-run hotel that was formerly
a castle or palace or the like.
The Courtyard of the Lions is justly famous as the symbol of Alhambra. The twelve
lions at the center appear to be holding up a water basin right in the center of a
network of channels ... on the periphery, colonnades supporting delicately carved
arches form an abbey-like cloister. But the walls in the adjoining rooms hold their own
surprise in intricately carved geometries of colored tiles and plasterwork. Glancing
up, the ceilings are designed to take your breath away. Even more intricately
constructed, they comprise thousands of meticulously carved sections of wood rising
layer upon layer to feast the eye as small apertures allow in shafts of sunlight or
moonlight. Water courses run through many rooms spilling across portals into pools
among enclosed gardens melding interior with exteriors and joining it with nature.
The architect LeCorbusier called it 'the intelligent, just and magnificent interplay of
volumes made harmonious by daylight.' Henri Matisse exclaimed, 'The Alhambra is a
marvel' and Washington Irving captured imaginations throughout the western world
with his 1832 book, The Alhambra. At the time going to rack and ruin, his romantic
vision helped to trigger an effort to preserve the precious gem.
Now a magnet for tourists, it remains a precious reminder of what an intermingling of
cultures can produce -- just as the Taj Mahal does in India where Mughal emperors
often married Hindu Rajput princesses and Shah Jahan (whose mother Manmati was
one) built his own marvel.