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Samuel Ha-Levi ibn Nagrela, known as Ha Nagid, lived from 993-1056 AD. Raised in Cordoba he became the Prime Minister of the city/state of Grenada, the General-in-Chief of its armies, and the head Rabbi of all of Andalusia. As a General he never lost a war. He wrote and published books on Jewish law and poetry in both Arabic and Hebrew. He was fluent in Arabic, Berber, Aramaic, Latin, Greek, and Ladino, the Romanized precursor of Spanish. He conducted an active correspondence with Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora reaching as far north as England and Ireland and as far east as India and the Khazar Empire. Much of his poetry, some of his legal writings, and a bit of his correspondence has survived. The events in this novel all happened.

 

Chapter 2: Ha Nagid’s journal:

14 Tishrei, 4784 (September, 1035)

My son Joseph was born at exactly three hours, and four fifths of an hour, and two thirds of a fifth of an hour, before dawn on the third day of the week, on the eleventh day of Tishrei 4784, 426 years after the Hejira, according to the reckoning of our Muslim masters, and 1035 according to the Christians.

My wife and my son, God be blessed, are both sleeping comfortably this evening.

This day I am very happy here in Granada, the city built on, and around, a large rocky hill dominating the river valley. The top of the hill is flat and forms a natural fortress with steep cliffs on three sides. The Romans used the site to build a fortress of stone. My house is in the Jewish community of Granada, in reality a separate city, more than a neighborhood. It is called; “Gharnatat-al Yahud.”

In 4781 (1026) after his Vizier of Finance, Abu l-Abbas, died, King Habbus brought me to his palace, within the fortress, and appointed me in Abu l-Abbas’ place. Shortly after my appointment, the king also commissioned me to manage the renovation and additions to the palace and the fortress. The city, built on the slopes of that same hill, also grew because of the influx of skilled workers and laborers, followed by tradespeople to support them. I decided that all the bricks used in the new construction should make use of the local bright red clay. The palace and fortifications became known as The Red Fort. The new Alcazaba was designed to be a cultural show of force and power.

My son Joseph will be my legacy. With God’s blessing he will be a better than good student and a fast learner. As soon as he is capable I will begin his education. I will engage expert teachers in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and even Ladino. When he has progressed I will add teachers for Latin and Greek, and for mathematics and science. He will need all of this knowledge to take my place when I am gone.

I am fast becoming an old man. I am the first Jew to attain so high a position in government since Hasdi ibn Shaprut, of blessed memory, who served the Caliph of Cordoba when that king ruled of all of Andalusia. That Caliph was Abd al-Rahman III and he relied on Hasdi ibn Shaprut for many years.

Someday Joseph will read this journal. By then he will know that Abd al-Rahman III was the grandson of Abd al-Rahman the half-Berber, half-Syrian exile, who founded the Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba. Abd al-Rahman arrived about fifty years after the first Muslim armies came across the Strait of Gibraltar. Those were the forces that conquered nearly all of the old Visigoth territories of Spain, known as Al-Andalus, as far north as Narbonne. Because of the long reigns and orderly successions of Abd al-Rahman’s sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons, Cordoba, where I was born and raised, prospered economically and culturally, as does Granada today, with my help.

The number of Muslim soldiers and settlers that came to Andalusia were few, in proportion to the existing population of the peninsula. They probably represented only one percent of the overall population. They soon discovered the Jewish communities were a source of educated, capable men who made ideal civil servants. Within a few generations, due to vigorous efforts to convert the population to Islam, the Andalusian Muslim population was vastly larger. Much of this came about when the Muslim invaders intermarried with the original Christian and Pagan populations. Even a few Jews converted, not many. The Muslim community was and still is, on the whole, very tolerant of the dhimmi, the protected “Peoples of the Book”, Jews and Christians who share their Abrahamic monotheism and scripture.

The adventurous and energetic Muslim culture treasures the written word, and Cordoba’s libraries represented both the scholarly and social wellbeing of the society. During my childhood, there were many libraries in Cordoba, housing as many as 700,000 books, all laboriously written by hand. Essential to the library culture was a paper factory in Jativa, a town near the coastal city of Valencia. Paper was significantly cheaper and more plentiful than parchment. Because of this a positive attitude towards learning developed along with the duty to transmit knowledge from one generation to another. There also evolved a remarkable understanding of the differences in the way people learned. All of this was embodied in this wonderful culture of libraries and learning. It was an ideal setting for the migration of Jews from all over the diaspora.

Samuel Ha-Levi ibn Nagrela known as Ha Nagid lived from 993-1056 AD. Raised in Cordoba he became the Prime Minister of the city/state of Grenada, the General-in-Chief of its armies, and the head Rabbi of all of Andalusia. As a General he never lost a war. He wrote and published books on Jewish law and poetry in both Arabic and Hebrew. He was fluent in Arabic, Berber, Aramaic, Latin, Greek, and Ladino, the Romanized precursor of Spanish. He conducted an active correspondence with Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora reaching as far north as England and Ireland and as far east as India and the Khazar Empire. Much of his poetry, some of his legal writings, and a bit of his correspondence has survived. The events in this novel all happened.

 

CHAPTER ONE: JOSEPH’S JOURNAL: 

9 Nissan, 4806 (April, 1057)

It’s early spring. The wind still blows hard off the snows of the Sierra. I am writing everything down to provide a true record for the Jewish community of Granada. Many of you may think you remember and knew my father. I doubt it.

It was just before Passover, sixteen years ago, I was six years old. My father instructed my mother to send me to his study. I pushed aside the substantial rug covering the doorway to this room of contemplation, study and power. I clearly remember the rug, dark blue with yellow and red Arabic calligraphy and geometric designs. I can’t remember when my father replaced the rug with the solid oak door that now protects the room. It must have been years after that evening.

I rapped my knuckles lightly on the thick oak door jam. My father was bent over his desk, writing. He did not respond. I knocked again, harder. He lifted his left hand and extended his index finger. I waited, accustomed to him finishing a thought before responding to my interruptions. After more than a minute, my father looked up from the paper he was working on and laid his pen down. He reached over and slid one of three stacks of books cluttering the top of his desk to the side, took the top book off the pile and placed it over the document. He didn’t want me to read what he was writing, but I could see from where I stood it was in Arabic.

His desk dominated the room, no less so than he did. He had been away almost a year earlier and I had crept into the room, curious. I lay on the floor beside the desk to measure its length against mine. It took up two of me. My father was already old. I wondered if that desk would be mine someday.

On each corner is a ponderous leg, cut from the same cedar tree as the desk, hand carved to resemble the leg of an elephant. The table, then and now, represents study, learning, creativity and power. Mostly power.

This same room where I now sit was then a place of mystery and awe. It is still permeated by the smell of old books and ink. Only those specifically invited are ever allowed inside. Almost all is the same as it was on that day, the chair, the table, the stool, the deep red Armenian carpets on the floor, the purple and brown rugs on the walls, the expensive brocade pillows thrown carelessly on the mattress against the south wall. The shelves are still the resting place of the keepsakes of so many years of serving two kings. Books crowd the shelves on every wall. All his things remain as if he were still the master of this house.

That evening when I was six my father spoke softly; it was not always so.

“Yes, Joseph, my son, come in,” he said.

“My mother said you wish to see me, Papa.”

He pushed his heavy wood chair back from the table. The same chair in which I now sit. Extracted from the same giant cedar as the table, adorned with carvings of leaves and flowers and trees.

He bent over and patted the small stool upholstered with the remnants from an old silk rug.

“Sit Joseph.”

He had been using the stool to prop up one of his slipper-covered feet. I remember the slippers too. They were soft lambskin, dyed yellow.

As was his habit, he was wearing white silk clothing. Since the early spring evening was cool, he wore one of his white silk brocade cloaks, a gift from the king. The cloaks were valuable, but minor compared to the other gifts given him as a sign of honor and respect over the years by our Muslim kings, Habbus and later his son Badis. All of his cloaks were trimmed on the sleeves and collars with gold thread. The thread was a product of one particular Jewish goldsmith, I don’t recall his name, but he was renowned for producing the most pliable gold thread produced in all of Andalusia. Father’s head was covered with a high silk gauze kalansuwa rather than his usual turban.

Samuel ben Joseph Ha-Levi ibn Nagrela, Ha Nagid, was my father. He was forty-two years old the year I was born. His intent was to groom me to take his place. I came to dread that responsibility.

Ready for pre-order now.

A Mexican Adventure, will be published July 4, 2017.

In the spring of 1967, I was accompanied by my wife and four- and six-year old sons as we travelled to Mexico City, where I spent a year working for the United Nations at the Veterinary School of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. My job was to provide practical experience with large animals for the veterinary students. My experiences with the students, the animal patients and their owners, and with my international colleagues, comprise this story. My family’s discovery of Mexican culture and history is central to the tale. Everything takes place within the backdrop of societal upheaval that resulted in the student riots associated with the 1968 Olympic Games. A Mexican Adventure, highlights my family’s enlightening experiences in one of the world’s most storied civilizations.

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Fifty years ago, this was our favorite restaurant in all of Mexico. It’s located in Cuernavaca. So, we took another bus trip, a little over two hours from our apartment, by Uber, to the bus terminal in the south of Mexico City, then by another very comfortable bus about an hour and a half, to Cuernavaca. There was a different movie shown on the bus going and returning. Here is the exterior of the inn as it looks today:

My sons loved the place because they could get close to all the tame birds wandering free in the garden. That hasn’t changed. Here is a view of the outside patio seating for the restaurant, under the green umbrellas, as seen from the garden. That’s a white peacock in the grass.

Then there are the birds:

 

 

 

 

 

The meal was as good as I remember it, and the service first rate. I told the head waiter, who couldn’t have been more than forty years old, that we had eaten there fifty years ago. His response was; “Don’t wait another fifty years.” This sign is a new addition since our last visit. If you click on it you should be able to read the English translation:

 

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan covers an area of a little over twenty-two square miles. It was built, continuously added to, and occupied from about 100 BC to 550 AD. Somewhere about 550 AD, based on still disputed, sketchy archeological findings, the place was sacked, burnt and mostly abandoned. There is evidence that a period of famine could have resulted in a revolution. This would also account for the evidence of destruction by fire. However, some people continued to live at the site, and others may have come there to worship, until about 750 AD. It was the largest and most populated city/sate in the pre-Columbian Americas, with approximately 125,000 residents at its zenith. Influences from this civilization can be found in almost all cultures of Meso-America.

The enormous architectural complex was built to conduct both administrative and religious activities. It initially dominated the region because the inhabitants controlled the obsidian mines, but the administrative and business (trading) skills of the rulers soon made the culture preeminent.  They, no doubt, had a military, but were not, it seems, a dominant military power as were the Aztecs who came along much later, and usurped the culture and prestige of the Teotihuacanos, by claiming ancestry.

The city attained a sophisticated level of urbanization, with streets and blocks dominated by two large, perpendicular roads. The north/south Avenue of the Dead is transected by the East/West Avenue. There was an extensive drainage system, and the apartment buildings had sewage systems.

Here’s a photo of Plaza A of the Avenue of the Dead Complex at the south end of that complex. The total length of the Avenue of the Dead is almost three kilometers.

 

 

This plaza is huge, covering almost seven-thousand square meters, and is believed to have been a gathering place for religious ceremonies associated with the Templo de Quetzalcoatl (Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent). Quetzalcoatl was the originator of human activities who created the earth and the four seasons. Here is a photo of several depictions of Quetzalcoatl projecting from the pyramid.

The structure on the right shows some remnants of a top coat of red pigmented plaster. Many of the pyramidal structures and apartment buildings of the complex were decorated with murals. Here is a painted mural of a puma.

The two largest and most impressive pyramids on the site, no doubt built to impress, are the pyramids of the sun and moon.

Those are people on top who have climbed the pyramid of the sun. I did 50 years ago, not this time. The pyramid of the moon is significantly smaller, but still impressive. The pyramid of the moon is at the far north end of the Avenue of the Dead, the sun pyramid is about half way between the north and south ends.

 

These structures were built up with dirt and adobe, then covered with rocks, cemented into place. The rocks were sheathed with a thick coat of gravel, lime and sand (concrete), and then covered with a thinner, finish coat of lime, sand and red pigment.

 

 

 

 

This photo shows vestiges of the concrete covering on the back side of the pyramid of the sun. Both of these pyramids, and all the platforms seen in these photos, are thought to have been crowned with temples where religious ceremonies were conducted, including, it is believed, human sacrifice.

A Memorable Visit

After our visit to the veterinary school at UNAM, I called Dra. Aline. She didn’t exactly remember me but I suggested I should pay her a visit and she immediately demonstrated the gracious hospitality I remember her for, and invited me to come for a visit and stay for la comida (the major late afternoon meal). She said she would be out of town for a few days so we arranged for me to come to her home on Wednesday. Wednesday came, but Alexis was under the weather, so I went to visit the Doctora on my own. Her house, built by her father just after World War II, was as I remembered it, a beautiful, Spanish hacienda, quiet solitude in the middle of a very busy, and noisy city. Here’s a photo of her living room:

When I arrived, she was still resting from her trip to Puebla, and another place that I didn’t catch the name of, where she went to attend the livestock markets. She is on a mission to convince the Mexican people that if they treat their livestock in a more humane manner, the health of the animals, and indeed, the quality of the meat, will improve. She explained that it was difficult to change the attitudes of the farmers and ranchers towards livestock, but she is so well respected by the veterinary profession, and so persistent with her message and with government authorities, some progress has been made. In Puebla, she told me, ramps have been installed for unloading and loading the animals, instead of forcing them to jump into and out of the trucks. “But,” she told me, “except for people who own pets in the big cities, the general attitude is to physically force animals to do what you want them to. You also see many stray dogs and cats in the streets of the cities, as well as in the countryside.” We certainly saw more homeless dogs than homeless people as we moved about.

We had a great visit and despite my beard she recognized and remembered me, especially after we spoke of a study we did, before the Olympic Games, to evaluate the effects of the Mexico City altitude on horses brought here for the equestrian events. She was pleased when I told her the article we published with the results of that study are still referenced, now and then. We reminisced about my FAO colleagues and the effect that project had on veterinary education at UNAM. The results were not immediate, but she feels our efforts may have hastened many changes that have taken place over the past 50 years.

At age 97, she told me she was born in 1920, she is remarkably lucid and mentally agile. If I live that long I hope I can match her.  She lives alone, except for a very dedicated and solicitous housekeeper/ cook, who also has day help to keep up the house. Doctora also employs a man who takes care of any necessary home repairs, the garden, and drives her where she needs to go. Her dedication to animal welfare is what keeps her active and focused.

Tomorrow morning, we return to Seattle. The trip has been extremely worthwhile for me. I hope Alexis has enjoyed my pleasure in revisiting all the places I remember. Our Airbnb hosts, Thomas Friedman and Juan Carlos Luna Vaszquez, have made everything easy for us. They are always helpful and concerned that we do everything we want to do as easily as possible. The apartment in this historic house has served us extremely well. The house is located on Avenida Yucatan #16, in the heart of Roma Norte and we were able to explore widely on foot. Alexis feels she has to walk at least 3 hours a day for exercise, and although she had to reduce her pace for me to keep up, I managed to stay with her, mostly because she keeps stopping to inspect anything that catches her interest.

Part of the wonder of Mexico is the public art. The photo below shows blow-up stills from famous movies. The display lines the walk next to Paseo Reforma as that famous street winds its way through Chapultepec Park.

The next photo shows blow-ups of artifacts recovered from the Templo Mayor excavations in the Zocalo of the historic district. Art and culture are everywhere.

 

When I was here in Mexico in 1967-68, working with the Food and Agricultural Organization, the most helpful, friendly and professional Mexican faculty member colleague, was Dra. Aline Schunemann de Aluja. After we arrived here on this trip I made some inquiries and learned that she is not only alive, at age 98, she is a Professor Emeritus at UNAM, and still maintains a laboratory at the veterinary school. More than that she comes to the laboratory, every now and again, to do some work.

We visited the vet school and, of course, after fifty years, everything has changed. None of the buildings I remember are to be found, at least by me. The small animal clinic looks quite new, and was busy, with a lot of students, faculty, clients and patients, going in and out.



The next stop was to find the house we lived in, at Avenida San Francisco #12. Here is the house as it was in 1967:

The house was behind a stone wall, down a curving cobble stone drive. The property behind the huge oak gate, consisted of a small house next to the gate, five stone houses, and the owner/architect’s office, that was the building to the right of the white pickup. There was a lot of open land around us, and only a few houses and stores on the roads leading up the hill to our house. The commute from the University to the house usually took me 10-15 minutes. Not today. The trip was well over 30 minutes, through significant congestion, a busy freeway on a Friday afternoon, narrow streets, crowded with businesses on both sides. We found the place but the beautiful oak gate was replaced by this:

 

 

 

 

A private security guard was on duty and even with a long explanation, and showing him my identification, he could not allow me in, even though I assured him it was just to take a photo of the house from the drive. He had to check with his boss. He made a phone call but then told me his boss was not available until after 5 pm. The best I could do was to stick my phone through the gate, with his permission, and snap this photo:

 

 

Close, but no cigar, our old house cannot be seen. I understand that the guard could have lost his job if he opened the gate for us. We regained our good spirits by lunching at the San Angel Inn. It’s in an old monastery, the building over 350 years old. The restaurant was a very elegant and special place to eat fifty years ago, and it still is. You can Google it and find photos and even a menu. Our special meal cost less than $100, with wine, desert, and the tip.