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The Iranian Athlete and the Legacy of Louis Khan
Last uploaded : Monday 16th Aug 2004 at 00:34
Contributed by : Cay Philips



I have just been to see the acclaimed feature documentary ?My Architect? (see below in our 'Reviews' section a critique of the film) about the legendary American architect Louis Khan. The film was directed and written by his son Nathaniel, who was born out of wedlock and who has only just begun to explore the depth of his late father?s work some thirty years after his death . Louis Khan was found dead in New York?s Penn Station in 1974 of an apparent heart attack after returning from a trip to India. He remained in a morgue for three days, his address having been scratched out of his Passport.

Aside from the fact that the film is a revelation in its very simplicity and occasional amateurishness, it brings to light the little-known fact that some of Khan?s most distinguished architectural achievements exist in locations one usually thinks of as off limits to Jews and Americans. The most eminent of these achievements is his capital building in Dhaka, Bangla Desh. (See image above.) A structure that literally rises from the water, it has a spirituality that seems to jump from every inch of its hand-crafted walls. Indeed, we hear the astonishing story that the project took twenty-three years to complete -- as long as the Taj Mahal -- with local labour building bamboo scaffolding and laboriously hauling bits of masonry and other building components by hand. As Nathaniel examined his father?s final achievement, young Bangla locals gather around him. The older men revere his father, and an eminent local architect is moved to tears that the young Khan has only ten minutes of footage to spare to explore the building.

What an irony that this building, in one section of which groups of men were filmed gathering for the daily call to prayer to Allah by the capital building?s in-house mullah, was designed by a Jew. It is even more poignant that Khan never had an opportunity to realise the dream of designing a synagogue. Khan died bankrupt, so one cannot say he would have taken a buck from a Muslim country simply to enrich his bank account. He was greatly loved in India and Bangla Desh by those interviewed in the film, and one could see from this remarkable documentary that he had not one political bone in his body.

This leads me to the subject of the Iranian Olympian judo champion Arash Miresmaelli, who has been disqualified from the Athens 2004 Olympics after being found over the weight limit. However, it is believed he overate in order to be disqualified rather than compete in the same place as ?Zionists.? He has already stated he would refuse to compete against an Israeli opponent in sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians. Iran refuses to acknowledge the Jewish State and is generally thought to want its demise as soon as possible. Israeli athletes have stated they have no objection to competing against men and women of any nationality or religion.

Iran?s athletic officials and Ayatollahs, as well as President Khatami, have been reported to be elated that Miresmaelli has taken this stand, and are promising him a bonus and a place in Iranian history. He is already being touted as a national hero.

How does this fit into the story of Louis Khan? In the documentary we hear the age-old story of the brutally persecuted world of penniless Jews of Eastern Europe from whence he sprang, and of his rapid progress into the world of the arts and creativity. Despite hardship and a childhood accident that left him disfigured, he became an accomplished pianist and sketch artist. (Why is it that young, impoverished and often hungry Jews always ?become? something rather than going out and blowing people up on buses? When I asked this question at a London dinner party I was accused of being a racist by the Guardian-reading hostess.)

Louis Khan wanted the Islamic nation of Bangla Desh to have a magnificent capital building and worked tirelessly to make it a reality, garnering praise and love from countless Bangla Deshis to this day. He had no ?side? and wanted only the best to come from his vision, be it the Salk Institute or a student residence in Philadelphia. He suffered career setbacks because he was Jewish in WASP-dominated city planning offices, but persevered in his artistic quest that resulted in some of the world?s most memorable structures. What an irony, too, that Judenrein (Jew free) Bangla Desh's most talked-about building was created as a labour of love by a Jew.

The poisonous hatred against Jews and Americans being promulgated around the globe far outweighs the heavy-handed behaviour of the Sharon government. This hatred has been simmering long before Bush or Sharon came onto the world stage and it is time the generosity of spirit of a Louis Khan could be demonstrated in nations like Iran and Syria.

Khan did not look at a person?s religion or nationality before embarking on a creative journey with them. It is hard to believe that in my short lifetime Golda Meir, the late Israeli Prime Minister, visited Iran but that a visit by a Jewish dignitary would be unthinkable and dangerous. When Daniel Pearl went to Pakistan to enlighten his readers about Islamic rage, he was beheaded.

Today I tried to explain to my Bangla Deshi newspaper vendor the miracle of Louis Khan?s capital building in Dhaka. The young man had no idea what I was talking about and could only mutter about ?Americans sticking their fingers everywhere.?

Louis Khan represented everything that is noble about the pursuit of personal achievement and grace, and he also embodied Jewish altruism. Like ORT, the Jewish charity that aids Third World nations, Khan wanted to bring his vision to the whole world, be it a Muslim, Hindu, Christian or Jewish subject and his generosity of spirit should serve as an example to young people worldwide. What a pity this film will not be seen in Muslim countries, where its message -- that of creative vision, personal accomplishment and compassion overcoming conflict -- is needed most.
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