Sunday, March 6, 2011

Seventh Blog

Seventh Blog. February 27, 2011
[I am posting this message on March 6 just as I wrote it on February 27, 2011, even though a week has passed since the writing of it. I simply did not get it posted in a timely way.]

I start this blog message from a Starbucks coffee shop in the Istanbul airport. It’s now 9:00 a.m. local time, 10:00 a.m. Sulaimani time, and 2:00 a.m. Anderson time. If all goes well, I will be home in 17 hours. I flew here on an AtlasJet plane that left Suli at 4:15. To be sure that there would be time to solve any problems that might crop up at the Suli airport, I left my apartment at 1:45 a.m. This will be a very long day, but at the end I will be home that’s all that matters.

I leave Sulaimani and my teaching assignment at The American University of Iraq – Sulaimani with mixed feelings, once again. On one hand I am more convinced than ever that I do not want to teach another semester-long course again. I am running out of the patience needed to deal with the hassles of teaching: preparing a syllabus, staying on top of the sequence of class sessions, grading papers, dealing with 20 year old adolescent/young adults who are trying to find their way in a complicated world. Did I say grading papers? Yes? Good. That’s right. No more grading papers. I’d rather quit now, when I am somewhat ahead, than slip into irrelevance or incompetence. On the other hand I enjoyed my relationships developed last year with students and colleagues. Several of the students and I picked up conversations left hanging when I left in June of last year. I also came to know a new group of colleagues, some of whom give me great hope for the future of the students of AUI-S. The best among them are competent in their fields, are involved in the lives of students both in and out of the classroom, and give students justifiable reason to be proud of the school that they are taking a chance on.

Three days ago, I had one last chance to go to the bazaar where I never cease to marvel at the vibrancy of this area as both an arena of commerce and as a place for human relationships. To be sure the shop owners need people to buy. But beyond their being in the bazaar to acquire goods, local folks gather in small clusters talking animatedly about the issues of the day. If only I could understand Kurdish! One can only hope that with growing prosperity, there is not a Walmart-ization of Sulaimani.

One man, in particular, who intrigues me stands on a busy sidewalk next to a three wheeled cart on which he has mounted a propane gas burner that provides heat to a large kettle of fava beans. Every time he sees me, he practically pushes into my hands a small paper container of beans, which are really quite good, especially with a bit of salt on them. He absolutely refuses to accept payment (a paltry price of 250 Iraqi dinars or 22 cents for a two or three ounce serving), and will say something like, “I love America. America and Kurdistan are like this,” and he holds up two fingers next to each other. When we first arrived in Sulaimani in September of 2009, I was impressed by the gratefulness of Kurds for the American role in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. That gratefulness has not diminished.

Any one reading the news of the past ten days will know that these have been difficult times in Sulaimani. On Thursday, February 17 a demonstration in which protesters argued for greater prosperity and jobs turned violent when the demonstrators approached the local headquarters building of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). When demonstrators began throwing rocks at the building and attempting to scale the gate in front of the building, KDP soldiers opened fire. A fourteen year old boy was killed and more than 50 people were wounded. The images from the video footage of this incident are disturbing as we observe the death of the young man. The anger of the crowd was fueled by this attack and they returned the next day, and two days later. One more death and many more injuries occurred. A student from AUI-S managed to get himself arrested for speaking at one of the rallies. Fortunately, by the time this occurred, the university was deep into the week of final exams, so there were few students present to welcome him as a hero – something that I feared would happen. Over my last weekend in Sulaimani, February 25 and 26, things seemed to settle down. There was one more rally on the 25th, but student who were present said that there were a number of mediators interspersed in the crowd and whenever a small group wanted to get violent, mediators would act to cool them down.

An important fact to point out to my readers is that these demonstrations were concentrated into a very small part of the town, and throughout all of them the officials of the university in charge of security were advising faculty and staff about ways to be safe. There was never a moment that there was a threat either to the university or to the area where the ex-patriot faculty and staff live. It’s hard to explain to a group who see only the violence on TV how very concentrated it was. One student commented that within 100 yards of the demonstrations, life was going on as normal. And his comment is so true. From what anyone could see from our part of the town, the protests could have been taking place in Baghdad or Cairo. So, through all these events, I was safe, in part because of where I live and in part by some sense of caution on my part to stay away from the area of action. I do grieve with those who lost sons in this process, and I fear for those wounded by gunfire. What scars, physical and psychological, will they bear? What new hatreds will be generated?

As my colleague Jim Owens and I walked to the bazaar from Pac City (about 3 miles) on Thursday we discovered that an event we had been told about actually happened. That is, a group of students bought artificial long stem roses and passed them out to all of the soldiers standing guard along the main road into the bazaar. Many of the soldiers stuck the flowers into the barrels of their guns. Others attached them to their jackets. The next photos, taken with Jim’s camera, give a sense of what it looked like. For me, having lived through the anti-war protests of the late 1960s and early 1970’s, it was, in Yogi Berra’s words, “Déjà vu all over again.”

March 5, 2011 comment: Obviously I made it home, but not without a bit of last-minute drama. Bad weather in Indianapolis forced plane I was riding on to land in Columbus, OH. So I spent a few short hours in an airport hotel before being flown back to Indy on Monday.

I have a couple more blog messages in mind before I stop writing to this site. Stay tuned.

As always, thanks for reading.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sixth Blog

Sixth Blog. January 28, 2011

Much has happened since I last wrote, but most of what has happened is not particularly blog-worthy. My trip back to the US for the Christmas holiday was uneventful. Plane connections were on time and by the luck of the calendar draw, I missed the major storms in Europe and on the East coast that disrupted travel for thousands of people a few days after I was home. It was good to be home in my own bed and with family. The only problem is that the time was short enough that I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Ten more days and I will have to go back. Eight more days before I have to return. What do I need to get done in that time?” My sense that the time was short made it feel even shorter.

On returning to Suli on January 4, I came back to a quiet apartment for several days before the fall term resumed on January 9. Many of the other expat faculty and staff were not here when I first returned, so the place was quieter than normal. I worked on grading papers and getting ready for the rest of the semester.

On Thursday, January 6th, I traveled by taxi to the nearby town of Dukan which sits below an enormous dam and lake of the same name. (Go back to my blog of October 15, 2010 to see pictures of Dukan Lake, which is one of the main sources of water for Sulaimani.) With me in the taxi were two AUIS students, Kurdistan and Shelan, and our destination was the home of Kurdistan whose parents invited me for lunch. Both Carolyn and I had the opportunity to work with Kurdistan last year as she was in Carolyn’s accounting course in the fall and my history of the Middle East in the spring. She is a bright, friendly person who is respected by all who know her: faculty, staff, students. She was accepted at Anderson University in the spring of 2010 and intended to study business there in the fall of 2010. Even with all of the letters of support we could muster on her behalf, the US Embassy in Baghdad twice denied her a visa to come to the US. Since this unmerited (in my judgment) rejection, she has arisen to the occasion and has continued in her own very positive way of living.

Kurdistan’s father joined the peshmerga, the Kurdish army that resisted Saddam, when he was in his teens and he is now retired. He is justly proud of the awards and recognitions that have come to him for his services to the Kurdish cause. Kurdistan’s mother and father fled to Iran in the late 1980s to escape Saddam’s wrath, and Kurdy was in fact born in a refugee camp in Iran. They returned to Iraq in 1991 only after the no-fly zone was established at the conclusion of the first Gulf war. One can tell from the name her family gave to her something about their belief in Kurdish causes. She is the oldest of their children, and the affection they feel for each other is quite evident. See picture of Kurdy with her mother and father.

The family treated me royally. Her father and I agreed that we both wished that we could have communicated directly, and not through translations. We could have had a fascinating conversation, I’m sure. The lunch was superb, family-prepared Kurdish food. (It’s unfortunate that restaurants in the area do not prepare similar food.) See pictures of Kurdistan and her brother setting the table and of the family with me in the next pictures:

With this kind of warm hospitality, it was hard to leave. On the way back to Suli, her father took secondary roads that run on the back sides of the mountains we have become accustomed to seeing from the main Suli to Dukan road. The scenery was, as usual, spectacular and my interest in it was heightened by his numerous comments along the way about having lived and fought in those very mountains during the time of active fighting between the Kurds and the forces of Saddam. See photo of a mountain scene on the way back to Suli. (Note that the photo has a fair amount of detail that can be revealed by clicking once on the photo, then after it has enlarged, clicking a second time.)

The other noteworthy event of January occurred on January 15th, when one of my colleagues, Jonathan; his wife, Carol; and one of his students from last year, Hemn, invited me to join them on a trip to Chamchamal, a city that lies southwest of here, between Sulaimani and Kirkuk. The purpose of the trip: to go to a famous archeological site called Jarmo. Using artifacts dug from this site in the 1950s, archeologists have determined that Jarmo is, like Jericho (in Israel/Occupied Territories) and Catal Huyuk (in Turkey), one of the places where there is the earliest evidence of humans raising their own food. One could say that the agricultural revolution began in these places in the period of around 7000 BCE. Having taught about the agricultural revolution in western civ courses for years, I wanted to see what this place looks like.

We took a taxi to Chamchamal where we were met by Hemn’s brother who picked us up in his Nissan Patrol SUV. We went first to Hemn’s home to meet his family and to have tea with his mother and father. Hemn is one of 13 children born to the same mother and father. You have to admire such a woman. His mother and father were delightful to meet and talk with, though, again, the language barrier made longer, more meaningful conversations difficult. It’s tough for a student to be an interpreter in these kinds of situations. We were received most hospitably as we sat on the floor of the room. My inability to sit with my legs crossed in front of me became painfully apparent once again. See tea preparation in next slide.

From Hemn’s home, his brother drove us some distance into the countryside east of Chamchamal. Paved roads gave way to dirt roads that, in turn gave way to no roads. We were literally driving across open fields and along the edges of plowed fields. I wish I had motion pictures of our trip, as I am sure the folks at Nissan would love to incorporate such pictures into their next advertisements for how sturdy their vehicles are. The roads were steep and rough as we crept along in first gear. The open fields were no smoother. Every advantage of an SUV over other vehicles came into play here: four wheel drive, low range transmission, high ground clearance, short overhangs in front and rear. About the time that I think I might be inclined to organize a group tour for Americans to see this part of the world, I have an experience like this and know that if it is this difficult to get three tourists into a place like this, how much more difficult it would be to bring a group of 12.

Jarmo is situated on a high plateau next to a steep drop-off into a river valley below. The setting is quite impressive in terms of the scenery all around it, but the site itself is about as inauspicious as any archeological site can be. This place was excavated by a team from the University of Chicago in the 1950s, but the work was stopped in the late ‘50s because of political instability. Today, all one can see are a series holes about 4 feet square and about three feet deep dug in rows. We assume that the pits were essentially test pits to see what lies below the surface of the soil. This is one archeological site that requires a significant act of the imagination to reconstruct what it might have looked like in its prime because so little remains. But I can say that I have been there, and that’s all that matters to me.

See photos below: an old black and white aerial photo from the ‘50s – taken from the Internet -- that gives you a sense of the site at the time of the work, and two additional photos that show what it looks like today, weeds and all. The lines of dark spots in the B&W photo are the pits that show up in the following slide.

We made our way back to Hemn’s house where during the time we were away his multi-talented mother had both prepared a delicious lunch and assisted the family cow in delivering a calf. No joke about the calf. See next photo.

A photo of myself, Jonathan, Hemn's father, and Hemn:

Myself with Hemn's mother and father:

As I am leaving the homes of students on occasions like this, I say, with all good intent, “I will never forget this act of hospitality. Thank you.” I truly mean this, and at least to this point, I can remember each occasion when I have been the guest in someone’s home. I wish only that I could repay their hospitality in my home. Given all of the forces at play, political and economic, that will likely not happen.

Since classes have resumed on January 9, my classes have gone reasonably well, though I am sensing as we move to the end of the term some slacking off by some students. It’s hard to maintain full attention for as long as our terms run, especially when there is a 3 ½ week break in December/January. By this time in one month the term will be over and I will be home.

As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments feel free to write to me at this address:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fifth Blog Message, Also Before Christmas

A visit to a Sufi service:

In my last blog message, I mentioned that I had met a young Iranian fellow who is living now in Sulaimani to set up a new business. I also said that he was a participant in a Sufi-like group in Iran. What I did not have space or time to write about last time is that he has sought out and participates in one of the oldest Sufi brotherhoods, the Qadiriya Tariqa, that happens to have an active group in Sulaimani. In my Manchester College days so many years ago one of my colleagues photographed and tape recorded a Sufi service in Cairo, Egypt, and then prepared a module of slides and cassette tape narrative illustrating that service. Ever since watching and listening to his materials, which I used regularly when teaching about religion in the Middle East, I have been fascinated with the Sufis. Their conscious decision to gather regularly, and then to be led through a well-ordered liturgy of chants and body motions so as to work themselves into religious ecstasy seemed then and still seems to run so counter to the prevailing secular, rational culture. The most famous of Turkish Sufis who do this today are the so-called whirling dervishes whose graceful circular motions are an esthetic wonder. There are many other groups from India to North Africa. But the point is, I have been interested in Sufis.

When I asked my young friend if he thought that the local Sufis would permit him to bring a visitor, he indicated that it would be O.K. So on Thursday, December 9, he and I went to the compound of Sheikh Muhammad al-Kasnazani, of the Kasnazani branch of the Qadiriya Tariqa. Sheikh Muhammad claims to be the 33rd in a line of religious leaders who trace their origin to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th c. CE, and he is highly revered by the adherents to this branch of Sufism. He was not there on the night we attended, but when he is in town he lives in a large house in the middle of the compound where he receives visitors. The number of persons in the compound expands dramatically when he is there.

On the night of our visit, we were stopped at the gate, and before we could enter, the guards had call to someone in the compound to ask for special permission for me to be admitted. They asked me to give up my camera, and they took ID pictures of both of us before we were allowed in. As we walked up a narrow lane within the compound, we were invited into a small room with a group of men, two of whom spoke decent English. They were curious about me. Why did I want to come there? Did I just want to see them do strange things? (Context for this question: this group is known for doing painful things to their bodies, e.g., cutting themselves without apparent bleeding or later damage, so as to prove their connection with the divine.) My answer: I simply wanted to observe a Sufi service so I could better understand this part of Islam. I had no interest in seeing anyone hurt himself. Seeing them would help me to interpret more accurately the nature of the religion. While the questions were not adversarial, I had a sense that in the past they have had to deal with people who came more exploit than to understand.

After a few minutes of conversation, they said that the dhikr, the organized service, was about to start. As we approached the room where the service was being held, I could hear a steady drumbeat, and once in the room could see a group of four drummers holding different size drums and standing at one end of a group of about 50 to 60 men ranged in a rectangular formation consistent with the shape of the room. The walls of the room were covered in shiny white tiles, while on the floor was a rather thin, well worn inexpensive rug. On one wall were hanging a number of framed pictures and holy writings, one of which was the list written in elaborate calligraphy of the 33 sheikhs of this tariqa. In one corner of the room and outside the circle of men, sat 5 or 6 women who did not participate, that I could see. I asked that my friend and I stand off to the side and outside the group, as I did not want my presence to be disruptive to their service. A few of the participants took a glance at me, but for the most part it appeared that they were too deeply involved in the actions of the dhikr to care about me. In the group were men of all ages and all economic status, if clothes can be said to help infer status. There were even some young boys ranging in age from under 5 years of age to perhaps early teens.

As we entered the room, the men were standing in place and swaying their bodies first to the left, then to the right, all in unison and in pace with the drum beats. After several minutes of this cadence, the beat changed and the men held their bodies more still, but moved their heads in a kind of left-right, semi-circular motion. I wanted desperately to look at these men, but feared this would be intrusive, so I mostly just looked at the floor and glanced periodically at the group. A leader walked about in the open space of the circle and indicated to the drummers the moment to change the beat that appeared to signal the change of motions. The next step in the service saw the men drop to their knees and lean forward, so that their foreheads almost touched the floor. This is one of the postures taken in a normal Islamic prayer ritual. After doing this for several minutes the men raised themselves up so that they could sit on the floor on bended knees. At some point the signal was given that the formal service was over and a number of men left. This part of the service lasted for perhaps 20 minutes.

For the last part of the service, the remaining persons stayed on their knees and participated with one of the group leaders in group singing. The leader would sing what sounded like the verse of a song and the group came in on what sounded like a chorus. It was all really very lovely. While singing, several of the men closed their eyes, tilted their heads toward the ceiling, and held their arms outstretched with hands open and upturned. No one had any prayer books or hymn books; all of the words came from memory. After perhaps 10 minutes of singing, the music stopped, the service ended, and the men went out into the dark night. It was hard to know where they were going: outside the compound, or inside the compound.

After the service, my friend and I stayed on for a while to talk with the same men who greeted us on our way in. They were curious to know what I thought, and I told them that it was all very meaningful to me to observe. I expressed my gratitude for their allowing me to visit. They, in turn, indicated that I would be welcome anytime I wanted to come back. It was all very friendly, something I am not surprised about. Hospitality to strangers who come in peace is one of the gifts of vast majority of people in this region.

As I reflect on this experience, I am reminded that Sufism brought to Islam an aspect that appeals to the emotional side of the human experience. My recollections of this experience lead me to believe that the participants sincerely wanted this experience, perhaps even yearned for it. It would be difficult for me to know. How can one ever know the motivation in the soul of the participant of any religious ceremony? How does a child of the Enlightenment ever fully understand or participate in such an emotional exercise?

(I am sorry for the lack of photos for this entry. That I was not allowed to bring a camera to the service has forced me to use words instead of digital images to describe what I experienced.)

As I conclude these words, I am sitting in a comfortable chair in my own den in my own house in Indiana. I am home for the Christmas break. The flights home were long, but uneventful. I am grateful for safe travels and look forward to being with my family for the holidays.

I wish for all a peaceful world in this holiday season. Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fourth Blog Message, just before Christmas

It's Friday morning, a day of the week that continues to feel like a Saturday at home. The work week is over, and we have a two day weekend break before classes resume on Sunday. I have already done a load of washing and have it hanging on the line in the spare bedroom. I have swept and mopped the apartment, a task that sometimes feels futile. It seems that there is always fine dust in the air, and this dust settles on everything. Within a few days from now, the floors of my apartment will have a slightly gritty sound and feel as I walk about. The first photo is of the dust that accumulated in a 5 foot by 5 foot area of the floor of the study in less than one week.

I continue my teaching of English composition. On most days I have a sense that the work is worth it. On some days, when the students have been more reluctant than usual to do the hard work of writing, editing, and then taking a marked and graded paper back to the textbook to read about how they can fix problems for the next paper, I wonder if it is worth it. Students have as much as said to me, “writing in English is too hard; I hate to do it.” I commiserate with them, tell them I have no idea what it is like to write in a second language as I have never done this, and then try to encourage them to think of the advantage they will bring to the job market if they can excel at this most important skill. I remind that at Asiacell, the big cell phone provider in this part of Iraq, the required language of communication is English. And this is a company owned a local man, not by an outside, Western conglomerate with imperialistic intolerance of local language. (For more on the spread of English as a global language see a new book by Leslie Dunton-Downer entitled _The English is Coming!: How One Language is Sweeping the World_. Ever wondered where the words “shampoo” or “hello” came from and how they have become understandable around the globe? She will tell you.) So I plow on in the field of teaching English composition with ever greater appreciation for those who have managed this difficult task year by year without losing hope.

As challenging as the in-class teaching is, my sidewalk and office conversations with students from this year and from last continue to be rewarding. We end up talking about life, religion, roles of men and women, philosophy and a great deal more. One student wants me to buy on his behalf (he will pay, he insists) and bring back in January a copy of Karen Armstrong’s Battle for God. He and I have talked faith and agnosticism and existentialism. He’s very bright; his questions remind me of my questions at his age. Another has been by to talk about whether the Solomon of the Old Testament was imbued with the ability to do magic, as he is in the Quran. The answer to his question, of course, is that the Solomon of the Old Testament was a king and a wise man but did not have magical powers. Still, we compared passages in the Quran and the Old Testament, and it was a helpful learning experience for both of us. Yet another needed help in arguing the contra side in a debate on the topic “women can be as great at art and music as men.” Poor student, she had to argue the opposite even though she didn’t believe in what she had to argue. We found some helpful sources, and later she told me she won the debate even though she did not believe in the position she had to argue. I counseled another young man about some rash words he had used in his Facebook page, words, I thought, that could come back to haunt him some day. Another student wanted to know the passages in the Old Testament that were used by the Catholic church of the 17th century to “prove” that Galileo was wrong. We found them in Exodus and Ecclesiastes.

Most recently I have talked with a young Iranian man who is in Sulaimani attempting to start up a joint venture effort with a German company that makes building materials. He participates in a Sufi-like group, and has had mystical experiences. (FYI, the Sufis are Islamic mystical groups that have grown up around powerful spiritual leaders whose authority has come to contemporary spiritual leaders in a chain of authority dating back to the Prophet Muhammad. One of the more famous Sufis is a fellow named al-Rumi, one of the few Sufis to be known in the West. ) My young Iranian friend is curious about mysticism in Christianity and Judaism, and I have offered to find a book or two for him. One of his statements has stayed with me: “The more I study, the more I understand and love Jesus as well as the Prophet Muhammad. I mean, I truly love Jesus.” How do I respond to this statement? There are Christians who would struggle to make such a statement.

In describing my conversations with all of these students, I make no claim to being the Great Intellectual Savior from the West, but, as I state above, these impromptu sessions mean a great deal to me because they represent genuine curiosity on the part of students, and they push to me think about what I know and what I believe.

Two significant events have occurred since my last message. Both deserve comment.

The first was a luncheon held for faculty and staff at a large resort hotel in Dukan, a city located about an hour northeast of Sulaimani. The sponsor for the lunch was Dr. Barham Salih, one of the local Kurdish leaders who is most responsible for the founding of AUIS. Dr. Barham is also, now, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the body responsible for the administration of the autonomous region of Kurdistan. He greeted us warmly, then left for an hour long interview with the bureau chief of the New York Times, and then rejoined us for lunch. The staff and faculty had ample opportunity to talk with each other in a lovely setting, the pool of the resort hotel called Ashur Hotel that overlooks Lake Dukan. A delicious lunch was served around 2:00 p.m., when we were all famished. The meal was one of the best I have had here. Lots of local food was served, food that normally is not available in restaurants. See next three photos, of the luncheon setting from the hotel window, the pool, and the picture of Dr. Barham, one of the staff of AUIS and myself next to this pool.

The second event worth noting was what we in the Western Christian tradition would call a dedication service. This service was for the opening of a new mosque located near the Pak City apartment complex where the ex-pat faculty and staff of AUI-S live. One of our students, who comes from a well-to-do local family that provided the money for the construction of the mosque, invited two other faculty members and me to attend. Through much of last year, as Carolyn and I watched the agonizingly slow progress on this building project, we were trying to figure out why it was taking so long to build this mosque. After attending the opening ceremony last week I came to understand why. It is a beautiful building with interesting and time consuming architectural features that emphasize the role of the Quran in the Islamic faith. For example, above the main prayer area is a large dome, the base of which contains passages from the Quran. The letters of these verses have been carved from the plaster and are painted a rich gold against a green background. Above the niche, called mihrab, from which messages are delivered, and also above the qibla, the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, a large replica of an open Quran was applied to the ceiling. The building the mosque took a long time to finish because of the intricate detail inside and outside of the building. The result is quite striking.

The AUIS student I referred to above stayed with the two other AUIS faculty and me during the dedication service, and during this time he interpreted the meaning of the speeches of several of the speakers, including the man responsible for Islam in Iraq and the man responsible for Islam in the Kurdistan Region. The first photo below is a picture of the latter individual and me. What I remember of our student’s translation of the words spoken at the service is the need for good Muslims to give back to their communities, and the need for Muslims to live lives of peace. Not a bad message for any faith tradition. The next three photos show the outside and parts of the interior of the mosque, while the last photo shows the family who have been involved in the building of the mosque.

(The photo above is worth double clicking on, as much more detail can be seen.)

By this time next week, I will be on my way home for the Winter Break of AUIS. I am looking forward to being with family and friends after a two month absence. I will return in the first week of January 2011 to complete the six remaining weeks of the fall term which ends in the latter part of February.

I offer my wishes for a meaningful holiday season and I thank each of you who takes the time to read my thoughts.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Third Blog report

Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, November 25, 2010

I continue to be an inconsistent writer to this blog, and for that I apologize. But most days it seems there’s little to comment on, and I continue to believe that the mundane parts of daily life are hardly blog-worthy. (I could never get into Twitter where people write multiple times per day about even the most trivial aspects of their lives, as long as it fits into 150 words. God forbid that a person have a thought that might take longer than 150 characters to write. Multiple tweets, I suppose, composing serial thoughts.)

Last week, the week of November 14, was the time of the Islamic holy festival called Eid al-Fitr. It commemorates the moment when as the story goes in Genesis Abraham was, at the request of Yahweh, called upon to sacrifice his firstborn son, who in the Islamic tradition was Ismail. The event is more important in Islam than it is in Christianity, so it is celebrated solemnly, and joyfully. Because it is a three day holiday, we had time last week to travel. A group of us went back Dohuk in northern Iraq, the same city that Carolyn and I joined a group to go to last year at about this time

The drive there and back is grueling. Because it is not safe to travel north via the good highways leading to Mosul, and thence north to Erbil and Dohuk, we had to, instead, stay with the more northerly roads that go through the mountains of Kurdish Iraq. All of this land is solidly in the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the KRG. It took six hours to get there, but I suspect that in those six hours we traveled only a little over 200 miles. At times we were going terrifyingly fast – 80 miles an hour on a rough two lane road – and then at times creeping over speed bumps in small villages or being stopped at check points. It seemed that the KRG Peshmerga were more suspicious this time than last and rather than waving us through perfunctorily, they were asking to see our work permits. Perhaps the recent bombings in Mosul were the cause? We don’t know. We just know this that this part of Iraq continues to be a safe place in which to travel so we don’t resent the check points. Following, see a picture of our driver, a most competent fellow named Hiwa who owns a large, well-used Chevrolet Suburban. (If you click on the photo it will be enlarged.)

I will not try to repeat all that we wrote about the previous trip in our December 3, 2009 blog. Go to, and scroll back to December 3 if you wish to read about the trip from last year. Many of this year’s photos look like those. The monastery of St. Hormuzd, built high into the side of a mountain, continues to impress. The ruined synagogue holding what they consider to be the remains of the Prophet Nahum is still there but looking more like it could collapse any day. The Yezidi temple at Lalish continues to fascinate.

Two new aspects of the region as we saw on this trip:

The first: My colleague Jonathan Loopstra, the fellow who organized this trip, is an expert in the history of religion in this region in the late antique period. He is quite a respected scholar of Christianity in the early years of the church. This past summer he met an Assyrian Christian from the region at a conference in India, and received an invitation to this man’s home near Dohuk. All of us with Jonathan and his wife were also invited. So we had the wonderful opportunity to meet a man whose name I will not use. His family has lived in this village for generations. He is the author of several books and has excellent command of English. After serving us coffee and tea, he took us to the Assyrian church in the village. The foundation of the church dates to 550 A.D., but the upper part of the church is modern, a replacement of the old that was forced after the old was destroyed during the Saddam Hussein era. These folks were proud of the fact that the 4.5 feet thick walls withstood three different efforts by Saddam’s henchman Ali Hassan al-Majid, aka“Chemical Ali,” to destroy them.

When talking with our host's delightful children, a daughter who is a freshman in university and a son who is a sophomore in high school, I learned that they do not identify themselves as Arab or Kurd, but rather as Assyrian. Though surrounded by Kurds, they do not speak or read Kurdish. Only English and Assyrian. Our host says that as a people the Assyrians date themselves from the Assyrians whose empire was centered at Nineveh before the rise of Christianity. The Assyrian Church is sometimes called the Nestorian Church, but more appropriately is part of the Church of the East, as distinct from the other large Christian community in Iraq, the Chaldean Church which is under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church.

Being with them was a gift of insight into the lives of people whose ancestors were Christian long before my Anglo-Saxon/Germanic ancestors had ever heard of Christianty. See picture below of our host and his family and a close up of his children:

The second new part of this trip: From our host's house we drove to a mountaintop city called Amadiya. See next picture. There's a great deal of detail that can be seen by clicking once on the photo, then clicking a second time to expand it.

This city was once a walled city that sat on the famed silk route on which goods were transported between China and the Middle East. The city is located on a virtually impregnable plateau, and it’s little wonder that people who wished to rule the region had to rule Almedi. Today the city has a fairly run down feel to it. The only visible evidence of its former fortified character is a gate that is accessible by a set of stone steps leading from the valley to the gate.

As I stood on the steps, and accepted at face value for a moment the story of this as a silk road city, I was wondering what it must have been like to witness a camel caravan coming from Inner Asia climbing those steps for a couple nights’ rest before heading on to Baghdad or Constantinople or Cairo. The closest I came to this moment was when a fellow led his pomegranate-laden donkey up the steps. Not exactly as exotic as a silk-laden camel, to be sure, but you get the idea.

One can only hope that as Iraq’s government stabilizes over time, and money can be spent for what are now luxury items, this city can be developed into what it might become: a major tourist attraction drawing lots of foreign currency to the region.

On the way back we passed a large walled fortification built during the Saddam era. The wall alone must stretch for 4 to 5 miles. What efforts that man went to to rule Iraq with his iron hand.

One more comment on the trip: In the village of Alqosh, as I explained last year, there is a 19th century Chaldean Christian monastery located at the base of the hill into St. Hormuzd is built. Last year when we were there we met a number of the orphan boys who live there. This year, we met a number of Christian families from the region, especially Mosul, who like us had time off to travel because of the Eid holiday. They chose to come to the monastery that, in the tradition of medieval European monasteries, has rooms for staying overnight. While the parents did not speak much English, high school and college age children had pretty good command of English. After getting past the pleasantries of where we were from and what we thought of the region, they began to tell us heartbreaking stories of the insecurity they feel every day in their cities of residence. The girls cannot leave home except to go to school; otherwise they have to stay inside. They describe family members who have been killed in Mosul and Baghdad as a result of what appears to be a concerted effort to strike fear in them and get them to leave. Thus, a sort of ethnic cleansing. The violence that sometimes makes the news in the US is an everyday part of their lives. They blame their own government for its inability to control the violence, and the US for unleashing these forces when Saddam was overthrown. When I asked why they did not accept the invitation that the Iraqi Kurds have offered: to come to the safer north, they say they cannot as they do not speak the language. When asked where they want to go, the universal answer is to the US. I would include a picture of a couple of the families below this paragraph, but will desist as it might create a problem for them should it get into the wrong hands.

I just returned from a Thanksgiving Day dinner sponsored by the university for the ex-pat faculty and staff. The meat was provided by the university. Everything else was brought by us. It was good food and better than eating alone. Not quite like being with family, though. I was given the privilege of carving a couple of turkeys. See next photo.

I send this message on Thanksgiving Day evening with a note of my gratefulness for all that I have, that I did not earn: my place of birth, my parents, my wife, my sons and their families, my faith (such as it is), and my opportunity to do meaningful work. I offer my best wishes to all who read this.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Second blog message

November 3, 2010

As I prepare to post this report, the mid-term election results in the US are on all of the on-line news outlets. It would appear that big changes are afoot in the make-up of Congress. Whether one likes the changes or not will depend a great deal on one’s political inclinations. I will avoid opining about my own inclinations, as this is not a political blog. We’ll see.

In the 2 ½ weeks since I last wrote, life has pretty much settled into a routine. I get to bed around 10:00 p.m., get up around 5:30 a.m., and go into the university on the 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. bus. In this part of the world, we do not change times to and from day light savings time, so there is no adjusting clocks. In fact, 12:00 noon pretty much cuts in half the number of hours of daylight – unlike Indiana where there are more hours of daylight after noon than before noon. It’s nice to have daylight at 6:30 a.m. but a bit depressing as the sun sets around 5:00 p.m. It only gets worse from now to December 21 as the days shorten.

I have one section of English 102, the second semester in the sequence of composition courses, and three sections of English 201, the third semester of the sequence. I notice that students show less interest in these courses than they appeared to show in history survey courses last year. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that they are weary of being instructed in English composition, one more time, as they have been engaged in these courses even before beginning as degree students. My observation is that they need continual practice in the use of the English language as they do not get this experience except on campus. Some students are really quite proficient in the writing of English; others struggle.

As students write, the assignments have asked them to reflect on important places and events in their past. They have fascinating stories to tell. With their permission and assistance, I would like to gather the best examples of writing and put them into a collection that can be shared with others. My appreciation of English composition teachers has deepened in this experience.

In terms of routine, I work pretty much all day and evening, either getting ready for classes, being in classes, and grading papers from classes. Even in the evening, I cannot relax too much as I will get behind in the marking of papers. I have committed to getting papers marked and back within a week. Less time, if possible. On Friday, the first day of the weekend, I do laundry and clean the apartment, at least as much as it can be cleaned. I am the first to live in the apartment since construction was finished, and I find on the ceramic tile floors that small blobs of silicone sealer are numerous. Even with a single edge razor blade, I cannot get this sealer up, and it is a place where dust settles and sticks. Thus, within a couple of days of mopping floors, there are brownish spots where the silicone sealer has collected dust. Nice. Fortunately, I am the only one who looks at the spots and I have become accustomed to them. On Saturday, I get myself off to the bazaar, walking of course, to get a weekly supply of food, and this past weekend, a haircut. The barber I used all last year welcomed me like a lost friend. He still cuts my hair too short, but he is good hearted and careful, even if he is a bit overzealous in how much he cuts.

This past weekend was Halloween. There was an expat faculty staff party on Friday evening. Costumes were optional. I dressed as an unimaginative American college professor – wearing khaki trousers, polo shirt and sandals. No one had trouble recognizing me. On Sunday evening, the children of faculty and staff came around to trick or treat. I had carved a face in one of the gourds made available to those who wanted one. See first picture below. As you can see, it is hanging from the door frame because it was too small to be seen if placed on the floor in front of my door. It took me an hour to design the string harness, and I had to put screws into the bottom of the gourd to hold it all in place. But it did not fall. I passed out homemade brownies, made from a box mix, and some spice drops and candy corn that I had brought from home.

When I took down the gourd, I decided to try to bake a piece of it for dinner. We bake squash, why not gourd? It looked good on my plate (See next picture), but it was stringy, even after baking for an hour. I threw the unbaked portion of the gourd away and went back to leftover bean soup.

It is no fun being separated from my wife and family, but we manage to stay in touch by Skype. The connection is good enough for clear voice transmission, but is not consistently good for voice and video. I will be flying home for two weeks in December/January for the winter break here at AUI-S. Although I do not look forward to the 12 hour flight from Istanbul to Chicago (and return two weeks later), it will be good to be home. Classes end on February 24.

As I close this message, I post below this paragraph a photo taken with the setting sun shining on the mountains west of Sulaimani. The combination of sun and hills is beautiful to observe. To all who read this blog, thanks. Feel free to write as you have time.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting settled into life in Suli, 2010 version

October 15, 2010.
I have been on the ground here in Sulaimani for twelve days, having arrived at around 3 a.m. on October 3, 2010, after being in airports and in the air for almost 24 hours. All went well with baggage and connecting flights, something I am very grateful for as I have heard horror stories of lost luggage and missed flights from other ex-pats here in Suli. The driver at the airport was one of the regular AUI-S drivers that I had said good-bye to in June, and he as well as many others over the next few days welcomed me back.

As we turned into the apartment complex called Pak City where Carolyn and I lived last year, I felt like I was having an out of body experience looking at the building we lived in and knowing that this time I was on my own. In fact, that feeling came back to me several times over the next few days as I went to places in the city and the university that we had been to together. How can I be back in a place that we had left, presumably forever, in June?

The new building, comprised of 12 floors with 4 apartments per floor, is much cleaner than our former building, has larger and cleaner elevators both of which work all the time, and has no smell of kerosene to greet you as you enter from the outside. I have also experienced far fewer power outages. So apparently, when it comes to apartment buildings, there is such a thing as progress. Below this paragraph I have inserted a few photos taken of the inside of the apartment so you can get a sense of what it looks like. It is smaller by one full room than our apartment of last year, but that is perfectly O.K. as I do not need a lot of room. I use on a regular basis only four rooms: kitchen, den, bedroom, and bathroom. I sometimes take my supper to the living room so as to watch CNN or BBC world news, but that’s about the only use of the room.

The view from our former apartment was to the east and therefore across the city. From this apartment, I look to the northwest. This allows me to see a different set of mountains. See next two photos for a sense of what this looks like. The mountain in the background of the photo is actually quite tall and is much further away from Suli than it looks in this photo.

Today, Friday, October 15, 2010, the ex-patriot faculty and staff were given the opportunity to go to Lake Dukan, a large man-made lake that is about 45 miles from Suli. I went along with a fairly large group of maybe 20 to 25 persons. Because this large of a group of Americans might attract hostile attention, the security office at the university arranged to have 4 pershmerga, Kurdish soldiers, go along with us.

The day was very nice, in the 80s and cloudless, so we had good weather. Once we arrived at the lake, we were taken by boats to an island where we would have more privacy than we would have had near the shore where lots of local persons come to the lake. On the island, we found a flat and fairly smooth area to set up a kind of base camp from which people could go hiking or swimming. I chose to swim, but have no pictures of said activity. The water was cool but not cold and was really pleasant to be in. Once I was out of the water, my cotton Bermuda shorts (I did not bring a proper swimming suit) dried quickly in the intense sun and light breeze.

The whole time we were on the island, our peshmerga guards were walking the perimeter of the area we occupied, constantly on guard for unwanted visitors. It’s amazing how one can get used to seeing uniformed, heavily armed guards and not give their presence a second thought.

Waiting for our boats:

One of the peshmerga soldiers rode in the same boat that I rode in.

The trip to and from Lake Dukan was uneventful in terms of traffic, and was quite enjoyable. It’s now Friday evening and I am committed to getting this first posting on the blog before I go to bed.

My classes are off to a good start. I will write more about them next time.

As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them on this blog or write to me at this address: