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: