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.