Friday, October 8, 2010

Final message in this blog

When Carolyn and I left Sulaimani in June 2010, we thought it would be forever. We sold what few things we had purchased here to make life a little easier, things like lamps, coffee maker, etc. We said our goodbyes to students and AUIS staff and faculty. Having been away from our home for 9 months, we were anxious to get home and re-establish life there as retirees. And indeed we headed home and relished the warm, long days and short nights of late June.

But a funny thing happened for me as the summer weeks passed. I began to miss the students who were a part of our lives here. In early August, we flew to New York City to be with a number of our students who had the privilege of coming to the US on a summer leadership program and enjoyed being with them once again. Shortly after this, I learned of a possible opening teaching English composition, something I had done many years ago in my teaching years at Manchester College. I suggested that I would be willing to return for the fall term, never expecting to be called upon because the university prefers to issue full year contracts, not half year contracts. But about 3 weeks after making my offer, I was asked to come back. Carolyn is not with me as she was already committed to a number of activities in Anderson.

I left Anderson on the evening of October 1, arrived in Suli in the wee hours of the morning of October 3, and am now settled into an apartment in an apartment building near the block that Carolyn and I lived in last year. I find myself having to purchase some of the very items we sold in June. Oh well.

Classes begin here on October 10, so I am attempting to get syllabi ready. This will be a busy term with four classes to prepare for and lots of grading as part of the bargain. It has been good to meet with students who are already beginning to come to campus to get books and schedules.

Carolyn and I do not enjoy the separation, but it will be only for a short time. (The fall term ends in late February and has a lengthy winter break that will allow me to travel home for Christmas with my family.) So as to distinguish between this blog, written mostly with Carolyn's involvement, and future posts when I will be sending on my own, I will create a new blog called "Living in Iraq, Part 2." It can be found at . I do not anticipate as many posts as are on this blog, but will attempt to write when the spirit leads.

Thanks for your faithful reading of this blog.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Final Blog from Iraq

28th blog

Gentle Friends, Family, and other Readers of this Blog:

As the summer temperatures begin to rise to unbelievable heights (we no longer can walk to the bazaar in the heat) and our assignment at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani is about to end, this will be our last entry sent from Iraq. God willing (Inshallah – as is said around here), we will return to the US on June 11. We will write one more after we have returned to our home, just to let people know we made it back to our home, but we do not intend to continue the blog after that. (Our world and our lives in Indiana are much too prosaic to presume on anyone’s time.)

For this last blog from Iraq, we have chosen to offer concluding comments on things we have missed or things we look forward to upon our return home. We do this with some fear that our listing of activities we have missed, or our listing of aspects of our lives here that were less than pleasant, means that we wish we had not embarked on this year of teaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. Knowing all we now know, we would do this again, no doubt about that. Yet we would be dishonest to say that every aspect of life here is perfect for us. But as is always the case in situations like this, our lists are much more of a mirror on us than on life in Sulaimani, Iraq.

Things we are looking forward to when we get home:
*Being able to visit directly with family and friends, and not having to do this by Skype and phone.
*Being able to drink water directly from the tap.
*Being able to drive ourselves in our own car whenever and wherever we want to go.
*Being able to hop on a bicycle and ride without dodging cars and breathing dust and fumes. (Here, the traffic, dust and hills are such that the use of a bicycle would be difficult. )
*Being able to watch movies of our own choosing, not being limited to what is available on satellite TV or in the local shops.
*Getting our hair cut by people with whom we can actually communicate. (This problem is our fault; we never mastered much in the way of the Kurdish language.)
*Being released from the demands of alarm clocks and everyday work schedules.
*Knowing that when we travel, we will not struggle to find clean, functioning toilets.
*Being able to go outside in a pair of shorts in warm weather. (To wear shorts in public in this area is considered immodest, even for men, even when the temperature is near 115 degrees. Yes, that has been the daily temperature for the past two weeks and we are promised it will get worse before the summer is over.)
*Being able to exercise in a great wellness center when the weather is foul.
*Being able to send and receive parcels and mail with ease.

Things we will miss:
*Interacting with students who are so grateful for whatever we do for them. We will never forget these beautiful young people.
*Experiencing evidences of the gentle Islam that pervades this culture. While we could do without being awakened by the pre-dawn call to prayer, the call from the minaret serves to remind us that many people quietly and unassumingly have vibrant prayer lives. They are the antithesis of the angry, strident Islamists that make it to the news programs in the West.
*Having the opportunity to help birth a new educational enterprise that is shaping a generation of leaders for this region.
*For Carl, as he taught, learning so much about the Middle East from students and from reading recent literature on the region.
*For Carolyn, as she taught, learning so much about the Middle East business culture and the huge difference of a cash based society rather than credit based.
*Trusting and being trusted in trade transactions in this cash-only economy. Where else could men, prepared to change money or sell a phone card, stand safely on the streets with four inch stacks of cash?
*Living in an academic community of people with extraordinarily diverse backgrounds. Some are local; some from abroad. They bring a rich variety of prior experiences from all over the globe.
*Walking through the bazaar, and hearing the variety of sounds and seeing the vibrant colors and activity.
*Buying fresh bread directly from the baker, and fresh meat directly from the butcher.
*Buying good, inexpensive, fresh vegetables, and delicious watermelon.
*Knowing and being welcomed by the man who runs the small convenience store in our apartment complex. “How are you Mr. Hemn?” “I am fine, how are you?” How many clerks do we ever know in Walmart?
*Being able to travel in a beautiful part of the world.
*Being treated with great respect simply because we are Americans.
*Seeing sunrises over the hills east of Suli; seeing the sun shining on the same hills as it sets in the west.
*Watching the mountains and hills around here turn a lovely shade of green in March and April after the brown of fall and the rains of winter. Then turning back to brown by June as the rain dries up and the temperatures turn very warm.
*Enjoying the contrasts of this city of nearly 1,000,000 people: in one block, a sophisticated mall like something one find in the West; nearby a block in which chickens move about pecking at the ground. On the circular road, modern, sophisticated automobiles sharing the road with a donkey drawn cart.

Things we will not miss:
*Dealing with the dust and pollutants in the atmosphere. On dusty days, it is hard to see the mountains that ring Sulaimani. The dust lands on everything, and requires weekly cleaning and mopping of the apartment. Who can ever know how much of this dust we have breathed in the past 9 months?
*Walking past electricity generators that are the size of a small box truck, knowing that while we need them for their electricity, they create much noise and belch huge amounts of pollutants into the air.
*Observing and stepping over the trash that seems to be present in many streets and vacant lots.
*Living through momentary outages of electricity. These are short-lived annoyances, but annoyances anyway, especially when we are on the elevator that carries us to and from the seventh floor of our apartment building. Or on occasion, walking those seven flights with a watermelon because the elevator isn’t working.
*Being frustrated with the narrow bandwidth on the internet that makes every program feel like someone is pouring molasses into the internet.
*Having travel interrupted by the requirement to stop at check points.
*Living in a world in which armed guards are present outside every public building and many private homes. We have never quite gotten accustomed to seeing AK-47 semi-automatic rifles slung over the shoulders of guards.
*Putting up with the inconveniences of living in an apartment block, e.g., the noise that comes through from the apartment above ours.
*Taking cold showers about once a week because the water heater isn’t working for the apartment building.
*Dealing with inconsistent banking services.

What we fear:
*Settling into a complacent lifestyle without remembering how we could get by with less.
*Being bored after living with so much change.
*Not living in a context in which we are valued for our contributions.
*Overlooking other great opportunities to learn about other cultures.

We close with these nighttime photographs of Sulaimani taken from the rooftop restuarant of a nearby hotel.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

27th Blog, Transportation in Sulaimani

27th Blog, May 29, 2010

This blog, like the last one, is more about everyday life here in Sulaimani than about individuals, groups, issues, or places. This blog is about how people move about and how they transport the stuff that is important to them. It involves animal and human powered vehicles, motorbikes, cars, trucks and buses. For those who care nothing about mechanical things involving transportation, feel free to tune out right now.

Every once in a while we would get jerked out of the 21st century by a sight from another time. The first picture I have posted is of a horse drawn cart in the middle of a busy highway. This does not happen often, but it does happen. Like the chickens we referred to in the last blog, the ones that roam freely in some parts of Suli, the horse drawn cart bespeaks an earlier, simpler time. That we see one so rarely is testament to the rapid change of this society.

The bazaar is a crowded maze of streets and shops. One of the common ways to get goods into and round the bazaar is by means of a human powered three wheel cart. These carts are everywhere in the bazaar, sometimes with light loads, sometimes with very heavy loads. They are sometimes perched on the sidewalk along side busy roads and from the cart an entrepreneur might sell cigarettes or hot tea. Car drivers and pedestrians alike appear to understand the importance of these carts, and grant them considerable freedom to move about.

The other means of getting stuff into the bazaar, and also into other parts of the city, is by the use of a three wheeled motorcycle with a truck bed in back. These “trikes” are all made in China, have single cylinder gasoline powered engines of around 200 to 250 ccs of displacement, and get power to a solid live rear axle by means of shaft drive. In order to use them year round, some drivers erect elaborate windshields to keep off the winter winds and rains. They are one of the work horses of this city, and one can find them creeping through narrow places in the bazaar or out on the heavily trafficked ring road which encircles the city. The men who drive them in the latter context are brave men, indeed, as they put-put along at a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour on a busy road where they are being passed by multi-ton dump trucks and semi-trailer trucks that would squash them in case of an encounter. On one occasion, I saw a trike that was so heavily loaded that quite literally the front tire came off the ground for a couple of seconds after the driver hit a bump. Obviously he was not steering the trike for those seconds.

The other workhorse of the city, and a vehicle that rivals small cars in number on the road, is the small four door pickup truck. Unlike pickup trucks in the US, many of which never see rough use, the small pickups here serve as both family car and utility vehicle. People seem not to worry about loading them with objects so heavy that the back end of the truck sits on the axle. They carry everything: sheep and cattle, construction supplies, fruits and vegetables, you name it. They are not pampered. And then on the weekend, the owner will load up the cab with family and the bed of the truck with tables, chairs, picnic supplies, propane cookers, any children that will not fit in the cab, etc., and head for the hills around Suli for a day in the country. The two most popular brands are Toyota and Nissan, though the Chinese are making inroads with their own name brands like GoNow, Deer, and Grand Tiger.

The most common car used around the city is a small 5 passenger car of the size of a Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra. One can find similar sized cars made by Mazda, Kia, Hyundai, Opel, Volkswagen and Skoda. These are used both as personal cars and as taxis. The older taxi versions of the cars are white, with orange fenders. The newer versions are painted a solid beige color.

Beyond cars and small trucks, the other vehicles in wide use are SUVs of all sizes. At the smaller end of the scale, Hyundai Tucsons and Kia Sportages are popular. But one can find mid-sized and large SUVs. The most popular large SUVs are Toyota Land Cruisers, but one can find SUVs made by BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes Benz.

American car manufacturers GM, Ford, and Chrysler sell cars in this market but at numbers far below the Asian brands. GM imports model lines of small Chevrolets called Optra and Epica that are Korean made. They also sell the crew-cab version of a small pickup truck called Chevrolet Colorado, but the numbers pale in comparison to Asian brands. One can also find US-made Chevy Tahoes and Suburbans. Ford seems not to be in the small car market, but offers both Ford and Lincoln badged SUVs: Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX. For some of our trips out of Suli, we have ridden in a mammoth Ford Expedition. Ford also sells to the government diesel powered F-350 pickup trucks that are used by the police to transport soldiers. Chrysler sells both sedans like Chrysler 300 and Jeep SUVs, but their numbers are very low compared to other brands.

Motorcycles are used around here, though not in huge numbers. The most popular bikes are simple 125 cc. bikes made in China and Iran under the names Gwei, Nami, Arshia, MTR. If you were to put one of these bikes alongside a late 1960s Honda of the same type, you would see great similarity: a single cylinder, carburetor-fed engine; enclosed chain; drum brakes front and rear. They are cheap to buy – around $800 – and require little fuel. Like the trikes discussed above, these bikes are used to haul both people and goods. They are used year round, even in the rain and cold weather of winter. A hefty engine guard bolted in front of the engine becomes a mounting place for a piece of heavy plastic that will keep feet dry in rainy weather.

For people without cars, there is a system of privately owned buses that operate within the city of Suli, and between some cities. Within the city, a ride on one of these buses costs between 5 and 10 cents.

Heavy trucks are in wide use, hauling goods to and from the area. Popular brands include Scania, MAN, DAF, Renault, and Mercedes. It would appear that many of these trucks were first put on the roads in Europe and have made their way to Iraq from Europe as used vehicles. There’s nothing remarkable about them, as the first photo suggests. But I was amused with a warning sign on the back of a gasoline tanker truck. The meaning of the sign is quite clear, even if the spelling is not quite accurate.

Hope you enjoyed this digression from the significant. Next time, as we close out the blog messages we write from Iraq, we will hopefully have something more substantive to say.

As always, thanks for reading.

Friday, May 14, 2010

26th Blog

26th Blog Weekend of May 14-15

After one of our recent blogs, one respondent wrote back, asking about food: where it is grown and produced, how it comes to the local market. We will try to respond, to the best of our knowledge, and give you a few prices so you have a sense of what food costs.

Milk and dairy products: all of these seem to come from places other than Iraq. Yogurt comes from either Iran or Turkey. Price: $2.50 for a 3.3 pound container. The most widely available milk comes from Saudi Arabia, and comes in the form of 1 liter (just over one quart) paper containers. The yogurt is kept refrigerated at the stores and at home, but the milk is of the ultra high temperature (UHT) processing that allows it to be kept at room temperature until such time as we begin to use it. The milk in our cabinet right now was processed on March 14, 2010 and has a shelf life until October 10, 2010, all at room temperature. Milk is not cheap, about $5.50 for four liters or just over one gallon. We have found a kind of cheese we really enjoy, called Kashkaval cheese, that comes from Turkey. Cost: about $4.00 per pound. Parmesan cheese is available only in Erbil and is ghastly expensive. Eggs are sold by the piece and are not refrigerated in the shops. One of our AUI-S student’s father owns the big egg production unit just outside of Suli and that family is considered very comfortably situated. Our recollection of what we pay is about $1.80 per dozen.

Poultry: Chickens can be purchased either fresh or frozen. The frozen chicken comes from such far away places as Brazil. The packages of imported boneless, skinless chicken breasts all look pretty decent in the store, but our experience is the meat is tough and chewy. Sorry, I cannot tell you a price. People generally prefer fresh chickens and there are a number of poultry farms on the edge of Suli that provide the fresh chickens, but we have never bought a whole chicken because there is so much of a whole chicken we do not eat. There is an area of the bazaar where one can purchase freshly slaughtered and processed chickens or one can purchase a live chicken and come back later after it has been slaughtered and cleaned. It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Beef: is raised and slaughtered locally. We have been told on excellent authority that the cows are delivered to the slaughterhouse, kept in quarantine for several days before they are slaughtered, and then inspected after slaughter and before they are delivered to the numerous butcher shops around the city. The meat is not kept refrigerated as it hangs in the shops, but is fresh as of the morning it is available, and is not kept from one day to the next. We have seen beef cuts in packages in refrigerated cases in the three large modern grocery stores, but we have never seen it purchased. People seem to prefer the hanging beef in a local shop. Beef is expensive: about $6.00 per pound, but what is made available is only the leanest cut of the meat, whether bought whole or ground. It is really quite good. Fresh lamb and goat meat are readily available but we have no experience in purchasing either.

Just as people prefer fresh meat, so too do they prefer fresh bread. The city is dotted with small two and three person storefront bakery operations that make large round pieces of flat bread called naan, or small loaves, about the size of an enlarged hamburger bun, called samoon. These are very cheap, about 80 cents for ten pieces/buns, and they are very good, especially if you happen to get to the bakery just after the bread has come from the oven. With the naan, no one seems to worry about packaging as we often see people leave the bakery with bare hands carrying a stack of unwrapped bread. The samoon lie loose in a bin, and are sold in bags only because it would be impossible to carry them loose.

Fresh vegetables: One of the real glories of this place is the availability of a wide range of fresh, inexpensive vegetables. These come from local farms, and from Iran and Syria. Eggplant, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, cucumbers are in regular supply and cost in the range of 40 cents to 50 cents per pound. Bananas come from Guatemala and cost around 60 cents per pound. The watermelon is the most amazing fruit available—it is the sweetest we have ever tasted and comes from Syria. Cost: about $5.00 for a melon. Pomegranates are grown locally and are readily available in season. They have a wonderful flavor but we don’t buy them often as we find the seeds a real nuisance. What we have discovered about the local people is that many of them avoid the problem of seeds by just chewing them with the fruit and swallowing them. That is true for sunflower seed hulls too.

Olives are another widely available food product. There are lots of varieties of olives and of processes for seasoning them. Some olives are green; others black. Some are quite pickled, others are mild. Cost of large black olives: $1.80 per pound. Also available: dried apricots, raisins, figs, almonds, walnuts and dates.

Large scale farming: this area is part of the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that starts in Israel and the Occupied Territories, goes north, sweeps around the east and then proceeds south along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It is not called fertile by accident; all along the foothills of the Zagros Mountains around Suli are multi-hundred acre fields with a rich, loamy soil of the type you might find in some of the large fields of Indiana and Illinois. Sometimes the fields are a bit rocky, but even these can be plowed and cultivated. Because of rainfall patterns these fields are mostly sown in the fall and harvested in the early summer, and are planted with either wheat or barley. Below photo of fields, note Iranian knock-off of a John Deere combine. We haven’t a clue about what happens to the wheat after harvesting. That is, how does it enter the food chain of products that we consume in products like bread and cereal?

Summary: we have no trouble getting good food. We can also get, but try to avoid, grocery store aisles full of all variety of cookies and candies, and freezer cases with Magnum ice cream bars -- giant hunks of vanilla ice cream formed around a stick and covered in chocolate.

Sorry we cannot you provide you with a description of another important historical site, or of an amazing story about a group of students, but hope that this is helpful in understanding our everyday living.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

25th Blog

On Friday, May 7, three AUIS students accompanied us to an exhibition of Iranian life, brought to Sulaimani from Iran. One of the students speaks fluent Farsi, so could translate whenever we were trying to communicate with Iranians. (The border with Iran is less than two hours from here by car, so the cross-border traffic between the two countries is quite heavy.) Lots of stuff for sale, everything from books and DVDs to head scarves for women to knick knacks for one’s home.

The exhibition was a fascinating contrast between official hard line stances by the Iranian government, and the reality in Iran. On one hand, one young lady, in full head and body covering, let it be known that she wanted the Reform party to win in June of 2009, and that she demonstrated when they were robbed of the election. The Iranian consul to Suli was there and invited us to come to Iran. All very friendly. On the other hand there was an entire display set up by the Hezbullah, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group in southern Lebanon, with lots of videos of gruesome war scenes of Israeli-caused atrocities in attacks on Lebanon. They cannot mention Israel without mentioning the US. There were vendors selling, in addition to lots of editions of the works of Ayatollah Khomeini, copies of anti-American, anti-Jewish books.

One fellow had a volume, all in Farsi unfortunately, of the documents found in the American Embassy at the time of its capture. Once people knew that we are Americans, most went to great lengths to talk about how we as people could be friends, but this book seller seemed to take a perverse pleasure in showing me this book, a sort of living proof of Iranian suspicions about America’s bad intentions toward Iran. Another vendor had copies of a collection, in English, of Henry Ford's articles from his own newspaper called the Dearborn Independent. The title of the book: The International Jew (The World's Foremost Problem).

I had long read that Ford was anti-Semitic, but this is the first time I actually read what he thought. He makes constant reference to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Jewish document forged in Russia early in the 20th century, and he even acknowledges that the book may be a forgery, but he says that it doesn’t really matter that it’s a forgery because the facts of the day are that the Jews are doing the very things that the Protocols say they are going to do. Then he goes on to quote the Protocols throughout his articles. Chapter titles like “How the Jews Use Power,” “Jewish Influence in American Politics,” “Bolshevism and Zionism,” etc. The book was edited in Iran and published by the Department of Translation and Publication, Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, in 1997. On reading the book, I can make two observations: it’s no wonder that Ford liked Hitler; it’s no wonder that Israelis don’t trust Iranians (or other people of the Middle East who still peddle the Protocols).

After visiting the exhibition, we went to a nearby restaurant for iced fruit drinks and conversation with the AUIS students and then walked with them along Salim Street, the main east-west street in town, until they turned off to the house where they live. We walked on to our apartment, a bit tired from being on our feet most of the afternoon.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

24th Blog

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Dear Readers,

You will recall that in our last blog, we posted a story about a young man named Zmnako, a student at AUIS. Until a few months ago he was presumed dead in the gas attack on Halabja in 1988. Since writing, I have talked with him, and learned that on the day of the gas attack he was three months old and was left behind in the family’s home in Halabja. He was not discovered until two full days after the attack when an Iranian soldier found him and placed him with a family in Iran where he grew up. (See last blog for details.) He is a wonderful, gentle, young man who enjoys being a student at AUIS. See below for a picture of him kneeling next to the Halabja cemetery memorial marker that bears his name.

Since posting the last blog, we went with a group of faculty to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, for a two day weekend trip. It takes about three hours to get to Erbil, by way of a mountainous road, one section of which has very sharp switchback curves as the road snakes up and down the side of the mountain. (Oh! for a motorcycle in moments like that.) Erbil is larger than Sulaimani, and has a larger expat community. They in turn can support Western stores and restaurants that we lack around here. Erbil also has a traditional bazaar like Suli’s, but also has a large modern mall, complete with huge grocery store – the closest thing to a Super Walmart we have seen in this part of the world. There is also a combination bakery, delicatessen, and restaurant called Bakery N’More that stocks beef salami, sliced turkey, good cheese, and other foods that we cannot get around here. We bought some food, but not too much as we cannot use a large amount in the next month.

Erbil is widely known in the region as being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is mentioned in some of the records of ancient Mesopotamian empires. There is a large circular flat top hill that rises perhaps 300 feet from the level plain that is now the modern city of Erbil, and on top of the hill successive generations have built fortifications, called a citadel. The citadel was actually occupied until a few years ago, and now is undergoing significant renovation. See next photos of the citadel from below. If you ever come this way, you must check out the rug museum in the citadel. While there we met a group of 15 brave American women who were involved in a tour of the region. Each had had to convince husbands and/or family that travel to this part of Iraq is safe. They were loving the experience.

While in Erbil we went to the home of Rawa, one of Carl’s students from the fall term. In this home we met his lovely family: Mohammed, father, Shadia, mother, and Ramyar, Baso and Basya, brothers and sister. The latter two are delightful and energetic 13 year old twins. Mohammed has earned a Ph.D. and is the head of the physics education program at a university in Erbil, and Shadia is an elementary school teacher. They are in many ways the new face of Kurdistan: well educated and professional, but still committed to the family values of the Kurdish people. In traditional Kurdish style, we sat around a tablecloth that had been spread on the floor. The food was delicious, as usual. See photos below.

When Rawa picked us up at the hotel he was driving a late model Chrysler 300, and after being crunched up in Toyota Corollas for much of our local transportation, we were delighted to ride in an American car that felt almost limousine-like in its size and comfort. The car, it turns out, belongs to his older brother Ramyar who works for the American computer equipment maker Sysco which has an office in Erbil. That we liked it is a sign that perhaps we really should be coming home. Sorry, no pictures of the car.

We are now hunkered down for the last 5 weeks of classes, plus finals week. If all goes according to plan, we should be back in the US by the evening of June 11. This has been a long semester so it’s difficult not to wish away this last month. I’m sure we will end up doing some exciting things before we leave, we are just not sure what that is at the moment.

Thanks for reading. Sorry that we are running out of new experiences. If you are curious about an aspect of life we have not covered, feel free to write to, and we’ll see what we can do to get information.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

23rd Blog

April 18, 2010

Since we last wrote, we have had two very different experiences. We saw our first Iraqi sporting event when AUI-S’ women’s basketball team played a team from a school from Karbala in southern Iraq, and the second was a visit to the town of Halabja last week-end. These two experiences couldn’t have been more different.

First, let me tell you a bit about the basketball game. One of the more important facts to remember is that almost all of these girls had never held a basketball or played the game until two years ago. Another important fact to remember is the team they were playing comes from a university that trains physical education teachers. But I cannot tell this short story without reminding you that we come from Indiana, the basketball state of the US. That all being said, let me say this game was the most entertaining game we have ever watched. There were times when it appeared to be more of a comedy than a sporting event because none of the players was particularly skilled at the basics of basketball. The score at half time was 10 to 8, with the opposing team on top, and most of the points earned from the foul line. The women from the other team were extremely physical and the officials didn’t always call blatant fouls. The stands held some extremely exuberant and loud fans who provided lots of cheers. Our women persevered and won the game in the end and there was great celebration including a fan party held for the women back on our campus. But the game had great symbolic value: in a part of the world that still struggles with according women full participation in society, here were 10 women on a basketball floor, playing their hearts out in front of cheering fans, fully valued for who they are. See picture below of our team in the huddle.

Where the basketball game was just good fun, the visit to Halabja was a very sobering experience. This is the city on which Saddam’s air force dropped hundreds of poison gas bombs on March 16, 1988, killing over 5,000 people and leaving many more with life-time injuries. At the time of the gas attacks the city of Halabja was actually in the control of the Iranians (this being in the time of the eight year Iran-Iraq war), so the first persons on the scene were Iranian soldiers. The number of dead was so large that the soldiers could do no more than to put the bodies into hastily dug mass graves in the city’s cemetery. See two photos below. The first is of one of the monuments on top of a mass grave containing 1,500 bodies. The second of a series of tombstones on which are inscribed family names. The stones are in place only to memorialize the families; no one knows in which mass grave the bodies are now buried.

This gas attack has always been a tragedy to us, but it is so much more real knowing some of our students’ families actually lived through this event. Events on the ground on that fateful day were so arbitrary. In the photo below this paragraph you will see three students standing with us; all are from Halabja. The family of one of the students fled in one direction and were saved because of the wind carried the gas away from them. The family of another of the students also fled, but in the wrong direction. The wind blew the gas toward them and they died.

One more Halabja story: in the museum dedicated to the victims of the gassing of Halabja, the names of all of the victims are etched in the glass walls of the museum. One name is Zmnako, noted in the photo below with green tape around it. Zmnako was an infant at the time of the attack, and in the chaos that followed, was separated from his mother. All had thought that he had been killed and his body put into a mass grave, so his name was placed on the wall. Unbeknownst to people in Halabja, he had been rescued by people who assumed his family was dead. He was placed into the home of an Iranian Kurdish family who adopted him. He grew up there and after the death of his adoptive mother, learned something of his background in Halabja. The good end of this story: after doing some research, he discovered that his birth mother is still living and as of a few months ago he has been reunited with her. The green tape around his name says he is alive, not dead. We can only imagine the disbelief and joy of his family in Halabja on being re-united with him. He is now a student at AUI-S.

Perhaps we are reading our students incorrectly, but our sense is that where they could be so bitter, there appears to be a willingness to move on and be part of a constructive future. We can only hope that their aspirations bear fruit in the future. The privilege of knowing them has certainly enriched our lives.

As always, thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments to our AUI-S email accounts:;