Thursday, December 24, 2009

Twelfth Blog, December 24, 2009

Twelfth Blog, December 24, 2009, Chrismas Eve

[This blog, more than the others, has the thoughts and words of both Carl and Carolyn. It would be hard to separate.]

Opulence!!! That word describes what we see as we experience the United Arab Emirates. We have stayed in two of the Emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi now, and we have driven through four more of them. When we finish this vacation, we will have visited all seven of the Emirates as well as the country of Oman. Sheik Zayed al-Nahyan, who first suggested the unification of the emirates in the late 1960s when the British were about to withdraw from their involvement in the Persian Gulf, is highly revered. Having just celebrated, on December 2, the 38th anniversary of the founding of the UAE in 1971, the Emiratis have placed large pictures of him in many prominent places, and they offer almost-sacred poems extolling his work. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are both very luxurious and it feels particularly that way after having spent the last almost four months in Iraq where the infrastructure is still being built. There are no electric blackouts here, water can be drunk without fear of illness, and the bandwidth for the internet is as fast as it is as home.

Dubai, more than the other seven emirates, has put huge amounts of money into high rise office and hotel towers. One of the buildings, a picture of which was taken from the beach in Dubai, is proudly proclaimed as the tallest building in the world. The next photo is of a luxury hotel built in the shape of a sail. The malls are true temples to consumerism. The last two photos in this section are of two malls, one an interior shot of the Ibn Battuta Mall and the other is an exterior shot of Wafi Mall.

Although this is a Muslim area, they acknowledge Christmas as you can see by our Christmas picture, taken in front of the tree in the Abu Dhabi hotel lobby.
When we were in Dubai, the malls were all very heavily decorated for Christmas even though they will not close for the day as a mall in the US would do. Our hotel in Dubai was inhabited by Spanish and Argentinean soccer fans who were there for one of the world cup competition games that was being played in Abu Dhabi. It was fun to watch them as they competed. I think the Spanish won.

On the 23rd, we left Dubai for Abu Dhabi on a 8 lane highway. Our little Nissan Sunny (like a Sentra) was regularly passed by fast SUVs and luxury sedans far exceeding the 120 kph speed limit. At $2.00 per gallon, the price of gasoline does not encourage fuel economy. Our hotel in Abu Dhabi is one of the newest and nicest places we have ever stayed in. It is quite contemporary and sits on an island called Yas Island, which is served by a nearly deserted 10 lane highway out of Abu Dhabi. Adjacent to the hotel is a new golf course right on an inlet of the Gulf, and the new Yas Island Marina road racing circuit used by the F1 race series. We probably will spend Christmas Day on the side of the swimming pool you see in the picture below our room. We have had some nice lunches on the balcony of our place, because, as you can imagine, we have avoided the fairly expensive hotel food and rather have bought our own food at area grocery stores.

Today, we met with Dr. Jasim Jizrees, Library Manager for the National Center for Documentation and Research for the UAE. Having done some work at the Center in 1989, Carl wanted to come back to see it in its new, large and beautiful building. It turns out that Dr. Jizrees is an Iraqi ex-pat, so we spent as much time talking about Iraqi politics as we did about the Center. He was so kind as to show us around the place. See picture below of Carl and Dr. Jizrees, and of the Center.

Then we went over to the Heritage Center on the coast where we saw examples of how Emiratis lived in primitive tents as recently as 40 years ago. We learned, for example, that in the mid-1960s, there was not a single mile of paved road in the whole country. Pictures are below. Then notice the pictures of the huge sky scrapers and elegant mosques to see how much life has changed for the local Emirati. This is a place of luxurious cars such as Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, and Mercedes, and every elegant Swiss watch brand known to mankind. They truly have seen a total change in their lives thanks to oil and unity.

The last moment of observing extravagance for this day was to visit the Emirates Palace Hotel. Situated on a promontory within sight of the primitive tents of the Heritage Village, its difference from the village and its lavishness are difficult to put into words or capture in pictures. You need not worry that we will be moving there tomorrow. For people who are satisfied with Motel 6 in the US, it would be difficult for us to agree to pay the over-$2,000 cost for one room per night. It was fun to look around, and the staff were as kind to us, who were obviously looking around with no intent to stay, as they were with the real customers.

As far as shopping goes, we have also managed to acquire many of the food products that we cannot get in Sulaimani. We have cleaned out two Starbuck stores of Sumatra coffee by purchasing 18 pounds of coffee for the coming six months we spend there. We also found my Tylenol as well as brown sugar, vanilla (so I can make homemade brownies for our suppers for our students), and chili sauce so I can make sloppy joes (my mother’s recipe.) Our shopping experience yesterday at a store called Spinneys was interesting in how they market pork products. Out of sensitivity to Muslim prohibitions about eating pork, all pork products are kept in a part of the store separated from the rest of the store. Above the door leading to this part of the store is a sign, “Pork Products for Non-Muslims.” We were hoping for canned bacon but had to settle for some German knockwurst to make bean soup. We now have filled an entire carry-on bag with food that we will be taking “home” with us.

The holiday experience here doesn’t feel the same as we aren’t making plans to be with our children and grandchildren, we aren’t buried in snow, and I am not preparing any more complicated food than a cheese and cucumber sandwich. We attended an Anglican church service in Dubai last Sunday evening, and tonight attended the Christmas eve service at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church here in Abu Dhabi. The Anglican church is located in the same block as Muslim mosque, and a Roman Catholic church. As we walked to the Anglican church, others were going to their houses of worship, peacefully and respectfully. We participated in communion and sang Christmas carols. As we observed the many hues of skin color of people united in observance of the the birth of Jesus, in a context of proximity to worshipers of other traditions all of whom have been at war with one another over faith issues, we had a sense of what God would have of us on this earth.

Wishing for all of you, our faithful readers, a most joyous and meaningful Christmas, we close this message with the words of Christina Rossetti that we sang this evening:
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love divine.
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angel gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, Love divine;
Worship we our Jesus;
but wherewith for a sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine.
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Eleventh Blog, December 12, 2009

Eleventh Blog, December 12, 2009

[Carolyn writing] Today is three days after my father’s 88th birthday! And we will stay up till 12:30 am tonight to Skype our whole family who is getting together to celebrate my dad. It is hard to believe we have been here almost thirteen weeks. Carl has done such a good job of writing about things we have seen and experienced and stories about the people. I want to write today a little more about our daily lives and how we have come to survive here.

A week ago yesterday, we moved to an apartment in an apartment complex called Pak City where the university has leased a number of apartments for its faculty and staff. As you can see from the Google Earth photo, we have moved much closer in to the city. By the way, we took our daily walk today from the apartment to the bazaar which you can see (about two and a half miles away.)

Although there were problems to fix here as there is everywhere such as leaking showers, we have found the convenience of location to be a huge plus to our daily lives. There are four small markets within two blocks of our place where we can buy the daily essentials. The smell of diesel fuel is ever present and we have been told we smell it because the management pours it into the drains to keep the sewer gas smells under control. Whatever the reason, it is bad enough to cause headaches sometimes. And although the apartment is spacious as you can see by the pictures (see below), the finish work is still rough and the decorations are a little garish. Cleaning the place is a challenge because we can never tell whether the spot on the floor or wall is our dirt, or construction debris from 3 years ago that was never cleaned up.

Our apartment has a nice size entry way, study, living room, and kitchen; two full western baths and one eastern-style toilet room; in one of the bathrooms, a washing machine that works quite well; three bedrooms, one for sleeping, one for drying cloths, and one we use for storage. But the best of this place are the balconies. The views of the city and the mountains are spectacular and we are high enough up, seventh floor, that we almost forget about all the trash one sees everywhere. The mountains, we are told, will be covered in green and colorful flowers in the spring. This morning brought a beautiful sunrise over the mountains to the south-east of the city. We have attached below a few pictures.

More on our Picasa website:

Yesterday, we entertained some of the faculty in celebration of the coming Christmas season. Carl and I were able to walk to Kurdistan 2, a local supermarket, about fifteen minutes walk and make enough purchases for me to actually bake some brownies from scratch. Carl walked about ten minutes away to a local restaurant and purchased wonderful grilled chickens for our dinner. I found just a few Christmas decorations to make the place slightly festive and we even sang a couple of Christmas carols. The Chancellor (president) of the University joined us and we had a wonderful evening together sharing our stories with each other. We are making some good friends!

Until we got our wireless internet, some very kind Kurdish neighbors offered us the use of theirs. The locals all are so friendly and helpful, but service providers work on their own time schedules. I went to get a haircut the other day and the hairdresser wasn’t even there for the appointment. Someone called her after I arrived and she came in about forty minutes later. The haircut isn’t bad but she surely is no Gloria.

Last week, the day after we moved, the University had a tree planting day at the new campus. Our Chancellor, pictured in the below cited web address with Carl and me as we planted a tree, is a real nature man and wants the campus to be a park. So some faculty, students, local gardeners and important political people joined together to plant 500 small pines on hillsides of the new 450 acre campus. I highly recommend you take a look at the pictures provided by one of the teachers in the English as a second language program. He is a gifted photographer.
And you can see for yourself, the locals worked side-by-side with us to make this new campus for their people. It was one of the best days we have had here even though it was rather cold and rainy that day.

Speaking of weather, yesterday and today it has been bright sunshine and in the low 50s. Great for walks, especially as we hear about the cold, windy, snow our home is experiencing back in the states. So although there are many disadvantages to being away from home, we do on occasion have some plusses to this experience.

As many of you are aware, I love handwork and I have managed to find some yarn here. I have made three sweaters which I have given to some of our drivers who have recently become fathers, and now I am making hats and mitten sets to give the children in the local refugee camp. We have not seen this place but have been told it is a very muddy field filled with tents housing the poor displaced Arabs from Baghdad. It is a small act but knitting fills my long evenings and helps a little bit.

On Friday, December 18 we leave for the United Arab Emirates and Oman for two weeks. We will be in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. We have planned the trip around being in Abu Dhabi on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Carl was in Abu Dhabi in the spring of 1989, and went to an Easter Sunday service at the Anglican church that we will be going to. We will return to Suli on January 1, 2010. The hotels we are staying in all have internet access, so we will attempt to keep up communication along the way.

We trust you are experiencing a most blessed season filled with love and family.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tenth Blog, December 3, 2009

10th blog, trip to Dohuk over Thanksgiving weekend. Posted December 3, 2009

We had a wonder-filled trip over the Thanksgiving holiday, so this will be a longer blog than others. First a few words about why we had a long weekend, then some information about the trip.

On Thanksgiving Thursday, we joined with 35 other American ex-pats for a Thanksgiving dinner, complete with turkeys. There was lots of food and good company, but no cranberries, sweet potatoes or pumpkin pie. It was a truly festive dinner but could not take the place of dinner with family.

On Friday after Thanksgiving, this part of the world began a 4 day holiday called Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice. The sacrifice commemorated is that by Abraham after he was told to sacrifice his first-born. In the Islamic world, the son that was taken to be sacrificed by his father was Ismail, not Isaac, because, they say, Ismail was Abraham’s first born. Like Jews and Christians, they proof-text this to scripture; in their case, the Quran. It is an important holiday for Muslims, at least as important as Christmas for Christians. There is frenetic purchasing of food before the holiday, and then on the holiday itself, things shut down. One of the traditions is the slaughtering of a live goat on the first day of the holiday. More on this in a few paragraphs. Even on Monday, November 30, the fourth day of the holiday, many stores were closed and construction work on the apartment block near our home was limited.

Because of Eid al-Adha, the university was closed for four days, Friday through Monday, so we used the first three days of the holiday period to go on a road trip to Dohuk, a city that is about a 5 hour drive to the north west of Sulaimani. I cannot tell you the number of miles or kilometers because the normal means of calculating this, either by map or by average miles per hour don’t work here. At times the driver of the huge Ford Expedition in which we were riding was driving at 85 to 90 miles per hour, at times he was going 30 to 40 miles per hour on mountainous curves. For the first fifty or so miles we were on a smooth four lane highway; the rest of the trip was on two lane roads that though paved were very rough. For once I appreciated the beast of a vehicle that was carrying us as its suspension and tires soaked up some of the bumps. It was still very rough. Three other persons were part of the group: Jonathan and Carol, a married couple, and Randall, also married but here in Iraq on his own while his wife is remaining behind in Georgia. Jonathan made arrangements for our hotel in Dohuk, and for our itinerary; I made transportation arrangements. Jonathan is my office partner and is a remarkable scholar of ancient Christianity in the Middle East and can read Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. It was his knowledge of the area that led him to want to make this trip to places we did not know existed. We are in his debt for his knowledge and for allowing us to be part of this experience, something we would never have known to want to do were it not for our being here.

On the trip north, we saw so many sites that destroy any preconceptions of Iraq as a flat, sandy, dry and arid place. As you can see from the first photos included with this blog, the lands between the road and the mountains are flat, and the soil rich. On this trip we literally drove along hundreds of miles with rich farm land of this type, that does not require any irrigation. We now understand why the Kurdish area is considered the bread basket of Iraq and of this region. The season for growing grain crops is winter, and in fact we saw several farmers planting winter grain crops that will ripen by early June. Our travel partner, Jon, reminded us that this part of the Middle East was where historians speculate that the first ever human effort at farming -- that is deliberately planting seeds and harvesting the product of this work -- took place, thus revolutionizing human existence from hunting and gathering to settled agricultural villages. See next two photos for representative scenes that were part of this trip.

The weather was delightful as we made our way north through numerous villages. In several, we observed groups of men and boys in the process of slaughtering and cutting up goats for the Eid holiday. I would like to have stopped to take pictures, but felt that doing so would be intrusive, thus no pictures.

Dohuk city feels as big as Sulaimani, and also less torn up by the construction of roads and infrastructure. Like Suli, Dohuk is built at the base of a mountain range. See photo below, which also shows evidence of intense Kurdish nationalism with the flag painted onto the hillside above the city. We had a very good hotel that cost $50 per night and included a wonderful breakfast buffet.

After a short rest in the hotel, we set out for the village of Lalish that lies about 30 miles south of Dohuk. This village is the global center for a religious group called Yezidis. The Yezidi religion is a blend of pre-Christian, Christian, and Islamic elements that would take too long to explain. (Do an internet search and you will find several references.) We were treated very warmly and were welcomed to tour the sacred temple where our guide was a young local man who had good English skills.

Trying to describe this event is one of those occasions when words and photos simply fail to communicate the sense of awe we felt as we removed our shoes and entered their sacred space, and were led back in history. Parts of the building date to the 12th century C.E. and commemorate an important leader, Sheikh Adi, who is sacred to their history. As important as looking at the structure was seeing Yezidi men walk (barefoot) about kissing objects like trees and walls as all of this temple is sacred to them. In one of our pictures you will find a black snake as bas-relief on the wall next to the door. In their history, a black snake chased away Kurds who were trying to convert them to Islam, thus the snake is sacred.

In the Yezidi faith, light is important. Hence the conically shaped stone tomb coverings represent the sun at the top, with each of the twelve ribs representing both rays of light and the months of the year. Within the temple compound were a number of olive oil lamps that appear to be kept burning 24 hours per day.

We were treated warmly and after a tour of the temple were invited to share tea with a number of the men. One of the men brought his son, and allowed a photo of the two of them. What a beautiful child.

We returned to Dohuk in the dark on a rough and curvy mountain road, glad to return safely to our hotel. The next day, Saturday, we went to the town of Al Qosh, a Christian village. The town sits at the foot a mountain into which a group of extraordinarily ascetic monks under the leadership of Saint Hormuzd built a monastery in the 6th century. The road to the monastery goes up the side of the mountain in a series of switchback curves, but goes only so far, and from that point on we had to walk. To the left and right of the monastery are a series of natural caves in the hillside. Paths were built to the caves where monks would live for weeks at a time. Even today, you can see where they carved niches back into the rock walls of the caves. My friend and colleague Jonathan says that at its height, several thousand monks lived here. By the mid-19th century that number had dwindled to less than 100. See 3 pictures below, more on the picasa website.

At the base of the mountain is a more contemporary monastery founded in the mid-19th century where today a group of monks cares for boys in an orphanage attached to the monastery.

We met several of the monks, who happen to have good English skills, and also some of the boys who were very dear in their affection for us. All of them seem to have mastered the phrase “Hello Meester,” but like us and our use of Kurdish, they cannot go a lot further in conversation. All of the boys come from Christian families of northern Iraq and are there either because parents are dead or cannot afford to support them. As you might recall from reading the news, one of the communities that has most suffered in Iraq are the Christian communities because they do not fit neatly into either the Arabic or Kurdish communities, and they have been hurt by the sectarianization of formerly mixed towns and neighborhoods. Many Christians have simply fled Iraq. These boys represent the human side of these conflicts.

The village of Al Qosh is important for one other religious reason: it has for a long time been considered the home of the Old Testament prophet Nahum, who in chapter one, verse one of the book that carries his name says: “An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.” Never mind that the editors of The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggest that no one knows for sure where the Biblical Elkosh is located. In these parts, it’s right here and has been here for centuries.

His tomb is contained in a Jewish synagogue that has fallen on hard times. 19th century European travelers suggest that by their time, no Jews lived in Al Qosh, but traveled there once a year from Mosul to commemorate Nahum. Since the founding of Israel in 1948 there are few Jews in Iraq, and parts of the building are in ruins. The tomb is tended by a local Christian family who allowed us in to see it, and who asked us to sign a guest book. See two photos below; more in picasa.

Our last venture of the holiday came on Sunday morning when we went to a Zoroastrian cave, called Chwarstoon Cave, situated in a mountain to the east of Dohuk, near a large dam of the same name. The Zoroastrian religion was founded in the 6th century BCE, and was popular in this area. Today, the cave has carvings into its wall that are thought to be associated with Zoroastrianism. The sides and roof of the cave are still coated with hardened soot that was the after-effect of the fires that were burned in the caves over many years. See next photo.

On Sunday afternoon, we returned to Suli by the same bumpy route. Along the way we re-crossed the Greater Zab river, where we had tea with some local folks and watched young boys bring in their catch of fish which they were offering for sale. If I liked carp, I might have bought one. The water of the Zab River flows west and south from this point and eventually joins with the Tigris River. Photo below.

All along this three day outing, we felt that we were somehow becoming a part of the history of this part of Iraq. It was around here that agriculture began, near here that the great Assyrian city of Nineveh was built, and through here that Alexander the Great marched his army and defeated the Persians at Gaugamela. It was an awesome experience.

This coming weekend we will be moving to an apartment complex much nearer the university than our villa. We are looking forward to the move as it will allow us much greater flexibility in our ability to walk about and be a part of the city. We can even walk to a Chinese Restaurant that has pretty good food. There may be a delay in our getting access to the internet from our home, so bear with us if we do not respond quickly.

We wish all of you, our faithful readers, a meaningful beginning to the season of Advent.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Ninth blog. November 23,2009

Ninth Blog. Saturday/Sunday, November 21/22, 2009. Sent on November 23.

For those who are keeping track of these things, you know that it’s been two weeks since we last posted a blog. We just did not have enough news last week to justify taking the time to write, or to presume on your time to read. You may assume that what were adventures in previous weeks, like finding our way back to the same shop in the bazaar to purchase meats, have now become ordinary, and thus not worth writing about. We have tried to speak positively about our environment because it hardly seems fair for a couple of folks from Indiana to knowingly come to and complain about a part of the world that has known more difficulty than the US has ever experienced. This does not mean that we don’t have frustrations. It just means that to this time we have chosen not to dwell on them. But in this blog, we let out of few of our frustrations, so you can know that we are human. Here goes:

1. Power outages. We see long distance electrical lines but have no idea where they come from or go to. I just know that something about the power grid is irregular enough that there are large, portable power generators everywhere. At the university there are 3 of these mammoth generators in back of the building, at least one of which is running all the time, and even with these, there are interruptions . Most of the time these are short –five to ten seconds – sometimes longer. They rarely last long enough that we have time to get a match and light a candle, but once the power goes down, everything has to re-set: the satellite TV signal receiver, the heat pumps, the wireless internet device. (I know. I can just hear someone in much more primitive surroundings say something to the effect, “I would love to trade my 4 hours of daily electricity with their momentary outages.” So please know that I understand that all inconvenience is relative.) Today, Saturday, November 20, the power has shut down 5 or 6 times in the afternoon and evening. Really irritating. People around here are used to it and just keep on going when the power shuts down. But there’s nothing more aggravating than to be in the middle of a lengthy internet related activity, like uploading this blog and its pictures, and have to start over again.

2. A related frustration: lack of band width. Like all internet providers, one of the great problems for the university is keeping up with demand for bandwidth. Give people more and they just use more. For us, bandwidth problems cause us to avoid anything like Facebook. It just takes forever. And the university has blocked the use of YouTube. It would be great to have things download and upload quickly. At home we listened to SomaFM, an internet music source, but here it keeps shutting down as it rebuffers, whatever that is. This feels more like dial up than broadband. (November 25, 2009: Since writing this, we have learned that the amount of bandwidth for the whole university is less than a household in the U.S. would would have available to them. Even with Facebook lite that one person told us about, you can see why responding to Facebook is difficult. Email works well. Write to us at our Anderson University email accounts and we will respond, asking you to shift to our AUIS accounts.)

3. The presence of cheap Chinese goods. If you think Walmart is bad, come here. The stuff that is imported here doesn’t even pretend to obscure where it comes from, and it is so shoddily made. Whether dealing with something as cheap as a potato peeler or expensive as a microwave oven, we have gotten our share of faulty goods. The first microwave oven lasted one month and failed. Of course the store would not take it back. (A strong sense of serving the customer is not uniform. Some places act like they are doing you a favor to be there; other merchants are very generous.) The second one lasted one evening before it shut down, and fortunately the owner of the store made good on it, but for our third microwave oven, we paid a premium price to get a Sanyo from Japan. It continues to work – knock on wood. The students I have talked to about this acknowledge, almost fatalistically, that a lot of the goods available to them are poorly made, whether from China or Iran.

4. Lack of mobility. They have actively discouraged us from buying cars and have provided a fleet of cars and vans and drivers to carry ex-pat faculty and staff to the university and to markets. They have even said that the drivers are on the job until 9:00 p.m., and we should avail ourselves of them in the evening. But the simple fact is that there’s nothing quite like being able to walk from house to garage and take ourselves wherever we want, whenever we want. Some of the drivers have quite good English and we can explain some subtlety, like “can you run by Kurdistan market, then to the bread store and then home.” But for others, it’s got to be simple: “go to villa.” It’s best to leave out articles, and sometimes even verbs so as not to confuse. Even with those whose English is good, we have a sense that when we ask them to take us somewhere in the evening, our request is an inconvenience. Above all, we want mobility in the evening and weekends, because being in the villas is really isolating. There’s no place around here to walk to. (See photo Suli area, snipped from Google Earth, so as to get a sense of the lay of the land. It is about 10 miles from to villas to the university. ) If you double click on the photo, you can get more detail.

5. Food. We are not starving. Far from it. But there are some foods that we just cannot find around here. Oatmeal for example. Brownie mixes. Parmesan cheese. Certain spices like oregano. And even when we find something that is a bit unusual in a store on one shopping expedition, we cannot be sure it will be there next time. The supply lines from Turkey, Iran, Syria or wherever they come from apparently are not consistent.

6. Lack of Starbucks coffee (or any other good coffee like Seattle’s Best.) (You’ll notice that I have put coffee into its own food group.) The local coffee all has cardamom added to it, thus making it undrinkable from my (Carl’s) point of view. I have tried three different brands and have either given them away or thrown them away. To make sure that the supply of coffee that we brought will last us till the end of December when we will be going to Dubai for Christmas break, we limit ourselves to 5 cups a day in our little coffee maker. When that’s gone by 9:30 a.m., I shift to Nescafe instant coffee which is offered free to faculty and staff at the university. This beats drinking plain old hot water, but not by much.

7. Lack of church. There is a Chaldean Christian church in Suli that has its service on Sunday evening, but the service is all in Arabic, so we have not gone. There is also a non-denominational international church that meets in a hotel. We attended once, but will likely not go back. They were genuine in their friendship in greeting us – there are not that many ex-pat Americans around here – but we find it difficult to worship in a context where all of the music is contemporary praise chorus type of music. I know this gripe sounds narrow and uncharitable and I don’t offer it with any pride, but the reality is that we miss Pastor Markle and the organ, choir, and hymns of Park Place Church of God, and the Sunday evening music brought to the church by the AU department of music.

8. The cold and rainy weather. When the weather is nice around here it is really nice. But when it turns foul, it turns really foul: long days of continuous drizzle punctuated occasionally by a thunder storm. I have for years taught in Middle East history courses about how the water of the region tends to fall in the mountains and flow out to the desert plains. When I gave that lecture I would wave generally to that part of the map where the Zagros mountains are located. Now we are living in the very mountains I have been talking about, and it isn’t much fun to get around in the rain. To make matters worse, the concrete sidewalk work around where our offices and classrooms are located was poured in haste, without proper drainage, so the water collects in one and two inch deep ponds that are virtually impossible to avoid as we go from office to classroom.

9. This last item is not a gripe, but rather an observation on differences in taste. We have noticed in furniture stores that the taste around here runs toward, shall we say, the heavily decorated. Imagine over-done French provincial with added decorations. You can imagine, then, our reaction when we went to a trade show and came upon a couple of chairs that simply exceeded anything we have seen to date in terms of stylistic flourish. They were just over the top. I'd love to see the home in which these chairs end up. See below.

Enough griping. One positive note: at the same trade show, we found an Iranian rug merchant who had come to the show from Tehran, Iran, to ply his wares. We bought a lovely wool rug that’s about 8 feet by 5 feet. See next two pictures, one of which is a close up. Now we can stop coveting the rugs in the museum.

Please do not be concerned as you read our complaints. We really are just fine. There are lots of good things going on for us and our students, and that’s what matters. But know that we continue to be as human as ever and we appreciate your following our story.

Monday, November 9, 2009

8th Blog, November 9, 2009

[Carl writing.] This past weekend was rich in cultural experiences. On Friday evening we attended the fall semester student dance. It was held in a large circular banquet hall, and was one of the most heavily guarded events we have been to. Three guards at the outside gate were checking IDs of everyone who entered. Then, as we entered the venue, three more guards. The amount of firepower they were carrying would deter all but the most determined terrorist. One of the guards greeted me especially warmly and posed for a picture (see Picasa web site: )

Regarding the dance, we had heard that men and women students were reluctant to mix at events like this, but what we witnessed on Friday suggested that this is not true. They seemed to thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, and from the first opportunity that the music started, began dancing a traditional Kurdish dance, that involved long lines of dancers in a simple two-step as they move in a counterclockwise motion around a large dancing floor. One of my students insisted that I get into dance in spite of my protestations that I am rhythmically challenged. I dragged Carolyn in with me, and she helped me with the left-step, right-right cadence, so I did not embarrass myself too much. See first photo above for a sense of what we looked like. The students seemed to appreciate our efforts even if the outcome would not win a place in a Kurdish version of Dancing with the Stars. Photos 2 and 3 above are of us with those students who are in our classes, and who were available at the dance at the time of the photo. As is always the case, it seems, these still photos of the dance do such a terrible job of representing the sounds and feel of the banquet hall as lines of persons did the traditional Kurdish dance with such syncronicity, one would think that there must be a choreographer directing them . The dance was great fun.

Several of the students and staff, both men and women, dressed in traditional Kurdish dress for the dance. We have included one photo above as an example of the traditional dress of women. The rule seems to be that the more decorated – shiney, glittery, bejeweled – the cloth, the better. See the Picasa web site for some additional photos. Carolyn and I have decided after this experience to go to the bazaar with Kurdistan, one of Carolyn’s delightful students, who knows tailors and cloth shops well and who can help us get outfits made. We have been told there will be some other opportunities to wear them later in the year.

On Saturday morning we returned to the Red Museum for the opening of an art show that was supported by a major arts organization from England as well as by the U.S. and the British Governments. (See One of my students joined Carolyn and me for the morning. The event was attended by representatives from the US consul’s office from Irbil, Dr. Salih, and by Lady Hero the wife of Jalil Talabani, the President of Iraq. It seemed there were as many body guards and photographers from the mass media as there were observers of the show. (One of our students informed me that Carolyn and I made the Saturday night local TV news.) There were exhibits of original Iraqi art as well as photos of Kurdistan taken by Susan Meiselas who collected a number of photos in a book called Kurdistan in the Shadow of History.

As impressive as it was to see the photo and art exhibits, the rooms that most captivated us contained several dozen traditional Kurdish and Persian rugs. See above and several more on the Picasa website. The rugs are absolutely captivating in their design, complexity, and color. If ever I wanted to quietly steal something from a museum, this was the moment. I resisted the temptation, as stealing is discouraged in the Bible(one of the big 10, as I remember), and I do not wish to experience from the inside what an Iraqi jail is like. I leave to you to decide which was the greater deterrent.

Classes continue apace. We are approaching the time to submit mid-term grades, and it’s hard to believe that almost 1/4th of the year has passed. We thank you for your continuing interest in our story.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Seventh blog, November 2, 2009

Please allow us to relate four events that occurred in the last week. Each in some way says something about the area and its people.

First, in my World/Western Civilization course, I decided to bring an enrichment moment playing from my iPod a piece of music by Thomas Tallis. An English church composer, Tallis died in 1585, and lived through the religious upheavals of the 16th c. I happen to have a rendition of his song “If ye love me,” the beginning words of the passage where John suggests that Jesus says: “If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may abide with you forever, e'en the spirit of truth.” (John 14: 15-17) It is really a lovely piece of music that would sound particularly good in a large cathedral where the harmonies can linger and mingle as they bounce around inside the space. I tried to explain the context in which the music would be performed. The students responded very favorably – said they really enjoyed it. And the supreme complement: two students have asked if I would give them the music file. Normally I am reluctant to support the widespread copying of music and films that goes on around here, but in this case, I made an exception since it would be so very difficult to get this music in this region. This situation allows me to say that in my bringing the Bible into my class discussions, as we have talked about the late 15th century church and the Protestant reformation in the next century, I have been struck by the extent to which students seem to have a great respect for sacred text as a source of guidance for living. I have said explicitly to them that my bringing this to class is not for the purpose of changing their beliefs, but rather to help them understand how the West evolved in ways that impacted the whole world. They seem far less concerned about this than I am.

Second event: this morning, as I was waiting in a student lounge for any of my students to drop by for voluntary conversations on issues of their choosing, a student in the pre-college writing program saw me sitting with no students around (none came this morning) and asked me to critique a paper he had written. So I spent the better part of an hour going over his paper, making suggestions for better word choice and sentence structure. The paper was a first-hand account of his growing up in a town north of Sulaimani, where in the early 1990s his family was caught up in a civil war between two feuding Kurdish parties. To escape the fighting, his family fled to a refugee camp in Iran. He describes how, as his family lived in a tent city for two years, he had to sell cakes in order to help his family survive. In the essay he wrote about how the birds spoke to him and told him that it was important that he not give up hope, and that he climb the mountain of knowledge, no matter how difficult. He wrote of how glad he was to be able to return to his home town and to begin the schooling that had been denied him as a refugee. He is so happy to be at AUIS, and sees the program as the fulfillment of his long dream to climb the mountain of knowledge (his metaphor). I could hardly speak at moments as I read and understood the utter horrors he experienced as a child (he decribes crying from being cold and knowing there was no place to turn, no more coats and no more blankets), and yet I saw in him such hope for the future. Some of the students can be maddening in the literalness with which they approach reading and assignments (“now tell exactly what I have to know to get an A on this essay”), but a moment like this one gives life to the day, and a renewed sense that though things are not perfect around here, we can make a difference.

Third event: The voice has changed and Carolyn is writing now. Last week-end, Carl and I went to the bazaar to purchase some fresh vegetables and fresh ground meat. The prices are so much better than the Suli supermarket, and the freshness is also much better, just as it is at home when you are able to buy directly from the orchard as opposed to the chain food store. As we walked along the crowded street, Carl spotted a very young boy, maybe 14 years old or so and weighing at most 100 pounds, pushing a very heavy three wheel cart uphill loaded with boxes of paper. He was barely moving and the cart frequently lodged itself in holes in the pavement. Carl decided to offer to help the boy push and they began moving the cart at a rather good rate of speed up the street. You can only imagine the looks these two received as the locals watched this white-haired American help this young Iraqi boy perform his task. The young boy knew a little English and was able to ask Carl “American?” “I learn English in school. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” After about two blocks, a very winded Carl and this young boy reached the top of the hill, and Carl felt he could step back and let the lad take over the control of the cart. I had followed along the entire time walking on the sidewalk, snapping pictures, and watching the reactions. (See first picture above.)

Fourth event: Two young girls in the English Writing Pre-university program contacted me to ask if I would agree to an interview about my work as an accounting professor. I agreed and they came to my office with good questions prepared. Their English was somewhat broken as they are in the second of four levels of English training. But we managed a good conversation and they thanked me profusely. Their teacher told me he was very impressed with their report and suggested I asked to see it. I asked them to stop by my office with their report and they proudly arrived with a report which had earned them 100%. It was amazing how much they understood including my discussion with them about how I had experienced the glass ceiling as a young professional. I wasn’t sure they could understand that concept but they really got it. When I finished looking over the report, one of the girls handed me a necklace made of gold beads and cloves. (See second picture above.) She explained that this was hand-made and represented an Iraqi custom given to someone for whom you have great love.

Each day here is filled with these wonderful one-one-one encounters with the local youth that make up for some of the inconveniences of daily life. People are the reason we came to this place and we have not been disappointed.

Carl here to close: normally by late October I would have helped my granddaughters carve pumpkins. The third picture is of a pumpkin I carved for a Halloween party we went to last Friday evening for the ex-patriot community. The picture is dedicated to Maya, Talia, and Elena, whose help I needed to pull the “guts” from the pumpkin.

See additional pictures at our Picasa photo web album:

Postscript written by Carl on November 3, 2009: At the risk of over-emphasizing the dark parts of the Kurdish past, I am offering a URL for a website that contains first person accounts of what happened to them in the Red Prison that we wrote about last week. It is disturbing reading, but says so much about what is important in the collective memory of Kurds. The site: