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: