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.