Saturday, January 30, 2010

16th Blog, January 30, 2010

For the past three Thursdays in a row (January 14, 21, 28)we invited students from our classes to our apartment for dinner and conversation. We served Sloppy Joe sandwiches (aka, a Spanish hamburger recipe that came from my family), salad, chips, and homemade brownies. My mother (Ruth Falls) would be so pleased to know that the very recipe she used to prepare food for Anderson College students was used here and that some of the students asked for her recipe. The students seemed genuinely to enjoy being in our home, something that just does not happen for Iraqi university faculty and students.

When given the opportunity to watch a movie together or sit in conversation, all three groups preferred conversation. That is not to say young Iraqi people don’t like American movies. They love them!!! They simply enjoy visiting with us as we share about ourselves and learn more about them. It truly is an evening of learning for all of us. We are reminded by them that although there is so much room for improvement and growth here, the changes which have occurred in the past ten years are enormous and life is so much better here today than it was when they were in elementary school. There really has been massive change in a very short time.

For instance, most of them remember a time when most families did not have a car and now almost all families have at least one car if not more. They remember a time when there were no banks and now there are choices of banks. The students admittedly agreed with us that the banks are not particularly efficient, but they see improvement almost daily. Young people remember the day when everything was made in another country and imported here—now Coke and Pepsi are manufactured in the capital of Kurdistan, Erbil. Although the internet is very frustrating at times because of poor band width, fiber optics is just months away. Where we get frustrated with short power outages (the power went down momentarily five or six times last evening when they were here), they can remember when there was no power for hours every day.

And yet with the all the rapid change, tradition still plays a very large part in most social customs. It is good fun to talk with the students about dating and marriage. For them, parents continue to play a significant role in the choice of spouse, and open dating prior to engagement and marriage is rare. One group wanted Carl and me to tell them about how we met, dated and married. They said they thought we were an exemplary couple and admired our commitment to each other. That was rewarding to hear from them.

As we have mentioned, one of our most favorite experiences here is getting into some of our students’ homes and meeting their families. We have more of those events planned in the next few weeks. All of this being said, these young people will forever be in our hearts and we have hopes of some of them visiting us someday in the States.

We close this blog with a few pictures of our student suppers, including one when Dr. John Agresto, the Provost of AUIS, was able to join us.

The next four photos are of Carl's classes.

The next four photos are of Carolyn's classes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

15th blog. January 25, 2010

In the two weeks that have passed since our last report to you, we have had no dramatic events or new out-of-town experiences. Rather, we have been at work on materials for concluding the fall term and for beginning the spring term on February 14.

With the assistance of two of our students we have gone to fabric shops in the bazaar to purchase cloth and had it tailored into proper Kurdish outfits of the type we have shown in earlier blog messages. We will include no pictures the outfits at this time, but will as such a time as we are both fully dressed in our outfits and ready to go to an event where this garb is appropriate. We are including immediately below two photos of the shop where Carolyn bought her fabric. It is a feast for the eyes, rich in virtually every hue of bright color. In the second of the two photos you can see Carolyn and a student named Kurdistan who helped her by translating.

[Carl writing] To get my outfit made, I had the help of a student named Shad who took me to a cloth shop with, no surprise, much duller colors of dark blue and gray. After I bought cloth for my suit, the shop owner took me to a tailor who measured me. A week later, I went back to pick up the outfit. Total cost: about $75.00 for an outfit made just for me.

Shad invited to join us one of his friends named Shwan, an AUIS student who is also from the area and who knows the bazaar very well. Over the two Saturday mornings, Shwan got us into parts of the bazaar that I did not know existed. For example, there is a metal working section in which groups of men hammer axes and hoes out of red hot iron, while nearby other men are fabricating metal gates. As you might guess, it’s hot, dirty, and noisy work, and once again I came away with confirmation of my conclusion that people work hard around here. To make an axe head, one man used tongs to hold the red hot iron on an anvil while two others struck it in a rhythmic pattern, hammering a block of iron into a recognizable tool shape. No one spoke as they worked; they all knew what had to be done. This is the kind of work that is demonstrated in living exhibitions in restored 19th c. museum villages in the U.S. Here, it is real. No costumes. No interpreters. Just hard work.

Near the iron working area, Shwan took us to a small kebab grill stand. Most kebab shops cook either chicken or lamb. This one specializes in sheep liver and testicles. He insisted that this is something I should not pass up, so I accepted his offer. Both meats were good, but I preferred the liver. Later in the week, one of the university drivers named Diary (pronounced Dee-are-ee) invited me to join him at a restaurant that specializes in another delicacy, serupay and geepa. The first word means “head and feet,” and true to its name is made from boiling sheep heads and feet in a large metal pot. As the meat is cooked, the water becomes a rich broth. After the heads are cooked, they are broken open and the brains are put back into the pot along with the tongues. Boiled in the same pot are the geepa, balls about 3 inches in diameter made from intestines that are literally sewn up with thread to make a container into which is placed a mixture of rice, raisons and spices. These balls are boiled until the rice is soft, and are served in a bowl along with a bowl of the meat, tongue, and brains, and a third bowl of the broth. Of course the ubiquitous flat bread called naan is also served. It all sounds fairly exotic, but I can attest that the soup and rice are quite good. The boney parts are, well, boney. Not a lot of meat there, but what’s there is good. The brain would fall into the category of an acquired taste.

As I have described my experience to others on campus, I have been told that even though among Kurds there are some who choose not eat all of these meats, they are considered a delicacy, and they are appreciated as part of culture.

One more experience in the bazaar. Shwan took us to a shop in which the walls are lined with bootleg copies of movies and Play Station/X-Box games. Most of the movies were made in the U.S., and the cost for the DVDs is around $1.75. While some movies are old, others are very current with what is showing in theaters in the U.S. Example: the movie “2012” about the coming of the end of the world, and the recent movie about Michael Jackson’s efforts to prepare for concerts in London in the summer of 2009. As far as I know, these are still showing in cinemas and have not been released for sale as DVDs, and yet they are available here. Some of the jacket covers appear to be copies of copies of copies, etc. and are hard to read, but the movies work. Where and how they come up with these movies is a mystery to me. When I ask, no one seems to know. When I challenge my students about the fact that when they purchase these disks they are robbing actors, directors, distributors, etc., of their just rewards for their creativity and hard work, their response is that it is impossible to get movies by legitimate channels and there are no credit cards, thus it is O.K. to buy bootleg. I can hardly chide them as we have purchased a number of movies for weekend viewing, and, quite literally, there is no place to buy legitimate disks, Netflicks doesn’t serve Iraq, and there is no friendly Blockbuster DVD rental store.

Concluding words regarding weather. After a warm and sunny weekend, a cold and rainy front moved in over the past 24 hours. Yesterday we had heavy rains and some lightening, and we awoke this morning to see a light dusting of snow on cars in the parking lot of Pak City. As we looked further out we could see that the mountains that encircle Suli were covered in snow. By mid-morning, a fairly heavy wet snow was falling on the city, but by mid-afternoon the clouds had cleared, the sun came out, and the small amount of slush had melted. The photos below give you some idea of what it looked like from our balcony by late afternoon.

Last photo is of the eastern skyline just before sunrise. The colors were so very rich.

We wish all of you the best. Go Colts. Beat New Orleans.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Fourteenth blog, January 12, 2010

After a three week break, we are now back at work. The remainder of the fall term began on Sunday, January 10, 2010. The fall term ends in early February following which is a one week break. Then, the spring term begins on February 14th and during the spring term there is only one break, the Kurdish New Year a one week break toward the end of March. Otherwise we will be at the business of teaching for 16 weeks. It is hard to believe that by the time the term ends we will have passed the spring equinox and be near to longest day of the year on June 21. It’s when we reckon these kinds of dates that we understand what it means to leave home for the better part of year.

In the time period between when we came back to Sulaimani on January 1 and when classes began on January 10, we had some relaxing days here at the apartment, and were able to get some work done for the beginning of the remainder of the term. Carolyn went in to the university to continue her work of helping the business office set up its accounting system. I spent a number of hours going through some new history DVDs that I will be using in January and in the spring term. On two of the days we traveled from Sulaimani to visit in the homes of the families of two of my students.

On the first of these occasions we traveled north of Suli to a small village of 200 people called Zalan. It lies near to the Iraqi border with Iran, and it is clearly in a more mountainous area than Suli. See the photo below to get a sense of the terrain in the area of the village. [If double click on the photo, it will be enlarged, so you can see more detail.]

As we approached the village, my student, Zryan, pointed out some roped off areas along the road where they were excavating the earth with shovels. He indicated that after the fall of Saddam, local people discovered shallow graves where Saddam’s forces had dumped bodies of some of his victims in this remote area. Further on, we came upon a shepherd taking care of his flock of cows and sheep, and we stopped to take pictures. Because my student was able to translate, I was able to talk with the shepherd, a most pleasant older gentleman who brought his herd to the field from a local village. In the course of the conversation, he showed me that in place of his right leg he has a prosthetic leg. He indicated that his leg was blown off by a land mine planted by Saddam’s forces, and that the clearing of mines continues. It is in conversations like the one with him that we come to understand that virtually all Kurds over the age of 15 have a story to tell about pain and dislocation that occurred in their recent past. See photos below of the locale of the grazing herd, and of the shepherd. I wish I could give you his name but I failed to get it. This humble fellow received me very warmly and seemed genuinely honored that someone would inquire about his life.

At the village of Zalan, my student parked his car at the edge of the village and indicated that we would have to walk the rest of the way. The village is built into the side of a hillside that slopes to a fast moving mountain stream, the water of which will ultimately go to the Tigris River. Near the stream is a fresh water spring that runs year round. We pushed through a rustic gate to come upon a house built of stone and mud bricks. There were three rooms: a kitchen, a combination living room/dining room/bedroom, and a somewhat more formal sitting room lined with carpets with images of the Islamic holy site called the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The roof of the house is made as follows: a log base that is intermixed with sticks and twigs, on top of which is placed about 10 inches of dirt, on top of which is placed either corrugated metal roofing or plastic sheets, on top of which is placed stones or old tires to hold down the roofing material. The interior walls have been plastered and whitewashed. Between the thick walls and thick roof, the small house remains cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

My student’s aunt, named Rihhana, working with the wife of one of Zryan’s cousins got to work and prepared a wonderful meal, a picture of which is below. The custom is to spread all of the food on a cloth placed on the floor, and for all to sit cross-legged at the edge of the cloth. They clearly were more comfortable with this seating arrangement than Carolyn and me with our stiff and unbending joints, but the deliciousness of the food and the warmth with which we were received, more than made up for any discomfort.

Three days later, at the invitation of another student, Sarhad, we went to the town of Chwarqurna, further north of Suli. His father and mother, named Ahmed and Malea, received us, and several of his brothers, sisters, and brothers-in-law joined us at some point during the day. Again, the cloth on the floor was spread with an amazing array of food. We felt almost guilty that we could not eat more, but were assured that they, like us, keep leftovers for later meals.

We enjoyed conversation with several members of the family, one of whom is an English teacher at a local high school. His English was quite good, and he expressed to us his frustration with trying to teach English to five large classes every day. One of his classes has 56 students in it, the other classes have more than 40 each. He has none of technologies that we now take for granted in a class: internet, computers, data projectors, etc. We admire what he is attempting to do. We also enjoyed talking with Sarhad’s father about his family and about politics and history, but especially we enjoyed watching the joy on his face when his five month old grandson was brought into the room. See four pictures below:

These two experiences in the homes of our students’ families demonstrated just how important family relationships are in this part of the world. They also say something about how delicious local cuisine is – too bad we cannot find this in a local restaurant. And, they confirm the beauty of the area. There is something about the mountains that is part of Kurdish identity, and being in the mountains helps us understand why. They pull you in and make it difficult to return to the city.

We now settle back to our own cooking, in our own [temporary] apartment, in Sulaimani, but the memories of these experiences will be with us for a long time.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Thirteenth Blog, January 2, 2010!!!

We are home from the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and although we had a wonderful, warm, sunny trip, it is always good to come home even if it is a temporary home. There is something about being able to get our clothes out of a drawer instead of a suitcase.

As we mentioned previously, the opulence in the Emirates is truly amazing. We have never seen so many expensive cars in one block in all our lives. Carl tried not to salivate. There’s not a lot more to say on this matter than we wrote in the last blog.

Oman is less affluent than the Emirates, but still has considerable money coming from the sale of oil. It has a much older known history than the recorded history of the Emirates. Being positioned on the Gulf of Oman, and thus on the trade routes between Africa and India, it found itself being fought over by European powers as they extended their hegemony into this part of the world in the 16th, 17th,and 18th centuries. Parts of Oman were controlled by the Portuguese in the 16th century, 50 years before the English decided to put down roots in North America, so it was known about and discussed in European histories of this region long before the Gulf Arabs came into the consciousness of Europeans. Within the old town of Muscat, there’s a lovely museum dedicated to Omani-French relations since the late 1600s. Going through this museum, it’s fascinating to see how the European powers vied with each other for favorable consideration to the Omanis who have been largely self-governing.

Oman, more than the Emirates, is a country characterized by its mountains, which are obvious upon entering the country. There is a coastal plain, sometimes narrow, sometimes wide, but the dominating geographical feature of the northern part of the country is mountains.

In the area of Muscat, the mountains have had to be blasted through many times to make way for a modern highway system for a growing city. See the next couple of slides, shot from our hotel in Muscat to see the proximity of city – with its lovely white houses – and mountain.

With mountains, come valleys that lead out to the sea. These valleys, dry except in rare times of heavy rainfall, are called wadis. Traveling up the wadis into the mountains is now a big business for local tour operators in the Muscat area. The river beds are rough and rocky, and thus demand a four wheel drive vehicle with high ground clearance. We tried getting into one wadi with our little Nissan Sunny and gave up a couple of kilometers into the wadi, fearful of puncturing a tire on the jagged rocks, or worse, damaging the undercarriage of the car. I [Carl] was trying to figure out how I would explain to the folks at Budget car rental in Dubai how I had managed to put a hole in the oil pan of the engine, and no plausible explanations came to mind. Thus, we chose the course of caution and drove out of the wadi while tires and oil pan were still intact.

Because of long term instability prior to the modern period, virtually every town of any size has a fort to which townspeople went when there was threat of attack. We have included below this paragraph pictures of a couple of forts that dominate the towns of which they are a part. The first two are major forts guarding the harbor in Muscat, the others are in the towns of Rustaq and Nakhal.

In this part of the world, whether in northern Iraq or in Oman, with poverty comes poor public toilet facilities. Thus traveling beyond the convenience of hotels in large cities was a challenge. While the Omanis have tried to establish modern gasoline refill/rest stop facilities, there were places where day-long travel was difficult because facilities, especially for women, were either non-existent or the worst you can possibly imagine. But the old forts and city walls we walked were well worth the inconveniences. For the American tourist jaded with being in a crowd of tourists being herded through the Tower of London, Oman is worth serious consideration because it is still in the process of being discovered. It’s really quite lovely, English is widely spoken, and coming into the country with a US passport is quite easy. The shops are full of colorful, locally made objects, as well as carpets from Iran, Pakistan and Kashmir, and scarves from India. The gold souk is, well, a gold souk: lots of 22k, ornate gold. The people are warm and friendly. Just witness this group of school boys on their way home from school and willing to pose for a picture.

We did manage to spend one day on the beach of the Gulf of Oman so got just a little color in our skin even with the winter sun low in the sky. We were glad to be here in December, with temperatures in the mid- to upper-seventies, and not August when the temperatures regularly reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Returning to Sulaimani was quite an experience. After the opulence of the Emirates and Oman, we had to re-acquaint ourselves with all of the problems of a rebuilding city: trash in the streets and in empty lots, diesel powered electricity generators pumping exhaust fumes into the air 24 hours per day, brief power outages, tap water that we need to boil before we drink, a sewage system that cannot accommodate toilet paper, etc. And yet, with all these problems, Sulaimani feels more genuine – more truly itself, with all its warts -- than where we had been.

Now that we are back at our apartment, Carl has returned to grading exams which he left when we went on vacation. I, on the other hand, can’t bear to leave that kind of thing behind so, because all of mine are graded, I am taking this week to catch up on correspondence, laundry, etc.

As some of you know, we accepted a one year contract here with the understanding the university would like for us to consider a second year. After much soul searching on Carl’s part we have finally decided to make this experience only a one academic year assignment. Carl really struggled because he feels like he is having some impact on the students at AUIS but I was greatly relieved because I had already decided this was only a one year commitment for me. We told the Provost and he said he was not surprised at our news. He did tell Carl that I would be the harder one to replace! So we are now counting—five and one-half months to the end of our time here.

I have managed to make about four baby sweaters, a couple of scarves, one ladies’ hat and about four hats/mitten sets for children at the local refugee camp and orphanage. That makes the evenings go faster and I feel like I am helping those that need the help so badly. We have never visited the camp, but we have been told it is a crowded field of knee-deep mud and tents.

As we approach this new year of 2010, we do pray for peace. What we have seen here in this part of the world only points us more strongly toward the need for that end.