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.

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