Friday, March 26, 2010

21st Blog

The celebration of Nawroz has come to an end, the visit with my dad, Glenn, and his wife, Berny, is complete and was very good (see above picture of them standing in front of our apartment building,) our spring vacation is almost over, and we are heading into the final stretch of classes before we come home. We have eleven more weeks and it hardly seems possible we are so close to the end of our stay here.

Dad and Berny arrived safely but two days late after much trouble along the way. Berny’s luggage was lost and never found but she was a real trooper making do with things I loaned her along with an outfit that she bought in the bazaar. She said she still had a wonderful time and they both especially enjoyed the Nawroz celebration and the trips to the bazaar. (See picture of us having tea at the bazaar)

We couldn’t have picked a better time for Dad and Berny to visit.

The weather was sunny and we were able to take them to the mountains twice. The second of the mountain trips was very special because one of our students, Zryan, joined us and was able to talk with Dad and Berny in English and answer any question they had about the culture or his personal plans when he gets out of the University. His mother had made a wonderful picnic lunch of dolma (stew of lamb and stuffed vegetables) for us. You can see it in this picture.

It was delicious and I will take the recipe back home to fix for our family. See picture of our picnic as we ate in a pull-off area along one of the mountain roads.

At the street celebration of Nawroz, Berny said she felt as if she were walking with royalty because the locals kept asking us to have their picture made with them. We can only assume it impressed them greatly that we Americans had chosen to dress in local Kurdish dress for the occasion.

The evening was cool so the large bonfires along the street were a natural gathering place for people to stop and warm the hands. See picture of my dad watching me warm my hands by the fire.

Fireworks would erupt periodically and Kurdish dancing was available all along the way. At one point, we were standing there watching the women in one circle dance and the men in another circle dance when a Kurdish man came up to me and pulled me into the men’s circle. Carl joined me and we laughed and danced along with our local friends. I love the traditional dance. It is very rhythmic and anyone can join in the circle at anytime. (Even Carl can manage the simple two-step dance.) The leader always carries a scarf or beads and spins them in the air as the participants hold hands, step in unison and lift their shoulders up and down to the music. I felt very honored that I was invited to join the men’s circle.

Tonight we celebrated the end of the spring break with a party held by some students for faculty. As you can see below, almost everyone was dressed in beautiful Kurdish party dress and there was much dancing again. Carl and I are especially grateful to Shad and Kurdistan (first picture below,) the young people who took us to the bazaar and helped us negotiate the purchase of cloth and fitting by a tailor to have our outfits made. We continue to be so grateful for all we are experiencing and learning about this wonderful culture.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

20th Blog

20th blog. March 17, 2010

As we posted our last blog, the citizens of Iraq were about to go to the polls in the second parliamentary election since the creation of the post-Saddam constitution. When we wrote, we did not have clue as how the polling process would take place. Would it be safe? Would it be violent?

As it turned out, the election was safe in most parts of the country. Unfortunately there were around 25 deaths in Baghdad, and while any death is one too many, the country was for the most part quiet. We understand from the press that about 65% of eligible Iraqis voted overall, and that about 75% of persons in the Kurdistan Regional Government area (where we live) voted.

On election day, we walked to a nearby hotel to pick up a guest of the university and in the process walked by a school that had been converted into a polling station. Large concrete barriers had been set up on either end of the street that passed in front of the school, so as to keep auto and truck traffic away from pedestrians walking to the school. Although there were soldiers guarding the street, they said nothing to us about passing in front of the polling station even though we clearly were not local and would not be voting.

We were amazed to see that whole families turned out, often three generations, with children in tow. Many were dressed in their finest Kurdish clothing, as if they were dressed to go to a party. One particularly touching scene was of a boy too young to vote, perhaps 12 or 13, helping an elderly relative up the steps that led to the school. The scene was one more reminder of the power of family, and of urgency that even, maybe particularly, the elder folks felt to exercise this right, given all the deprivations they have been through in their lives.

As we polled our students, they too voted in large numbers. For all but the oldest students, this was their first election. By our unscientific sampling, we would estimate that 75% of our students voted. All seemed to be proud of their deeply stained fingers, made that way by dipping a finger into stain after voting, thus discouraging people from going to a nearby place to vote a second time. I don’t know what the stain is, but even now, 9 days after the election, it is still in evidence on people’s fingers.

We do not yet know the outcome of the election, and even if we did, we suspect that it would take more than one blog message to explain the complexities of just the Kurdish part of the electoral process, much less the rest of Iraq.

We took no pictures that day, but we include below four excellent photos taken by one of the AUIS English language instructors who has a phenomenal eye for what the camera can do. (About the time I think I am getting half way decent with a camera, I see his photos and know I have a long way to go.) This young man is Chris de Bruyn, and you can see more of his work at this website: He submitted some of them to BBC news that included the photos on their website. Not a shabby place to have your photos made available, eh?

The only disconcerting part of election day occurred in the evening, after the polls closed, when groups of people anticipating victory for their candidates fired their guns into the air. I’m not talking about a casual shot or two. Rather, there was an extended period of maybe 30 minutes when we heard the frequent rat-tat-tat of machine guns and automatic rifles. The shooters were not aiming at anyone, just shooting into the air. But bullets have to return to earth and we were told that around 15 people were admitted to emergency rooms with wounds. No one, thankfully, was killed. One errant AK-47 bullet returned to the earth in the middle of the university where it passed through the sheet metal roof of one of the faculty offices. It hit the tile floor with enough force to actually break the tile and penetrate into the floor. Fortunately the school was closed, and no one was hurt. See photo below of the bullet.

As I write and post this blog message, we are awaiting the arrival of Carolyn’s father, Glenn Falls, and his wife, Berny Berquist Falls. They are supposed to arrive on the 18th and will be with us for a week. This weekend is the beginning of a major celebration in this part of the world, namely Kurdish Iraq and Turkey, and most of Iran. The holiday, called Nawroz, predates the coming of Islam to this part of the world in the 7th and 8th centuries, and probably is a tradition that came from Zoroastrianism, the predominant religion in this area before Islam. Nawroz falls on the vernal equinox signaling the beginning of spring. School is dismissed for all of next week, and we intend to use our time to show Glenn and Berny around this part of the world that we have made our home since last September. It should be great fun. In our next blog we can post some pictures of their time with us.

We thank you for reading this blog and wish all of you the very best as you too celebrate the coming of spring.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Nineteenth Blog

Nineteenth Blog, March 7, 2010
In our last blog we told you about the dust storm that had blown through this area a couple of days before we wrote. We made the ill-advised statement that what we need now is a good rain storm to wash away the dirt that settled on every horizontal surface. What we had in mind was an Indiana thunderstorm that would come in, rain hard for an hour or so, and then move on. What we got, instead, was about five days of unrelenting rain, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, but always present. Sure enough, this rain washed down the dirt deposited in the storm, but it also made getting about the campus a wet mess by turning the sidewalks that link our offices and classrooms in to small lakes and the roads that lead up to our apartment complex into muddy pathways. The rain finally stopped on Thursday, March 4, and for the past two days, we have had lots of sun. As we talked with students about the weather, expressing frustration with the rain, we learned that all were grateful for the rain as it fills the reservoirs that provide water to this region in the hot and mostly rainless summer months.

The temperatures are warming, and when the warm temperatures are combined with the moisture the net effect is green. We see the hillsides that were golden brown when we arrived in September are beginning to turn green. Today as we walked the two miles to the bazaar, we observed some flowering trees beginning to form buds. We even saw a person in the bazaar who was selling daffodils. So spring is on its way. We’ll tell you more as we know more.

Based on observing CNN and BBC television, it would appear that few Western media have carried stories about the upcoming parliamentary election in Iraq. This election will take place later today, Sunday, March 7. Given our plans for posting this blog, we will not know outcomes by the time of the posting but we want to give you some impressions.

Unlike the campaigning process in the US, in which campaigns seem to go on forever, the campaign process in Iraq is short and tightly managed. No one was allowed to campaign openly until about three weeks ago, at which time this place burst forth in a kind of avid grass-roots campaigning process that we never see in the U.S. Various political parties put up flags across roadways and on buildings, people plastered campaign posters on their cars and trucks, and groups of supporters of one party or another conducted traffic-slowing parades on the main roads. Drivers of cars honked their horns in a short-long-short-short-long cadence of horn blasts pattern hour after hour. People sat on hoods of cars, or hung out of car windows waving flags. Children and adults alike rode standing upright in the backs of pickup trucks, waving flags and shouting. The climax of the campaign came late Friday evening when there were massive parades, including lighted floats, and fireworks displays. After Friday’s climax, the campaigning ended as suddenly as it began. On Saturday, the day before the election, they declared a moratorium on campaigning, so aside from the ubiquitous flags and posters stuck on every vertical surface and hung on ropes across all major streets, it was all very quiet. Shortly the polls will open and the voting will take place.

Regardless of the party one wants to see win in this area, the campaign process says a great deal about how the folks of this region have taken to the electoral process. A few of the more cynical of our students say that elections do no good, i.e., they keep returning the same politicians to power, but most disagree. But anyone who has lived through this campaign season can only conclude that there is a great deal of grassroots involvement in who wins and who loses. Their exuberance is a joy to behold, and a kind of living proof that in an important way people enjoy the most elemental aspect of democracy: having a say in who will lead. This is, after all, only the second parliamentary election since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and there continue to be many difficult issues to sort out both nationally and regionally. But our experience here and what we learn from the several reports from other parts of the country suggest that Iraqis have rejected various outside influences in charting the course for their own future, and they very much want an Iraqi solution to Iraqi problems. With you, we look forward to reading the outcome of the elections in a few days.

We have placed below several photos of the election campaign activity, and apologize that we may not have photos of every political party in the race. The photos we took were the result not of design, but of the vagaries of when we happened to be out, and whether we had the camera at a given moment. We intend no favoritism in the selection of photos.

We continue to be healthy and to be able to get around town safely – except for dodging the occasional car or bus driver who appears to be playing the game of “let’s see how close we can get to the pedestrian without actually hitting him.” We will begin the fourth week of the spring term this week and are a little over three months from the end of our time here. We thank you for your continuing reading of our blog.