Saturday, May 29, 2010

27th Blog, Transportation in Sulaimani

27th Blog, May 29, 2010

This blog, like the last one, is more about everyday life here in Sulaimani than about individuals, groups, issues, or places. This blog is about how people move about and how they transport the stuff that is important to them. It involves animal and human powered vehicles, motorbikes, cars, trucks and buses. For those who care nothing about mechanical things involving transportation, feel free to tune out right now.

Every once in a while we would get jerked out of the 21st century by a sight from another time. The first picture I have posted is of a horse drawn cart in the middle of a busy highway. This does not happen often, but it does happen. Like the chickens we referred to in the last blog, the ones that roam freely in some parts of Suli, the horse drawn cart bespeaks an earlier, simpler time. That we see one so rarely is testament to the rapid change of this society.

The bazaar is a crowded maze of streets and shops. One of the common ways to get goods into and round the bazaar is by means of a human powered three wheel cart. These carts are everywhere in the bazaar, sometimes with light loads, sometimes with very heavy loads. They are sometimes perched on the sidewalk along side busy roads and from the cart an entrepreneur might sell cigarettes or hot tea. Car drivers and pedestrians alike appear to understand the importance of these carts, and grant them considerable freedom to move about.

The other means of getting stuff into the bazaar, and also into other parts of the city, is by the use of a three wheeled motorcycle with a truck bed in back. These “trikes” are all made in China, have single cylinder gasoline powered engines of around 200 to 250 ccs of displacement, and get power to a solid live rear axle by means of shaft drive. In order to use them year round, some drivers erect elaborate windshields to keep off the winter winds and rains. They are one of the work horses of this city, and one can find them creeping through narrow places in the bazaar or out on the heavily trafficked ring road which encircles the city. The men who drive them in the latter context are brave men, indeed, as they put-put along at a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour on a busy road where they are being passed by multi-ton dump trucks and semi-trailer trucks that would squash them in case of an encounter. On one occasion, I saw a trike that was so heavily loaded that quite literally the front tire came off the ground for a couple of seconds after the driver hit a bump. Obviously he was not steering the trike for those seconds.

The other workhorse of the city, and a vehicle that rivals small cars in number on the road, is the small four door pickup truck. Unlike pickup trucks in the US, many of which never see rough use, the small pickups here serve as both family car and utility vehicle. People seem not to worry about loading them with objects so heavy that the back end of the truck sits on the axle. They carry everything: sheep and cattle, construction supplies, fruits and vegetables, you name it. They are not pampered. And then on the weekend, the owner will load up the cab with family and the bed of the truck with tables, chairs, picnic supplies, propane cookers, any children that will not fit in the cab, etc., and head for the hills around Suli for a day in the country. The two most popular brands are Toyota and Nissan, though the Chinese are making inroads with their own name brands like GoNow, Deer, and Grand Tiger.

The most common car used around the city is a small 5 passenger car of the size of a Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra. One can find similar sized cars made by Mazda, Kia, Hyundai, Opel, Volkswagen and Skoda. These are used both as personal cars and as taxis. The older taxi versions of the cars are white, with orange fenders. The newer versions are painted a solid beige color.

Beyond cars and small trucks, the other vehicles in wide use are SUVs of all sizes. At the smaller end of the scale, Hyundai Tucsons and Kia Sportages are popular. But one can find mid-sized and large SUVs. The most popular large SUVs are Toyota Land Cruisers, but one can find SUVs made by BMW, Infiniti and Mercedes Benz.

American car manufacturers GM, Ford, and Chrysler sell cars in this market but at numbers far below the Asian brands. GM imports model lines of small Chevrolets called Optra and Epica that are Korean made. They also sell the crew-cab version of a small pickup truck called Chevrolet Colorado, but the numbers pale in comparison to Asian brands. One can also find US-made Chevy Tahoes and Suburbans. Ford seems not to be in the small car market, but offers both Ford and Lincoln badged SUVs: Ford Edge, Lincoln MKX. For some of our trips out of Suli, we have ridden in a mammoth Ford Expedition. Ford also sells to the government diesel powered F-350 pickup trucks that are used by the police to transport soldiers. Chrysler sells both sedans like Chrysler 300 and Jeep SUVs, but their numbers are very low compared to other brands.

Motorcycles are used around here, though not in huge numbers. The most popular bikes are simple 125 cc. bikes made in China and Iran under the names Gwei, Nami, Arshia, MTR. If you were to put one of these bikes alongside a late 1960s Honda of the same type, you would see great similarity: a single cylinder, carburetor-fed engine; enclosed chain; drum brakes front and rear. They are cheap to buy – around $800 – and require little fuel. Like the trikes discussed above, these bikes are used to haul both people and goods. They are used year round, even in the rain and cold weather of winter. A hefty engine guard bolted in front of the engine becomes a mounting place for a piece of heavy plastic that will keep feet dry in rainy weather.

For people without cars, there is a system of privately owned buses that operate within the city of Suli, and between some cities. Within the city, a ride on one of these buses costs between 5 and 10 cents.

Heavy trucks are in wide use, hauling goods to and from the area. Popular brands include Scania, MAN, DAF, Renault, and Mercedes. It would appear that many of these trucks were first put on the roads in Europe and have made their way to Iraq from Europe as used vehicles. There’s nothing remarkable about them, as the first photo suggests. But I was amused with a warning sign on the back of a gasoline tanker truck. The meaning of the sign is quite clear, even if the spelling is not quite accurate.

Hope you enjoyed this digression from the significant. Next time, as we close out the blog messages we write from Iraq, we will hopefully have something more substantive to say.

As always, thanks for reading.

Friday, May 14, 2010

26th Blog

26th Blog Weekend of May 14-15

After one of our recent blogs, one respondent wrote back, asking about food: where it is grown and produced, how it comes to the local market. We will try to respond, to the best of our knowledge, and give you a few prices so you have a sense of what food costs.

Milk and dairy products: all of these seem to come from places other than Iraq. Yogurt comes from either Iran or Turkey. Price: $2.50 for a 3.3 pound container. The most widely available milk comes from Saudi Arabia, and comes in the form of 1 liter (just over one quart) paper containers. The yogurt is kept refrigerated at the stores and at home, but the milk is of the ultra high temperature (UHT) processing that allows it to be kept at room temperature until such time as we begin to use it. The milk in our cabinet right now was processed on March 14, 2010 and has a shelf life until October 10, 2010, all at room temperature. Milk is not cheap, about $5.50 for four liters or just over one gallon. We have found a kind of cheese we really enjoy, called Kashkaval cheese, that comes from Turkey. Cost: about $4.00 per pound. Parmesan cheese is available only in Erbil and is ghastly expensive. Eggs are sold by the piece and are not refrigerated in the shops. One of our AUI-S student’s father owns the big egg production unit just outside of Suli and that family is considered very comfortably situated. Our recollection of what we pay is about $1.80 per dozen.

Poultry: Chickens can be purchased either fresh or frozen. The frozen chicken comes from such far away places as Brazil. The packages of imported boneless, skinless chicken breasts all look pretty decent in the store, but our experience is the meat is tough and chewy. Sorry, I cannot tell you a price. People generally prefer fresh chickens and there are a number of poultry farms on the edge of Suli that provide the fresh chickens, but we have never bought a whole chicken because there is so much of a whole chicken we do not eat. There is an area of the bazaar where one can purchase freshly slaughtered and processed chickens or one can purchase a live chicken and come back later after it has been slaughtered and cleaned. It doesn’t get much fresher than this.

Beef: is raised and slaughtered locally. We have been told on excellent authority that the cows are delivered to the slaughterhouse, kept in quarantine for several days before they are slaughtered, and then inspected after slaughter and before they are delivered to the numerous butcher shops around the city. The meat is not kept refrigerated as it hangs in the shops, but is fresh as of the morning it is available, and is not kept from one day to the next. We have seen beef cuts in packages in refrigerated cases in the three large modern grocery stores, but we have never seen it purchased. People seem to prefer the hanging beef in a local shop. Beef is expensive: about $6.00 per pound, but what is made available is only the leanest cut of the meat, whether bought whole or ground. It is really quite good. Fresh lamb and goat meat are readily available but we have no experience in purchasing either.

Just as people prefer fresh meat, so too do they prefer fresh bread. The city is dotted with small two and three person storefront bakery operations that make large round pieces of flat bread called naan, or small loaves, about the size of an enlarged hamburger bun, called samoon. These are very cheap, about 80 cents for ten pieces/buns, and they are very good, especially if you happen to get to the bakery just after the bread has come from the oven. With the naan, no one seems to worry about packaging as we often see people leave the bakery with bare hands carrying a stack of unwrapped bread. The samoon lie loose in a bin, and are sold in bags only because it would be impossible to carry them loose.

Fresh vegetables: One of the real glories of this place is the availability of a wide range of fresh, inexpensive vegetables. These come from local farms, and from Iran and Syria. Eggplant, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, cucumbers are in regular supply and cost in the range of 40 cents to 50 cents per pound. Bananas come from Guatemala and cost around 60 cents per pound. The watermelon is the most amazing fruit available—it is the sweetest we have ever tasted and comes from Syria. Cost: about $5.00 for a melon. Pomegranates are grown locally and are readily available in season. They have a wonderful flavor but we don’t buy them often as we find the seeds a real nuisance. What we have discovered about the local people is that many of them avoid the problem of seeds by just chewing them with the fruit and swallowing them. That is true for sunflower seed hulls too.

Olives are another widely available food product. There are lots of varieties of olives and of processes for seasoning them. Some olives are green; others black. Some are quite pickled, others are mild. Cost of large black olives: $1.80 per pound. Also available: dried apricots, raisins, figs, almonds, walnuts and dates.

Large scale farming: this area is part of the Fertile Crescent, an arc of land that starts in Israel and the Occupied Territories, goes north, sweeps around the east and then proceeds south along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It is not called fertile by accident; all along the foothills of the Zagros Mountains around Suli are multi-hundred acre fields with a rich, loamy soil of the type you might find in some of the large fields of Indiana and Illinois. Sometimes the fields are a bit rocky, but even these can be plowed and cultivated. Because of rainfall patterns these fields are mostly sown in the fall and harvested in the early summer, and are planted with either wheat or barley. Below photo of fields, note Iranian knock-off of a John Deere combine. We haven’t a clue about what happens to the wheat after harvesting. That is, how does it enter the food chain of products that we consume in products like bread and cereal?

Summary: we have no trouble getting good food. We can also get, but try to avoid, grocery store aisles full of all variety of cookies and candies, and freezer cases with Magnum ice cream bars -- giant hunks of vanilla ice cream formed around a stick and covered in chocolate.

Sorry we cannot you provide you with a description of another important historical site, or of an amazing story about a group of students, but hope that this is helpful in understanding our everyday living.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

25th Blog

On Friday, May 7, three AUIS students accompanied us to an exhibition of Iranian life, brought to Sulaimani from Iran. One of the students speaks fluent Farsi, so could translate whenever we were trying to communicate with Iranians. (The border with Iran is less than two hours from here by car, so the cross-border traffic between the two countries is quite heavy.) Lots of stuff for sale, everything from books and DVDs to head scarves for women to knick knacks for one’s home.

The exhibition was a fascinating contrast between official hard line stances by the Iranian government, and the reality in Iran. On one hand, one young lady, in full head and body covering, let it be known that she wanted the Reform party to win in June of 2009, and that she demonstrated when they were robbed of the election. The Iranian consul to Suli was there and invited us to come to Iran. All very friendly. On the other hand there was an entire display set up by the Hezbullah, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group in southern Lebanon, with lots of videos of gruesome war scenes of Israeli-caused atrocities in attacks on Lebanon. They cannot mention Israel without mentioning the US. There were vendors selling, in addition to lots of editions of the works of Ayatollah Khomeini, copies of anti-American, anti-Jewish books.

One fellow had a volume, all in Farsi unfortunately, of the documents found in the American Embassy at the time of its capture. Once people knew that we are Americans, most went to great lengths to talk about how we as people could be friends, but this book seller seemed to take a perverse pleasure in showing me this book, a sort of living proof of Iranian suspicions about America’s bad intentions toward Iran. Another vendor had copies of a collection, in English, of Henry Ford's articles from his own newspaper called the Dearborn Independent. The title of the book: The International Jew (The World's Foremost Problem).

I had long read that Ford was anti-Semitic, but this is the first time I actually read what he thought. He makes constant reference to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Jewish document forged in Russia early in the 20th century, and he even acknowledges that the book may be a forgery, but he says that it doesn’t really matter that it’s a forgery because the facts of the day are that the Jews are doing the very things that the Protocols say they are going to do. Then he goes on to quote the Protocols throughout his articles. Chapter titles like “How the Jews Use Power,” “Jewish Influence in American Politics,” “Bolshevism and Zionism,” etc. The book was edited in Iran and published by the Department of Translation and Publication, Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, in 1997. On reading the book, I can make two observations: it’s no wonder that Ford liked Hitler; it’s no wonder that Israelis don’t trust Iranians (or other people of the Middle East who still peddle the Protocols).

After visiting the exhibition, we went to a nearby restaurant for iced fruit drinks and conversation with the AUIS students and then walked with them along Salim Street, the main east-west street in town, until they turned off to the house where they live. We walked on to our apartment, a bit tired from being on our feet most of the afternoon.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

24th Blog

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Dear Readers,

You will recall that in our last blog, we posted a story about a young man named Zmnako, a student at AUIS. Until a few months ago he was presumed dead in the gas attack on Halabja in 1988. Since writing, I have talked with him, and learned that on the day of the gas attack he was three months old and was left behind in the family’s home in Halabja. He was not discovered until two full days after the attack when an Iranian soldier found him and placed him with a family in Iran where he grew up. (See last blog for details.) He is a wonderful, gentle, young man who enjoys being a student at AUIS. See below for a picture of him kneeling next to the Halabja cemetery memorial marker that bears his name.

Since posting the last blog, we went with a group of faculty to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, for a two day weekend trip. It takes about three hours to get to Erbil, by way of a mountainous road, one section of which has very sharp switchback curves as the road snakes up and down the side of the mountain. (Oh! for a motorcycle in moments like that.) Erbil is larger than Sulaimani, and has a larger expat community. They in turn can support Western stores and restaurants that we lack around here. Erbil also has a traditional bazaar like Suli’s, but also has a large modern mall, complete with huge grocery store – the closest thing to a Super Walmart we have seen in this part of the world. There is also a combination bakery, delicatessen, and restaurant called Bakery N’More that stocks beef salami, sliced turkey, good cheese, and other foods that we cannot get around here. We bought some food, but not too much as we cannot use a large amount in the next month.

Erbil is widely known in the region as being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is mentioned in some of the records of ancient Mesopotamian empires. There is a large circular flat top hill that rises perhaps 300 feet from the level plain that is now the modern city of Erbil, and on top of the hill successive generations have built fortifications, called a citadel. The citadel was actually occupied until a few years ago, and now is undergoing significant renovation. See next photos of the citadel from below. If you ever come this way, you must check out the rug museum in the citadel. While there we met a group of 15 brave American women who were involved in a tour of the region. Each had had to convince husbands and/or family that travel to this part of Iraq is safe. They were loving the experience.

While in Erbil we went to the home of Rawa, one of Carl’s students from the fall term. In this home we met his lovely family: Mohammed, father, Shadia, mother, and Ramyar, Baso and Basya, brothers and sister. The latter two are delightful and energetic 13 year old twins. Mohammed has earned a Ph.D. and is the head of the physics education program at a university in Erbil, and Shadia is an elementary school teacher. They are in many ways the new face of Kurdistan: well educated and professional, but still committed to the family values of the Kurdish people. In traditional Kurdish style, we sat around a tablecloth that had been spread on the floor. The food was delicious, as usual. See photos below.

When Rawa picked us up at the hotel he was driving a late model Chrysler 300, and after being crunched up in Toyota Corollas for much of our local transportation, we were delighted to ride in an American car that felt almost limousine-like in its size and comfort. The car, it turns out, belongs to his older brother Ramyar who works for the American computer equipment maker Sysco which has an office in Erbil. That we liked it is a sign that perhaps we really should be coming home. Sorry, no pictures of the car.

We are now hunkered down for the last 5 weeks of classes, plus finals week. If all goes according to plan, we should be back in the US by the evening of June 11. This has been a long semester so it’s difficult not to wish away this last month. I’m sure we will end up doing some exciting things before we leave, we are just not sure what that is at the moment.

Thanks for reading. Sorry that we are running out of new experiences. If you are curious about an aspect of life we have not covered, feel free to write to, and we’ll see what we can do to get information.