Bye to Iraq

Saturday night, April 9 — I feel like I am back in that dream state I mentioned when I first got to Iraq. It is too much to process. I know that I will have a lot more to say about each city when I get home. I took so many pictures and tried to pick out ones that tell a story. I think it is a good story and even in its short form it is kind of long. I hope you like it.

We leave Iraq tomorrow. It started and ended as a dream. It was a good one, but I am ready to wake up and come home.

Al Qash

We went to Al Qash after our trip to Amedy yesterday. Before I start, let me note translating things from Kurdish or Arabic to English is not an exact science. I’ve seen Duhok and Dohuk; Amedy and Amedi; Al Qash and Al Qush. Spell check loves it. My favorite example is listing below at a pizza shop. And I’m not complaining that they had a vejetaryan option.

Anyway, let’s go on to Al Qash. This town is south of Duhok about half way to Mosul. It is a Christian town and seems quite wealthy. I counted six BMWs and our host drove a Land Rover. Getting there is like driving through Kansas, with huge vast expanses of wheat and barley fields. The town has at least four churches. The main church in town is the Monastery of the Virgin Mary. It was built in the 1850s. We met the head of the Chaldean Christian Church Father Gabriel, who very clearly a dedicated pastor but also a gifted fundraiser. He was building an orphanage that looked like Saddam’s palace (before he fell) from the outside. Just as an aside, his predecessor was murdered in Mosul about two years ago, so he is clearly a tough guy. The Monastery has a really interesting museum. It has drums made by monks. It also has a case with knives and pistols and another one with cigarettes.

The Monastery of the Virgin Mary was built in part because the Monastery of Saint Hormizd was getting a little cramped in the 1850s. There must have been a lot of monks, because Saint Hormizd is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. Saint Hormizd started building it 1500 years ago in the hills above Al Qash. More specifically, it is built directly into the side of the mountain with lots of caves, tunnels and small room. The monks apparently used to occasionally lock themselves in a cave for 30 days and do nothing but pray. There are tombs of 13th century bishops in full display. Saint Hormizd is buried here as well but you have to duck down and bring a candle to get there. The legend is that if you reach out and place your hand over his the marking on the tomb, God will grant your wish. Barkley tried it.

The entire time we were there I could not but help wondering how the western world doesn’t even know this place exists. I know 40 years of a brutal dictator tended to dampen tourism, but even so this place is amazing. Father Gabriel and our host, Basher, clearly understand that this something special. There is nothing commercial at all about it. It is also still in use by monks and I hear they tend to get grumpy when you try to move in a Denny’s.

Once again, ancient Christians might mean ancient Jews. As we were leaving our hosts said that “Al Qash was home to the tomb of Noah; you know Noah from the flood and Moses.” He also told us that Noah was buried with Sarah. It turns out he was saying Noam, which makes a little more sense. I was a little nervous about being disappointed given my experience in Amedy, but we went.

In a little courtyard surrounded by old stone walls is a green door. When you go inside the door and down ten steps you see a big bright green covering over a tomb. It is surrounded by a kind of lattice worked fence. Underneath the covering is a wood box. To the right of the tomb are three large carvings in Hebrew, which I am hoping someone will translate for me when I get home. On one of the pillars surrounding the tomb there is some additional writing that seems to be much older than the first set. I am not sure if there is enough to translate here. I’m not really sure who is buried here. But I hope to figure it out.

I’ll be writing a few more posts on the way home and will try to work in some videos I shot as well. But I leave tomorrow morning and it’s time for sleep.

Amedy – an ancient cave and Saddam’s palace have been reinvented; an ancient Jewish tomb and church remain intact

Yesterday, I visited Amedy, a town up in the mountains about 45 minutes northeast of Duhok. Along the way we stopped at Inishika Cave. It is in a Syrian village. The cave has been used for centuries as a way to escape the heat. Today, it has been turned in to the equivalent of a Denny’s. In the back, there are “artifacts” of people who travelled through the area. I don’t have any pictures of them because there is a guy with the same kind of camera as I have who takes pictures and charges people three dollars for them. He has three mini-photo printers hooked up to give them out instantly.

The road through the mountains is beautiful and it changes your perspective of Iraq as a big desert.

Amedy is on a mountain, just like the Citadel. When it was first built (about 1500 years ago) there were only two narrow pathways up the mountain, both guarded gates. The gates are still there, but since this is Iraq, now you can drive through one of them. This gate lists all if the Kurdish kings from 1300 to 1850, in a column down the side. The other gate is still only accessible by footpath. There is a carving of a human figure in front of the second gate that is supposed to protect the city. Unlike the Citadel, Amedy has a thriving population today. You can tell because people live right over the second gate today.

Down the hill is a small church. The caretaker of the church says that it has been there since 311. No, I didn’t forget a number. He said 311. This was a tremendously meaningful part of the trip for my friend Barkley. He had a long talk with the caretaker about the history of the church, which I managed to videotape. The caretaker told us that the church had been bombed in 1947, 1961 and 1963 but never had been totally destroyed. To make sure we believed him he showed us the shells and pointed out the original rocks in the foundation.

Prior to going to Amedy, we had been told that there was a Jewish tomb as well. It took a while to find it, but we eventually did. It was right behind the Mosque. The top of the tomb is made corrugated sheet metal and it appears to be in someone’s back yard. Inside is a low simple stone coffin. There was nothing to identify it as Jewish, no letters or writing. The stone tablets on the top of it are from a local construction company. There was no one around and we had sort of just walked in. I have to be honest we didn’t stay very long, in part because the Mosque was right next door and I didn’t want to offend anyone.

After we got back we learned that our state department contact visited Amedy in June of 2010 and found the same tomb. Inside she had found a white cloth with Hebrew letters on it. She had them translated. It said: “Here is buried David ben Yosef ben Ephraim Ben Ya’aqobh ben Yoseph. Known as “Biyehezna” In the year, Five thousand and two and thirty.” The hebrew year 5032 is 1270 in our calendar. The white cloth wasn’t in the tomb when we visited, but it is possible that it is with the caretaker. I hope so.

After leaving Amedy for Duhok, we decided to take a little side trip, to see one of Saddam’s old palaces. Our guide said it was just on top of a next mountain. So up we went. And up and up and up. I don’t know how high it is but high enough that it has snow. On the way up, our guide told us how during the war he had worked with the U.S. Special Forces as a translator and had once been inside Saddam’s bedroom in Baghdad. He said this palace had cost millions. When you consider that Saddam diverted a river to make a lake and there were no roads on the mountain before the palace was built, it probably cost more like billions. It certainly doesn’t look like that today. After Saddam fell, the people pretty much ran up and took everything. Today it is used as a communication relay station. You can’t actually go up to the palace, but you can walk around his helicopter landing zone. You just have to stay on the cement. It turns out there are still land minds in the neighborhood.

Amedy shows how disposable or temporary everything seems in Iraq. People modify everything, no matter how historical, to fit their present needs. A cave becomes a Denny’s; an ancient gate supports a house and a billion dollar palace becomes a communication tower. It all showed at least a little bit what has staying power; the little church and tomb of a dead Jewish guy right next to a thriving Mosque. I’m not sure whether or not that is a comforting thought or not.

Iraq – optimism, expectations, “I found you on Facebook” & shiny shoes

Reader Kak Lenny asks: Are the Iraqis you’re meeting optimistic about the future? Any conversations about Iraq post-US? What about media, official & social? Is there a vibrant debate? Did the Vice Gov compliment the shine on your shoes? I hear that’s a measure of a real man in Iraq.

I hear the phrase “since 2003” all the time. It is a way of saying that things are better since the fall of Saddam. I also hear “only since 2003” as a way of excusing their lack of progress in everything. I have heard several stories about some pretty scary events in Mosul, which is about an hour and a half away. Christians and non-Muslims have been forced to leave. I’ve met two people who were forced to leave quickly (within days) because of direct threats. All of this happened “since 2003.” So, while it is very safe in Duhok, there is an underlying fear that something bad is not that far away. It makes optimism kind of difficult.

In Kurdistan, the U.S. is basically already gone, so there isn’t a great deal of discussion of what happens when we leave the country. There is a big push at the University to establish partnerships with universities in the U.S. For example, the University is starting a political science department and wants undergrads in political science to come over and be “native English speakers” in the new political science classes. With this and other partnership ideas, the faculty here is very clear that they want to be seen as full partners and not junior partners in any collaboration. So what seems important to people here is that following the U.S. presence here, they will be seen as equals contributing to a future relationship.

“I found you Facebook” is something I have heard almost every day since I got here. So I know that people here use it. No one has tried to friend me though, and I am not sure why not. Mobile and smart phones seem to be how people connect. Not everyone has internet in the home. Almost everyone has at least one cell or smart phone. The idea of an “official” media is a little different here as well. The government funds more than the media outlets of the ruling coalition. They apparently fund media outlets of opposition parties. So there is a lot of state supported media and not all of it supports the current state.

I am not sure I would call it vibrant, but there is a lot of debate. Most of it seems to be around how much of the government pie one person is getting compared to his neighbor. I also hear a lot about how the government isn’t doing enough to help “the people.” So often it seems people who want the government to give them more money are critical of the government for not giving more money to other people.

Not one person has commented on my shiny shoes. I’m kind of bummed about that. It could be because I am not wearing the shoes with really sharp pointed toes. That seems to be what is in style for men.

By the way, Saturday (April 9th) is the eighth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, but more on that later.

Lenny, thanks for your post and questions.

Requests, TV and Supermarkets

Two Requests I have had only two requests from people that were unrelated to work. The first was from a boy outside the Citadel who asked me to take a picture of a dove. I asked him why. He said, “To show pretty in Iraq.” Unfortunately, the picture of the bird didn’t come out well. But I got a picture of the boy, which I think is better anyway.

The second request was yesterday. A bellhop in the hotel came over to us while we were eating dinner. Earlier in the day he had helped us fix our WiFi, so we knew him. He told us that he was a lawyer. I think that is an undergraduate degree in law, not a JD. He had received a scholarship from a UN development agency for study abroad. He had to find a University in the states or Europe. He had seen the Seton Hall screen saver on the computer when the Wifi kicked in. He asked for our cards. We had both run out, so he said he would wait until after we ate. Sure enough, he was waiting after dinner. As I gave him my card, he said thanks and that if he came to Seton Hall he would work hard. I have no doubt about that.

Musings on Iraqi TV The hotel has an English language movie station. It appears that anything close to sex has been cut out. However, I have heard every four letter word in the book. Violence seems fine. The ads on the station are infrequent and mainly about alcohol. There is also an Arabic channel that seems to have X-games-type sports and music videos. The videos might not show as much skin as MTV, but at they show as much as that old Friday Night Videos show. There also seems to be a lot of really fat male singers with high voices. The sports show seems to focus on crashes and people getting knocked out.

A Supermarket Across the street from the hotel is a supermarket, so we went. It looked like a normal supermarket, except for a couple of things. Every shelf was totally stocked. I don’t think I saw a single empty space anywhere. It was almost as if as soon as someone bought something it was replaced. In the meat case, the packages were wrapped in cellophane and they were enormous. I think one had an entire lamb without its head.

We are close to finishing our work here. I am hoping that we will be able to see some of the surrounding area in our time remaining.

Surprise, Smile, Give a Speech

It is almost 11:00pm and I just finished working. So this is going to be a short post. Before telling about my day, here are some pictures of Dohuk, my “5 star” and, at the request of Kak Lenny, my shower shoes.

Dohuk from a hill

the shower shoes
A gentle reminder from the 5-star

I was expecting to spend most of today with the professors at the University working on our curriculum. In the morning, we had a short meeting schedule with the Vice-Governor of Dohuk and, afterwards, another meeting with “2 or 3” NGO leaders. The Vice-Governor is the person in charge of distributing government money to NGOs; so I knew he was important. Even so, it seemed like an easy morning. I even left my computer bag and files in the car, since I didn’t think I would need them.

Surprise #1: When we got to his office, the vice-governor informed us that he also had a meeting with “some people” from the UN. He asked if we could combine meetings and we obviously agreed. A couple of minutes later, in walked the Deputy UN representative in Iraq. She is the second highest ranking UN official in the country and has a staff of five. We had a very nice discussion about our program and her staff seemed aware of what we were doing.

Surprise #2: The vice-governor then suggested that we go to a meeting with NGOs. So we walked downstairs, turned a corner and there were about 50 NGO leaders. They were seated around a large conference table with a microphone at each chair. In the back, I saw several photographers and at least one TV camera. On the table, I saw placards with the names of all the UN staff. I stood in the background trying to figure out what to do next.

Surprise #3: It turned out that the UN folks were not the only ones with name placards. Barkley and I each had one of our own. I figured at least I got a good seat to hear what they were talking about. Until, that is, the Vice-Governor started speaking.

Surprise #4: The Vice-Governor introduced everyone very nicely and then said that after the UN representative spoke for 10 minutes, the representatives from Seton Hall would give a 10 minute presentation on their efforts. I had no notes, no files, nothing. I didn’t even have a pen. Was I on Candid Camera, or in the Actor’s Nightmare? Luckily, I found a pen and while the UN rep spoke for 15 minutes, I scribbled down some notes. I spent some of my time saying thank you to everyone I could think of (a good way to start, I figured), picked up on a couple of things the UN rep said and talked about our program. It seemed to go very well. I got some nice comments on the speech and we moved on.

Surprise #5: After I finished, the Vice-Governor thanked me and told everyone in the room that I would be meeting with them later in the day at 4:30. I didn’t know that. But the Vice-Governor signs NGO checks, so the NGO leaders were happy to comply. I had a great two hour meeting with about 40 of them.

A good and surprising day.

Today’s travel to Dohuk and Jersey Shore reminders

Today, we left Erbil and drove to Dohuk — about a 2.5-hour drive. It is rolling farm land, kind of like the Midwest. However, it didn’t have the sweeping sense of the space and openness because, every once in a while, an entire hill was covered with dirt and rubble. As we started up into the hills of Dohuk, it reminded me of Indio and Riverside in California — lots of rocky and dusty hills, with an occasional boulder. I wouldn’t call it pretty but it was interesting.

There were lots of little towns along the way. Most were modern looking, but a few that seemed to be made out of the same bricks as the Citadel. I saw lots of people (including a few kids that looked around five) walking along the road looking for rides. The sign for hitchhiking is a flat palm held out instead of thumbs up.

Driving is obviously different. I shot video of cars on the wrong side of the road; cars passing three or 3-4 trucks at a time; cars passing on the gravel on the right side of the road; and lots of passing on blind curves and hills. I tried to upload it but it seemed to be taking forever and I’m beat. Anyway, our driver let us know that a particularly crazy truck that was bobbing and weaving in front of us was clearly driven by a Turkman. They are, apparently, notorious drivers. As nuts as it was, we only saw one pickup truck skid and slide off the side of the road.

We got in to the hotel, a “five-star,” checked in and almost immediately went to meeting with faculty members at University of Dohuk. So I’m not an expert on Dohuk yet. However, I did notice a lot more color on the buildings than I saw in Erbil. Our host described Dohuk as “an ice cream parlor” of color. I saw pistachio, vanilla, cherry vanilla, orange sorbet, chocolate, mint chocolate chip and even that weird fake blue Italian ice stuff.

Speaking of food. In Erbil, the menu is quite diverse. You can have lamb or chicken. You can have either as a kabab or sliced in a lump. That is basically it. I don’t think there is a word in Kurdish for vegetarian. Luckily, I have been able to find lots of hummus, babaganoush, some amazing vegetables, lots of rice and wonderful flatbreads. These are always available as side dishes for meat. So, once I get past the quizzical looks waiter I have been doing fine. But for my first meal in Dohuk, we went to a nice restaurant, which had one section designated for men and another designated for mixed seating. It isn’t a law, just a custom. We sat in the mixed section. To my left, there were four or five women in full-head covering and traditional dresses. To my right, I saw the Kurdish version of Snooki. She had big blow dried hair (dyed blonde), what looked like a spray on tan, lots of big earrings and jewelry. Her friends were also dressed in western clothes, mainly jeans and short sleeve blouses, but I think one had a nose ring. It was a fun lesson in diversity. By the way, I forgot to mention that when Zuleka (our Erbil interpreter) told her friends we were from New Jersey, and they apparently said “you mean like Jersey Shore?” I wanted to hide under a rock.

Some fun facts about Iraq:

1) Hot water on the right; Cold is on the left

2) A “five-star” hotel is actually pretty close to a five-star hotel. Beautiful room; lots of space; mini bar with alcohol; hot water; two restaurants; a pool; an ATM machine; satellite TV, a safe, laundry drops, soap, shampoo, conditioner. Not too shabby.

3) I knew having shined shoes was important, but didn’t know how important until today. I saw men who carried shine sponges with them.

4) Many college students dress up for class. Suits and ties and full dresses were more common than jeans and t-shirts.

5) The University of Dohuk does not have a student center. They have dorms, classrooms, offices and a recreation center; but no student center.

6) In the Iraqi higher education system, you get tenure when you get a job as an assistant professor. As you move through the ranks you teach less hours a week. Publishing and conference attendance matters for promotion, but not a bad gig.

More pictures tomorrow.

Back to Erbil for a minute – the Citadel

I realized that I didn’t talk about The Citadel in my last posts. It is a 6,000 year old city/fort in Erbil. The compound is built on the top of a man-made hill and is about 11 hectares in size. It is a twisting maze of brown brick buildings criss-crossed with tiny alleys and low ceilings. The buildings range from two story homes to rooms (also homes) that are only slightly bigger than a closet. In a few places, Saddam decided to make improvements, so he built huge stone columns and archways that our guide said were Arab not Kurdish.

The government and UNESCO have designated the Citadel as a World Heritage Site. There is clearly a great deal of restoration work going on and much of it is inaccessible as a result. Regular people lived inside the Citadel until 2003, when they were asked to leave and given houses in exchange. Because it was so recently inhabited, it still has the normal hodge-podge of power lines and cables running throughout the complex. It is jarring to see an obviously ancient building hooked up to a power grid.

I found myself wondering what 6,000 years of history actually means here. It seems that, until 2003, no one thought about protecting or even paying much attention to the site. It was just another place to live, especially if you were poor.

It clearly could be an amazing tourist attraction and I am told that making it one is a goal. I hope it happens.

There is a small museum inside the Citadel called the Kurdish Textile Museum. We stayed with two professors from Southern Illinois who were working on a marketing plan for the museum. I hope it works because the place is very cool. Most of the textiles and rugs there seemed to be from the 1920’s or 1930’s. I asked if they had anything older. They didn’t. But given that “old” doesn’t seem be of much interest here, I guess it is not surprising. Even so, if you are ever in Erbil, the museum is a must.

Kurdish Parliament

I came to Iraq to deliver a seminar to members of the Kurdish Parliament in Erbil and work with Kurdish academics in Dohuk in their efforts to develop a NGO certificate program. I leave for the university in Dohuk tomorrow.

My time with Parliament and in Erbil has been wonderful. I have learned at least as much from it as anyone else.

• We started out the sessions doing introductions. Three of the members of parliament said they were poets. Do you think we have three U.S. Senators that could quote a poem, let alone write one for a living?

• One of my lectures, called “Handling the Media,” focused on basic media presentation skills. I was trying to explain that before becoming a professor, my job was to help political candidates deal with the media. The translation was not going well, so I asked Barkley to pull up a picture of me shaking hands with Bill Clinton. Problem solved. They knew exactly what I did and I was suddenly a lot more important. I should have shown it at the very beginning.

• Speaking of translation … I’ve had the most wonderful interpreter for the parliament sessions. Her name is Zuleka. Perhaps not so traditionally, she engaged in both sides of the conversation. If I said something she found particularly interesting she would say, “Really? Wow, that is cool, let me tell them.” Then she would translate it. If I said something that didn’t make sense, she would say: “Naaa try, again.” I think she did the same with when translating what they said. Being the only person to fully understood both sides, she figured she had a responsibility to make sure we all spoke clearly. It was amazing to watch.

• Working with an interpreter (Zuleka hates the word translator) is kind of like dancing. That should scare anyone who has seen me dance. But anyway, I would take two steps up; say my piece; and take two steps back. Zuleka would take two steps up, interpret and then two steps back. While she spoke, I figured out what to say next. We would “sashay” from side to side depending on who in the audience was asking a question. The process also helps eliminate “ums”; “aahs”; “let me see” and a bunch of other stalling phrases that often creep into public speaking. This is because you have to speak slowly and in short bursts. Not sure it will make me a better dancer, but it was actually fun.

• Kurdish and Arabic almost share a common alphabet. Kurdish has a few more letters in it. However, they sound very different. Kurdish sounds almost lyrical, flowing, poetic. Arabic is filled with hard starts and hard stops, as if filled with exclamation points. I realized this today because one of the documents I was working with had been translated into Arabic and not Kurdish, so I heard parts of both next to each other. Zuleka (by the way) discovered this about 20 minutes before we started. It didn’t faze her in the least.

• In Kurdish, if you want to show respect to a women you add “khan” after her first name. So all of you should address my wife as “Jane Khan.” For a man, you add “kak” in front of the man’s name. And yes, it is pronounced exactly like the alternate term for a rooster. How are you doing Kak Lenny? Now imagine a room, filled primarily with male members of parliament who all want to show each other respect. It took me a good half a day to get past it without twitching and the word has forever been changed for me.

• I mentioned earlier that there are no taxes in Iraq. Everything is paid for by oil money. Healthcare is free. Education is free through college. Even so, there appears to me no shortage of people hustling to make money, as evidenced by the tool shops on “Home Depot” street. Yet, there is an almost constant refrain that no one has “enough” or that government is not doing “enough” to help the people.

• I actually think that problem is that government is doing too much. The government has the capacity to pay for almost anything with oil money. Several people estimated as many as 60% of workforce is either directly or indirectly paid by the government. For example, the government not only funds political parties, they fund the newspapers and TV stations of the different political parties. Political parties also have their own NGOs, also funded by the government. Apparently, however, when you ask an NGO staff person or a partisan journalist or political party operative if they supported by the “government” the answer is almost always no. They may say they are funded by the political parties, the newspaper or the NGO, but not the government. Perhaps no one feels they are getting “enough” because the government is so huge, complex and rich that no one realizes how much it actually pays for. Anyone who calls me a Republican after this is in trouble. It is different world over here.

For those of you reading, thanks for your comments, here and on Facebook. Pictures will be uploaded on the pictures page. I chose to write this in large part for myself and posterity, but getting feedback has been really gratifying. Tomorrow is mostly a travel day. I’ll be in touch next from Dohuk.