Iraq in the summer is a true broiler, although not necessarily more so than what I’d left behind in Oman. Here however, the lack of a reliable supply of electricity meant daily intermittent power cuts while the university electricians transferred to an alternate grid provided by immense electrical generators that sat just inside the blast walls behind the main university administration building. During these transition periods, we would all—teachers and students alike–perspire profusely inside the suffocating space created by the sheet-metal walls of our prefab classrooms. These blackouts were random and could come at any time in any part of the city and eventually became just another routine part of daily life in Iraq.
The American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniyah (AUIS) was located on a temporary campus in a fairly upscale neighborhood a few miles southeast of the city center. It was a mix of existing cement block and mortar buildings and (prefab) portable classroom ‘cabins’, all surrounded by high concrete blast walls. There were always heavily-armed Kurdish peshmerga guards stationed just outside the front gate which could only be used by faculty and administration. There was a second entrance at the opposite end of the campus where the students were thoroughly searched each morning before being allowed to enter the main campus.
June 2010: Arriving at the airport in Irbil (also spelled Arbil or Erbil), the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, I was struck by the diversity of the people buzzing around the small, crowded terminal. I had been equally surprised by the large number of Chinese workers on my flight from Dubai, most wearing a company shirt that identified their purpose for the trip.
I was aware that the regional government of Kurdistan was ramping up production of their oil reserves, but flying in foreign workers in such large numbers was surely a sign of the kind of new-found prosperity I’d become accustomed to in the Arabian Gulf countries. From the online research I’d done, I had expected this experience to be very different from my previous 3 years spent in the Gulf, both in cultural and standard of living. For a moment, I felt my heart move toward disappointment, but that emotion was quickly replaced by my need to focus as I entered a new culture, one that would turn out to be more proudly rooted in tradition than any I’d experienced before.
Nature is what we all have in common~Wendell Berry
The summer of 2017 has been one for the record books as far as natural disasters are concerned. I spent two weeks visiting friends in Seattle and was greeted by smoke-filled air each day due to wildfires that were raging out of control in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
Next, I returned to the Southeastern USA just in time to witness the arrival of multiple record-breaking hurricanes that had churned their way across the Atlantic.
And then over the past few days, I’ve been intently following the post-earthquake rescues in my adopted home of Mexico.
Haitham, one of my brightest communications class students, stood in front of my desk nervously fidgeting with his notebook until I finally nudged him into telling me why he’d made an appointment to speak with me in the privacy my office. “I just wanted you to know I really admire your culture,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘your’ in an effort to express his dismay with his own.
“Really,” I retorted, with an amused expression on my face that I couldn’t seem to control. “I can think of a few aspects of American culture I don’t admire,” I added. In his most earnest voice, Haitham continued by explaining that he was actually referring to ‘standards’ which he felt were completely absent in Omani culture.
The flashpoints that sparked the clash between world views earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia are just the latest battle in the decades-long culture war over racial and economic inequality in the USA. Once again, groups on the left and right of America’s political extremes (along with others) are battling it out in online forums and public protests. The most recent lightning rods are American Civil War monuments to white generals and soldiers who fought for the Southern Confederacy to maintain their (economic) right to own slaves. It was, of course, the slaves that allowed the South to prosper by providing the manual labor needed to run vast agricultural plantations.