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.