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Casting Call in Iraq
February 23, 2010
by James F. Pontuso, Patterson Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs
Everyone asked me the same question. When I told them where I was going, they inquired in a kindly tone, “Why are you going to Iraq to teach?” Sometimes I got the feeling they thought my gray hair had made me a bit addled – perhaps I hadn’t read the news for the last seven years. I resisted the flippant answer, “Because Harvard forgot to send my contract.”
So why am I teaching in Iraq? The reasons people do things are often complex, especially when the alternatives involve changing locations, moving out of the country, and switching cultures. So here are my thoughts: Sulaimani, the city where I teach, is quite near what the ancient Romans called Pontus. Who can beat the irony of that or pass up a trip to one’s ancestral homeland?
Sulaimani is in northern Iraq, a region populated predominantly by Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. Most Kurds live in Iraq, but there are many in Iran and Turkey, as well as Kurds who fled Saddam and now live in Sweden, Australia, and the U.S. Altogether there are about 40 million Kurds.
Kurds are unbelievably pro-American, maybe more so than the Poles I met after the collapse of Communism in 1993. The locals watch out for me wherever I go in the Sulaimani. Everyone knows that the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS) is in their hometown, and they are very proud. Since I look like I have come from “American College Professor Central Casting,” they figure out right away who I am and why I am wandering around, somewhat bewildered, looking like a hapless American College Professor. Instantly taking pity on me; they rush to help whenever I look even a bit perplexed. They are very kind.
It’s pretty safe here. All roads may lead to Rome, but only two to Sulaimani, guarded jealously by Kurdish Peshmerga (the regional military force) with Kalashnikovs (the famous Russian-made machine gun). They work hard to keep weapons out of the area. Sulaimani is safer than any big U.S. city. There is hardly any violence, lots of street life, and no crime (the consequences of which would be enormously uncomfortable for the offender). The Peshmerga, nice young men in fatigues who invariably smile when they see us pass by, also guard the university and the buildings where the faculty live. The Kalashnikov turns out to be a quite stylish accessory when its aim is to protect you.
Although it is difficult to believe, Sulaimani is pretty normal – normal for the U.S. in 1959. Well, not exactly. Much of Sulaimani looks like 1959, but this is an oil-rich region, so there are lots of nice cars and heaps of expensive electronic equipment. And, of course there is the Internet and cell phones everywhere. By the way, I can tell you where the cell phone you lost is. It’s here, nicely refurbished, at the local bazaar.
The AUIS students are quite eager, much like Czech students I taught on my Fulbright fellowship in 1993. Students here enjoy their newly won freedom. The memory of despotism is still fresh for them, making them more attuned than young Americans to the price of winning freedom and the benefits of having it.
The local educational system is good for the top students in science and math, but only fair for everyone else. Like many places around the world, elementary and high school students mostly memorize their lessons. Students at the AUIS are quite pleased with the “American” model that allows them to talk in class, ask questions, and think for themselves. For a teacher, there isn’t anything better than having post-tyranny students.
Two old and dear friends from Hampden-Sydney teach at AUIS. Darcy Wudel (right), who filled in for me during my first sabbatical in 1990 and stayed until 1992, is my fellow political scientist, and Rosalind Warfield-Brown (center), who taught rhetoric for 15 years at Hampden Sydney, runs the English language program.
Another old pal, John Agresto, is the real reason I have come to Iraq. John is one of the founders of the AUIS and its current Provost. He asked me three years ago, when AUIS first opened, to teach for him. Who could refuse a fellow educator trying to rebuild a country?
Then there is Colin Powell. Powell warned President George W. Bush, “If we break it, we own it.” Most Americans, whether they initially opposed or favored the war in Iraq, feel bad about how difficult things became. Whatever our views on the war, there is little doubt that the people of Iraq have suffered terrible hardship. Great power requires much responsibility. Of course, teachers cannot fix much, but it is possible for them to influence positively a few lives. A number of my former Czech students now have enormously successful careers. If I can have the same good fortune at AUIS, I will consider my time here well spent.
Speaking of responsibility, one reason I came to Iraq is the example set by countless Hampden-Sydney men who have committed their time and effort to public service and private charity. I remember one enormous conflagration that lit up the sky for miles and the bravery and determination of our volunteer fire department in putting it out. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that three present or former Hampden-Sydney faculty teach at AUIS – the most from any American college or university.
I really wish I could tell you I came to Iraq to make heaps of money. The truth is, sadly, that once my travel expenses and the ever-popular “self-employment” taxes I will be stuck with next year are figured in, my salary is roughly the same as at Hampden-Sydney. The Kurds have been so nice to me I asked them if I could have an oil well. They aren’t that nice.
So why am I teaching in Iraq? Adventure, friendship, duty, eager students, and two of the most delightful words in the English language – road trip.
Just heard the call to prayers – really – there is a Mosque right behind my apartment building. The Imam has a beautiful voice.