Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 2, “More Please”

Early last year, I began writing about The AUIS Voice, the first independent student newspaper in post-Saddam Iraq.  Started by a scrappy band of Iraqi students and an impassioned ex-Washington Post reporter, the Voice’s spirit of innovation is ironically its adherence to the oldest principles of the craft: objectivity, editorial freedom, and the search for truth (rarities among Iraqi media).  In mid-May, via a university grant, I traveled to the northern Kurdish region of Iraq to interview and observe the student staffers in action– along with gaining a glimpse of the university and region where their unfolding story is set.  This series is centered on my trip.

Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure

Current and former Voice staffers and I pose for a quick pic on the AUIS campus. Left to right: Mahdi Abdullah, Namo Kaftan, Taha Faris, Me, Hazha Ahmed, and Arez Hussen Ahmed.

Part 2: “More please”

During my stay in Sulimaniyah, a city in northern Iraq affectionately dubbed Suli, I had a hard time paying taxi drivers.  Strangely, they repeatedly refused to take the money I attempted to hand them from the backseat.  I had to literally insist again and again by shoving the bills at them, until finally, seemingly reluctantly, they accepted.

I asked staffers at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS), about this.  It’s apparently a matter of pride, the notion of presenting the impression that they do not need the money even though of course they do desire and require it.

One AUIS staffer told me he once experienced this back-and-forth to almost comical effect– the driver vehemently declining the bills, then finally taking them, checking the amount, looking up at him, and stating plaintively, “More please.”

They love pizza in Suli.  It is among the most popular non-local delicacies in the city, served in many restaurants.  No Western food chains exist, although a McDonald’s knock-off McConnell’s (not quite sure of the spelling) once served fast food in the American way.  It has since closed down, but the iconic yellow arches (much smaller than the real thing) still sit atop the building from which it once operated.  I spotted them one night from a local restaurant across the street– while surrounded by Hookah smoke.

The strangest segregation occurs in the eateries.  Men can sit anywhere they want.  But any parties with women are relegated to “family sections”– small spaces typically to the side or at the back of the main dining areas.  During one lunch near the end of my trip, I even ate in a “family section” that was in an entirely different building.  The restaurant apparently keeps two locations– one serving men and one serving women and mixed company.

Men hold hands in northern Iraq as they walk down the street.  From what I understand, it is a sign of immense affection and brotherhood.  For the most part, men and women do not hold hands publicly.  Apparently students at AUIS love formal dances, even the school-sponsored ones we tend to regard here as lame.  The reason: Men and women can interact flirtatiously, even touch, while the music plays.  Students also worship Facebook, again in part because it allows for private, real-time, unsupervised communication with the opposite sex.

My favorite photo among the many I took during my trip. Not sure if it touches on something deeper, reeks of easy stereotype or is just a still of two guys working on a truck. But it hooks me every time I glance at it.

There is a movie theater and old bowling alley and fairgrounds and a bustling street market and a few restaurants serving alcohol in the city, but local residents most enjoy picnics.  They are all-day, food-heavy, music-happy family get-togethers.  I saw a few from a distance in both Suli and Halabja.  The smiles on the faces of those enjoying a respite from everyday stresses and Third World realities were ELECTRIC.  I wanted in.

A shot of the Salim Street Market, the center of commerce in the city. One word: Bustling.

I am now addicted to Kurdish music.  It is buoyant, with repetitive rhythms that do not feel repetitious and a pop-like vibe that is appreciably Auto-Tune-free.  Due to the language barrier, I don’t know what the musicians are singing about but the songs are so upbeat I always just assume they are on the edge of glory.

Jogging is not a pastime in Suli.  Neither is biking.  Blogging also is not a practice many have taken up.  During my time in the city, there was not a stoplight or lane marker to be seen.  Instead, traffic is controlled by frequent speed bumps, U-turns, and traffic cops/soldiers.

Yes, there are soldiers in Suli.  They are mostly on guard at more prominent locales– political party headquarters, high-end apartment complexes, larger shopping centers.  Some sit in white shacks on sidewalks.  Armed guards do sweep underneath all cars entering AUIS with mirrors checking for explosives and I did have to pass through a metal detector.

But I never felt unsafe in Iraq, ever, not even for a moment.  People did stare, however.  There are very few outsiders, especially white people, in the area. In January, The New York Times named the region one of its “41 Places to Go in 2011,” but I did not see a single Western tourist in Suli or nearby Halabja.  None. (In a related sense, without any cynicism, I literally cannot fathom how the many hotels I saw stay in business!)

One of the opening images from a photo slideshow put together by former Voice adviser Jackie Spinner, who wrote a wonderful related Slate piece "Iraqi Kurdistan, Vacation Paradise?"

The joke among AUIS staffers is that if you see Westerners or Europeans somewhere in Suli, you should go up and ask what their job is at AUIS.  A majority of foreigners do work for the university, along with a smattering employed by NGOs.  I did not see any American soldiers.

There are seasons in Suli.  There is also a lot of dust.  One AUIS faculty member told me it gets so bad that at times the distant mountains typically seen from her 12th-floor apartment balcony literally disappear from view.

It also gets light insanely early.  After arriving at my hotel around 3 a.m. on my first day in Iraq, I still recall the groan-inducing realization that dawn had not waited long to follow me.  It broke around 4:30 a.m.

About eight hours later, a new reality dawned on me, linked to the largest student protest in AUIS history: I am not actually in Iraq.  I only think I am.

To Be Continued ||| Part 3“The Saga of the ‘S'”

Read about the Voice’s founding in my exclusive six-part CMM series, originally posted in April-May 2010.

Part One || Part Two || Part Three || Part Four || Part Five || Part Six

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