Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 3, “The Saga of the ‘S'”

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

On my final day in Iraq, I gave a talk at AUIS on the power of the student press. Any journalism junkies out there know why I'd have that particular image included in my PowerPoint? :)

Part 3: “The Saga of the ‘S'”

I am not actually in Iraq.  I only think I am.  I wrote these words in my notebook roughly 10 hours after arriving in the country.  My sudden global repositioning was prompted by the largest student protest in the brief history of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS).

AUIS is a roughly four-year-old private university modeled after Western liberal arts schools.  It is a small school with big plans still very much in start-up mode.  A majority of its staff from the states is on short-term contract.  The student center and cafeteria recently switched spots.  The library is smaller than a soccer pitch, sporting only a few hundred journals and books.

Two shots of the AUIS temporary campus. Photos by Taha Faris.

Yet, it has garnered financial support, U.S. accreditation, and the backing of powerful figures in the region.  It attracts students from all corners of Iraq seeking instruction in English, greater freedom to pursue personal academic interests, the opportunity to participate in clubs and athletic teams, and the chance to interact with peers outside their ethnic group (a rarity in most Iraqi schools).

However, an eye-opening mini-sectarianism lurks under the surface.  At lunchtime on a mid-May weekday, just after I arrived on campus, it sprang to life.

As I watched from several feet away, roughly 100 students– about 20 percent of all enrollees– gathered on the steps of the main administrative building.  Some wore traditional Kurdish clothing.  A few draped the Kurdish flag around their shoulders or waved it in the air.  They sparred verbally for a few moments with the dean of students, an American who insisted they speak English, the official language of the university.  At other points, they sang a song in Kurdish that I later learned is the region’s anthem.  As the afternoon wore on, roughly 200 students signed a petition as part of the “We Love Sulaimani” campaign.

A shot of the mid-May AUIS student gathering, in protest of administrators' rumored intent to remove Sulaimani from the university's name. The name change plan was subsequently dropped, with AUIS officials saying it had all been a misunderstanding.

In this video snippet, the AUIS dean of students is talking with the protestors, including imploring them to speak English, the official language of AUIS.

They were protesting an apparent plan by administrators to remove Sulaimani (also spelled Sulimaniyah and affectionately dubbed Suli) from the university’s name.

It was a blow to the school’s celebrated diversity.  “The schools for the most part in Iraq are not mixed ethnicities,” said Timothy Doyle, director of AUIS enrollment management.  “After liberation [in 2003], local schools tended to unify under a specific ethnic and political paradigm.  We are aggressively not that.”  AUIS is currently teaching young Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Kurds, Persians, Turkomans, and Yazidis.  Arab students are the dominant minority– many coming from in and around Baghdad.  Kurds comprise the school’s majority, Doyle confirmed, making up close to 75 percent of the student body.

To Kurdish students, the school’s home, Sulaimani, is not just a city.  It is a symbol of larger Kurdistan, a homeland often referred to as “the other Iraq” for its disparate politics, culture, history, and dominant language.

In this vein, many Kurdish students saw Suli’s rumored removal from the university’s name as a blow to the region’s ethnic identity.  “We are a nation of 40 million people and we have no country of our own,” said Kurdistan Fatih, an AUIS student and Voice reporter.  “We are cut into pieces.  Our neighbors [including Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey] are the owners of our parts.  From the deepest part of my heart, I want to have an independent country.  I want people to know there is such a thing as Kurdistan. . . . When it seemed they were cutting the S from AUIS, it was like they were dividing my country into pieces again.”

As part of the AUIS English-language program's enrichment classes, students have painted many portions of the cement wall that surrounds the school’s temporary campus. This portion sports the phrase "Kurdish and Proud" atop a rendering of the Kurdistan region’s flag.

For me, at the time, the protest scene was both intoxicating and bewildering.  Only hours removed from my first bumpy taxi ride into the region, I initially had almost no clue what was going on.

By comparison, Arez Hussen Ahmed understood completely.  As an AUIS student and editor-in-chief of the Voice, Ahmed knew the protest was an explosive story worthy of the next issue’s front page.  He also knew he couldn’t cover it.

To Be Continued ||| Part 4: The Halabja Hike

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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