Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure, Part 7, “Kurdistan’s Story” (Conclusion)

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.

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

Dan’s Journey to Iraq: A Student Press Adventure

Part 7: “Kurdistan’s Story”

Kurdistan Fatih was not born in Kurdistan or as Kurdistan.  Prior to her birth, her father fought for the freedom of Kurdistan as a Peshmerga, spending most of his time in the mountains near the Iranian border.  In 1988, fearing increased violence from Saddam Hussein’s forces, he took his wife and other family to Iran.

According to Fatih, her parents frequently describe the long, secret journey across the border, on foot, as unforgettable.  She said her mother repeatedly tells her about seeing a family forced to leave one of their children along a roadside because they simply could no longer carry him through the mountainous snow-covered border region.

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Her mother gave birth to Fatih in Iran.  She was named Lina.  Initially, her parents thought they would never again see their beloved homeland.  And so, in Fatih’s words, “One of my father’s friends said to him, ‘Why don’t you change her name to Kurdistan?  Because whenever you call her it will remind you of your country and you will feel like you haven’t lost everything and you will still have your home.’ . . . After three months, I was renamed Kurdistan.  This is something that they tell me over and over again.”

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Kurdistan Fatih, AUIS senior and Voice reporter

Eventually, the family did return home.  They now live in Dukan, her father retired, her mother a homemaker.  Fatih is the oldest of six siblings, an even gender split.

Nearing the end of high school, Fatih’s only option initially was studying law at the local University of Sulaimani– government orders.  “The government, the ministry of higher education, decides which colleges students should go,” she said with a sigh emitted by many students who shared similar stories with me.  “Because I was studying literature in high school, I could not go to engineering or medical school.  My choices were very limited.  That is what happens here.”

Then her cousins spotted an item in a newspaper about a new university being founded with U.S. ties, the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaini (AUIS).  She was curious about potential enrollment.  By comparison, her father was insistent.  “My father wanted me to study here,” she said.  “He was one of the motivations.  When I realized that the education was in English and based on American style– everything was not Iraqi, you know?– that was one of the most important things I liked about AUIS.”

In 2012, Fatih will be part of the first undergraduate class to graduate from the university, a cohort famously known as “the 10.”  “After three months, my father asked me if I liked it here and I told him it would be impossible for me to go somewhere else,” she told me in May.  “I really love the subjects and the environment here.  I don’t know how to say it.”  She sported an impish smile, speaking with a breathlessness that made me giggle.  “I am so confident when I say that without AUIS I would not be the student that I am right now.  I have learned so much.  It is impossible to get this knowledge from other places in Iraq.  I am so happy about this.”

She happily selected her own academic program– majoring in business administration and minoring in economics.  In her spare time, she enjoys volleyball and basketball.  She dances with her roommates in the dorm to Kurdish, hip hop, and pop music.  Shakira is among her favorites.  She enjoys her current dorm– the previous one lacked water, stable electricity, and Internet.  “So dancing, studying, and sleeping, these are the things that I do,” she said.  “And of course, Facebook.”  She points out she is not addicted to the social networking site like many other AUIS students.

Fatih confessed that “journalism, being a reporter, I had no idea about this before coming to AUIS.”  She joined the campus newspaper on a whim, quickly growing to love the power the publication exerted in its role as the student voice.

During our chats, she twice mentioned a past Voice report about the lack of Internet connection in campus dorms.  Soon after the story was published, the administration started offering online access.  She said she understood the article might not have been the main reason school officials stepped up, but it was an important part of the process– and prior to the Voice’s launch students had no way to address similar issues and concerns other than in-person meetings.  “It’s just something I like,” she said about journalism.  “I never get bored.  I never have a bad time writing a report for the Voice.”

Whenever she visits home, she brings hard copies of the Voice with her, showing her parents the pieces she has written.  She said her father does not know English so has a hard time understanding the reports themselves, but his eyes beam when she shows him her name in a front page byline.

During my visit in mid-May, I shadowed her while she reported upon her next front-page story.  It was destined to be drowned out by the sudden protest madness, but it was an important piece nonetheless.  School officials had been promising students that a relocation to a bigger, better, permanent campus was inevitable, but delays continued to push back the move-in date.  Voice editor-in-chief Arez Hussen Ahmed charged Fatih with finding out why.

Fatih interviews senior structure engineer Salahaddin Sharif in mid-May for a story on the progress of construction on the new AUIS campus.

And so it was that in mid-May, on my first day in Iraq, hours after the impromptu campus protest, Kurdistan Fatih sat in a chair across from a construction engineer’s desk in a building on the soon-to-be-new AUIS campus– roughly 15 minutes from the current one.  Upon sitting down, she leaned slightly forward, crossed her legs, opened her large spiral notebook, uncapped her pen, brushed back a wisp of hair flitting from her headdress, and got right to the point: “Can you tell me why the process is so slow?”

Throughout the interview, she swiftly moved from English to Kurdish and back, depending on the language given by the man in answering.  She took notes while keeping eye contact.  She smiled while maintaining her professionalism.  She let him fill the silences, and when he gave a few somewhat surprising answers she did not let eyes or emotions give her excitement away.  She continually sought to keep him on message and to get the real answers she was seeking.  The engineer was a tough interviewee, saying respectfully again and again that delays are simply inevitable in construction.

An editorial cartoon in a recent Voice issue hints at student perceptions that promises of a move to the permanent campus have been frequent and thus far unfulfilled. (I visited the campus. While still under construction, it does seem to be nearing completion.)

At one point, the following exchange occurred:

Fatih: “There will be delays in the process, but what are the reasons?”

Engineer: “There are lots of things.”

Faith: [Almost immediately] “Like what?”

Engineer: [Roundabout answer]

Fatih, more gently: “I’m just wondering why construction’s slowed.”

Engineer: “It has not slowed down.”

Fatih: “It has.  We were supposed to move here last semester.  Now again, talk to me about why it has slowed.”

Fatih and Voice photographer Noor Aljanabi tour the new campus construction site with Sharif.

In the end, she managed some solid info and a few choice quotes– from a man who admitted upfront “It is better with these things to say as little as possible.”  It was a master-class in reporting 101, journalism at its finest, a standing-ovation-worthy moment that solidified all the work Jackie Spinner, Arez Hussen Ahmed, and a number of other student staffers and school officials put into the Voice‘s founding and continued existence.  I had to remind myself that 18 months ago, Fatih had no idea what journalism was.

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After it was done, the two of us stood together with Voice photographer Noor Aljanabi in the hallway near the engineer’s office.  We were silent, smiling, feeding off the spark of a quality interview.  Fatih had closed the notebook she had been scribbling in furiously during the chat.  Its outside was covered repeatedly with the same word in all caps: LOVE.

I suddenly wanted to tell her how awed I was by the performance and how I wanted to learn Kurdish so I could tell her father to be immensely proud. But she spoke first.  She turned to me and asked simply, “So what did you think?  How was that?”

Her father’s eyes beam.  Mine teared up.

The End

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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