Monday, August 03, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 5 - Work and Shopping

I'm behind several days on posting due to the demanding schedule and lack of sleep. The past few days follow a pattern. Up at 7:30 or 8, shower, eat breakfast, check email, discuss work for the day, driver comes at 9ish, meetings 9 until 12 or 1, enough lunch for twice as many people, afternoon/evening out and about with dinner averaging 10pm, work and blog and facebook until 2 or so, 3:30am the night before I stopped posting. I'm too old for this! That almost sounds like complaining, but don't take it that way, I am enjoying sharing this experience with everyone and don't want to stop writing. On with day 5.

What do you think we had for breakfast? Honey and bread. I sure do miss milk. Haven't seen any around here. The plan for today is to conduct another workshop in the cultural center in the morning getting into the details of the curriculum. We will lunch there at the cultural center and then the plan is unclear. Hopefully the pool will be involved, but as you will see we never made it back to the hotel until late and the pool closes at 8pm so the pool deck can become a restaurant.

Shopping at the bazaar in the market area of downtown Duhok is quite an experience. Ms. Basima told us to take someone with us not for our physical safety, but for the preservation of our cash. Negotiation is part of buying anything in the Bazaar, not like the Mazi Mall, where shopping is boring with fixed prices just like in America. For some reason they have begun constructing western type shopping places. I didn't come all the way to Kurdistan to go to Wal Mart. So after the morning work and another overly indulgent lunch (I am starting to force myself to eat very small portions although it is observed by the hosts and they don’t like it!), Ms. Basima, Ms. Amera, Rahman and myself begin our first bazaar shopping experience. Actually we stopped by a little shop on the way to park the car that had “folk” crafts. Turns out that I saw some of the same things later in the bazaar. We, well Ms. Bassima and Ms. Amera were trying to lower the price on a cool little knitted hat, but the shopkeeper wouldn’t budge so we started to leave. He must have thought we were rich Americans because he went into his shop and came back with a genuine snicker snee for only $500. He said it was really worth $2000. We left and parked the car at the Office of the Deanery of the College of Education.

The College of Education will soon be in a brand new building 30 km north of Duhok in a town called Zakho (Zah ho), but for now the College is housed in what was one of Saddam Hussein’s security buildings (read prison) in Duhok. It is not a very pretty place and they showed us a barred door leading to the prison area below ground, kind of like a dungeon. I was told that really bad things happened here with many people killed in the prison. Would you want your office and classrooms in a place like that?

We strolled down to the bazaar area which takes up several blocks if the city was actually laid out in blocks. It is hard to do justice to the bazaar in words. In this instance, movies like Indiana Jones do a decent job portraying the scene. The bounty of colors, textures, sounds, smells, and people saturate my whole being with the experience. Stall after stall and passage after passage are lined with anything you might want from western looking toys, clothes, and accessories made in China to traditional Kurdish clothes and religious scarves and wedding dresses to ice cream and fruit and nuts and vegetables and spices. Before you start thinking it is so romantic, there were also smells that weren’t so good and water running down a little trough in the middle of the walk and trash scattered about, especially water bottles.

The people in the bazaar are as varied as the merchandise. Not so in most other places like restaurants where the segregation of men and women is quite clear. At the popular Malta restaurant, the lawn on one side of the sidewalk is for men only while the other side is for families. This doesn’t mean that when your family goes out to eat the fathers don’t sit with their families. It is quite the opposite. The husbands and fathers are with the families. The all men side is for groups of men like soldiers or Coalbiters. It is probably a good idea they have their own space. No such separation exists in the market (or in the University now that I think about it) other than the grouping of like merchandise. One would think you would not want your scarf store next to another man’s scarf store, but this is not the case. Similar stuff seems to clump together. Even out on the street where small store fronts line the thoroughfare, all of the tire shops are adjacent to one another. I asked about this and was told you choose the one you have a relationship with. But how do you choose the first time?

Before entering the labyrinth that is the bazaar, we dropped down some steps below street level to a wide hallway with small offices along the wall. The money changers. We chose one of them (I do not know how) gave them $50 and in return got 50 x 1250 = 62,500 dinars or thereabouts. Ms. Amera said it used to be 3 US dollars to 1 dinar. Times have changed. I do not know why Bassima and Amera even bothered to do this because we were not allowed to pay for much of anything. They said we were their guest, so they wanted to pay for everything. Rahman argued with them every time, trying to pay for it himself. I quickly gave up trying and just thanked them for their kindness.

I wanted to buy something for the ladies in my life back home. I forgot to tell you that they first took us to a very chic western looking store to look for something for the ladies before realizing this is not what we were after, and I certainly wouldn’t try to buy any real clothes for Margaret or Shannon. I decided something for their hair would be good, but soon found that hair clips and such were the same as in the US. What about a head covering? Most women had some sort of head covering though a few did not. The dress of the women was really spectacular and very diverse from the black all over to colorful head scarves and dresses to western clothes. However, I could see a good portion of the women were following the western style of tighter fitting clothes just with a head covering on top to satisfy their rules. I was told by our hosts that Turkish women are the most beautiful. Unless you are of the religious groups that just wore black, it seems to me the women in Kurdistan may have an even more difficult time dressing than women in America because they have to decide on what head covering to wear along with the rest of their clothes and accessories. I ended up getting colorful head scarves for Shannon and Margaret and then a cute dress for Lillian the next day at the market in Zakho.

As for the men, some wear jeans and a polo shirt and others dress pants and dress shirt and maybe a coat and tie. Most wear short sleeve shirts unless they are workers out in the sun in which case they wear long sleeves. However, there is a group of older men wearing the traditional Kurdish clothes which are baggy pants pulled very far above your waist like my friend Neal Sullivan used to do as a joke, a long sleeve shirt and a big piece of cloth wrapped around the waist as a belt. The piece of cloth looks just like a big sheet. I bought one for Israel to add to his costume collection. Ms. Basima said you have to know how to tie it, probably just like learning to tie your tie. The colors of the belt vary a little, but the rest of the outfit is some shade of green or brown which blends in well with the natural landscape.

The bazaar hours run from 10am until dusk, which is 7 or 8. To close for the night, the shopkeeper puts a big sheet or tarp over the front covering any merchandise that is on display. It appears there is nothing to prevent someone from coming along and stealing everything except that doing so is unacceptable in their culture. There are thieves just like everywhere else in the world, but this is not the place where they work. Out on the main street, the businesses have a store front, sometimes it is just like a garage door. They open the door and pull out their merchandise for display or for the tire businesses, bring out their tires and tools for changing tires. The tire changing happens right in front of the store on the side of the street. Ms. Amera said anything dealing with cars is a lucrative business. I should tell my friend Allen Trivette of 194 Tire to come set up shop in Kurdistan!
After a few hours in the bazaar trying to decide what to buy and haggling with the shopkeepers, we made a return visit to the Duhok Dam and hiked up the side of the hill to the top of the waterfall that lands in the pool next to the road. I was disppointed to learn that the waterfall was man made. They pump water up to the top of it! In any case, the hike up the mountain was fun with a good view of the Dam. Pictures will help here.

We finally headed toward dinner at the best restaurant in town called the Malta restaurant. Nothing unusual happened at dinner except that the restaurant was really crowded this night so the service was not particularly good even though they are famous for their service. We ate outside on the lawn on the family side of the yard. No one was inside the restaurant except for the cooks and the wait staff. We did see one group with the women dressed to the nines with sequined dresses and lots of gold and jewelry. Our hosts said if a man wanted to marry one of the single girls in that family you would have to give them lots of money and gold. I’ll tell you more about marriage another day. Our customary ending to the day followed, staying up late on the computer working, blogging and chatting.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 4 - work and play

Today we finally begin in earnest the project we were sent here to do. Our goal is to get a picture of the current state of computer science curriculum in Kurdistan by talking with two computing departments here in Dohuk and advise the Ministry of Education on ways to improve it. After our usual breakfast, honey in the comb every day for me, Dr. Adnan comes by the hotel with a new driver in a BMW sedan. Many of the cars in the hotel lot are Land Cruisers or Corollas. New cars are everywhere. Ms. Amera (one of the computer science faculty) has one and it still has the plastic on the interior and the little foam things on the outside of the doors. Actually this seems to be a common practice as Dr. Adnan's car is new and has some of the plastic still on it. The new driver is good and fast. He added another driving rule to his list: drive as fast as you can until you come within braking distance of something in the path of the car. Seems to work well for him. Lucky me, I got to ride in the front this time.

The morning meetings went from 9-12:30 or so with a break in the middle for tea. We cannot go without tea for more than a few hours. I wonder if this is left over from the British? I'll have to ask. By the way, Dohuk city is actually fairly young in Middle East terms, only 300 years or so years old according to Dr. Adnan, and he should know as his ancestors were among the founders of the city, coming out of Turkey to settle the region. Got to eat some new cookies, one completely covered in sesame seeds. Not bad, but I would prefer one of Margaret's whole wheat oatmeal chocolate chip. The initial meeting went well after I realized I was supposed to be leading it. Got some good information, again relying on much talking and translating among the attendees and me choosing words more carefully to make it easier for them to understand me. The meeting ended and thus ended the bulk of our work for the day. Lunch. I will not repeat what we had for lunch. If you have been following this blog, you can tell me what I had for lunch.

The most interesting story of the day began to develop a little while earlier just before lunch when the schedule for the rest of the day was being discussed. Don't know if I said it already or not, but around here schedules are flexible or fluid might be a better word. Just in time planning. Since my life back home on the farm and at ASU has been operating like this for about 5 years, it doesn't bother me and makes me feel right at home. In passing Rahman mentioned that he liked football and that he usually played three times a week and that his neck was sore because he had not been able to play. One of the teaching assistants named Ari(note that these assistants have completed their undergraduate degree in computer science and are required to teach for two years as an assistant in the labs before they can start the masters program) asked Rahman if he wanted to play while he was in Duhok. Of course Rahman said yes, he cannot say no, and that I used to play with him on a team. With about 5minutes of cell phone calls and vigorous discussion with Dr. Adnan, it was announced that we would play soccer that evening with the students and then have dinner. The plan: students pick us up at 8:30pm, play soccer 9-10pm, eat, return to hotel, blog/chat, collapse.

Rahman and I decided to fill the afternoon and early evening schedule with some work, a nap, the pool, and more work to prepare for tomorrow's meetings. The nap was easy given the full stomach and staying up until 2am the night before chatting with my wife. The pool was very nice too. The water felt cool today and with the breeze (anyone want to invest in wind energy here?) it was actually chilly when leaving the pool. Remember the figs by the pool? We were sitting on the end of the pool with a good view of the fig tree below in the garden. It turns out that one of the hotel staff knew the tree was there and that the figs were getting ripe. We were watching him try to reach some when a couple of other gentlemen walked up, one dressed in army fatigues with a Kalashnikov (also known as AK-47) over his shoulder. Seeing a ripe fig a little higher in the tree, Rahman and I began pointing to it while the hotel staff climbed the tree. The AK-47 fellow saw it, sat his rifle down, picked it, came over to the wall and tossed it up to Rahman. Then he went back and got me one. Never thought I would eat a fig in Northern Iraq from a Kalashnikov wielding man. We ate several more figs as they tossed them to us.

Now for the adventure. Naive or trusting? Could be a theme. Get in a small car at 8:30 at night with some Kurdish students we met for the first time that morning, travel about 30 minutes north over some really bad roads with big trucks and dust everywhere and few street lights, turn up a side street, stop at an enclosed soccer field with lots of little kids running around, play soccer for an hour, get back in the car, return to Dohuk, eat Domer kebab on the street again, return to the hotel at 11:30. At one very busy intersection along the way we turned right onto a big highway to get to Somer, the location of the soccer match. Turning left would take us to Mosul which everyone says is definitely not safe. Years before Amera and Basima both moved from Mosul to Dohuk.

The soccer match was a lot of fun and felt completely safe. Everyone here is very welcoming and very generous. Amera and Basima have offered our families a stay in their houses if I were to bring them. I still had occasional random bad thoughts based on movies or news reports, but I was able to ignore them. Ari had arranged the match by reserving the field and getting enough of his friends to come out and play. The field was like the one I mentioned seeing in Zawita, totally enclosed with mesh over a high fence with an artificial turf surface. I have rug burns on my knees and can hardly walk from soreness. Little boys were scattered about the perimeter of the field with coolers of bottled water, offering it to us each break. Rahman scored a goal. I didn't. We lost 6-5.

Following the match, Ari pointed out his house just up the street. A very nice looking house by the standards I had seen. Ari is one of ten children, the youngest boy. He just finished his undergraduate degree in computer science and wants to pursue his masters degree to become a teacher. His father was a teacher, the first one in Somer. The trip back to town was briefly interuppted when we tried to turn left to get to another road and some bigs rocks in the median began to scrape the nice new underside of the car. We backed up, scraping in the other direction. I was hoping we were not going to stay stuck. Finally, continuing down the road we made our way to town, found a nice little restaurant like the other two we have eaten in, and had a nice meal with the soccer gang. The day ended like all of the others.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Kurdistan - Day 3 - Friday, a free day

In this region, Friday is a day off, much like our Sunday, so Rahman and I planned on not doing much, perhaps going swimming in the pool or wandering over to the Dam, a half mile walk. After going to bed at 2am due in part to catching up with my wife by chatting on facebook, 8am felt a little early, but my body isn't really sure what is going on, so I headed to breakfast with Rahman. This hotel also has a complimentary breakfast with almost identical food to the one yesterday. I guess if a Kurd came to the US and stayed at the hotels with complimentary "breakfast" they might rave about all the good stuff provided, but I doubt it. Breakfast here has a lot of fresh stuff that requires preparation, cutting vegetables and fruit, hard boiling eggs, baking bread. There are again things that I do not recognize, so I avoid them. One of them was a local cheese that Rahman said we should not trust. So, I trusted Rahman. Honey in the comb was again available, but it tasted different than the honey yesterday.

Toward the end of breakfast, Dr. Adnan found us. Though he is busy preparing for marriage, which includes building a new house, he wanted to make sure we are taken care of. We decided to go with him for a driving tour followed by lunch. Lunch?? I just stuffed myself at breakfast and did not want to see food for a long time. The driving tour was the same as the one with Amera except after the Dohuk dam and the market, which is quieter in the daytime, we left Dohuk city for the country. Along the way out of town, we passed several ice selling spots within a couple of hundred yards of one another on the side of the road. Ice is sitting in long rectangular blocks about 15 cm on a side and 1 meter long, stacked 6 to 8 high with some sort of covering over it, cardboard, cloth, whatever is available. It must be 43-45 Celsius (109-113) at this time, so I'm trying to figure out how these guys are sure they will sell their ice before it literally goes down the drain. They were busy with people pulled over getting chunks of ice for their coolers. Probably for a picnic in the country where we were going. Parking is not a problem here. You just stop your car anywhere on the side of the road and you have a parking space! People go around you.

Driving out of the city we went up some in elevation and found the area to be even a little more green than the lower elevation of the city. Outside the air was a bit cooler as well. Vineyards again dotted the landscape accompanied by parks with gazebo type structures for camping or picnicing. It does snow some in the winter with Dohuk getting 4-6 cm at a time and the area we were in now up to 40 cm. There are a couple of little restaurants right next to the road in a narrow pass in the mountains. Adnan said he would come there for fish, which we had been advised not to eat. I thought we were going to stop there for lunch! A little boy was tending a fire in an open pit with a big log burning in the middle of it. Apparently the fish are cooked on this fire.

We turned around and went toward Dohuk by the scenic route, taking us through a small village named Zawita where we stopped for a little child to cross the road to his mother standing on the other side ... he was maybe 2 years old. The children here, especially in the city, must be pretty street savvy to avoid being run over. Again, I think they learn early on about the common sense rules of the road. In any case, their mothers do not appear to be very concerned about the situation. We also came across a football game inside a fenced in field with artificial turf as the surface. Remember that I am in Kurdistan, so football is not what you think. You did read artificial turf correctly. There are football fields throughout the city, where they are also covered. Not sure who pays for these, I guess the government. Rahman got out to take some pictures and the kids started showing off and waving to us.

Back in Dohuk, the young men are still on the side of the road selling ice, though the piles are smaller. Dr. Adnan takes us to the restaurant where he will have his wedding party. There will be 600 guests at about 15,000 dinars per guest ($1 US = 1,250 dinars). The restaurant has numerous outdoor grassy areas where the party will be as well as a very nice and large interior restaurant. No one is outside at this time of day so we go in for lunch. Soup and salad (not the kind of salad you are thinking of) to start, Syrian Kebabs and Turkish Kebabs for the main course, fruit and Baclava for dessert with water and sode in between. Topped off with Chai tea. I really wasn't hungry to start with, so eating all of this was a challenge. We did the best we could, Rahman faring better than me. In the middle of lunch a strange thing happened. We get a call from a mysterious person asking us exactly what is in our luggage. I talked to him first - I could hardly remember what was in my suitcase much less the brand of the soap which he asked for! Rahman spent some time trying to explain that he had some soccer, er, football shoes in his bag, but then remembered we had put them in my bag to help with his bag being overweight. Everyone was confused by the end, and we figured the call was for security reasons or some such and that anything we did not identify would be gone from our bags. I hope they don't take my granola!

A luxury nap was had once again after returning to the hotel. Then a dip in the pool. Then a shower and excursion into the market area in search of food. Why would we want food again I don't know, but swimming around and walking generated an appetite. We had decided the day before that I would have to try this food that is prepared on a very large rotating vertical stick with fire on one side. The stick is rotated to cook whatever kind of meat is attached. It is called Döner kebab. Google it. Two interesting things happened at dinner. The first is that I am beginning to be able to recognize different ethnic groups like Turkish Kurds, Regular Kurds, and Arabs. I won't give you details here, but Rahman can vouch for me that I can do it. The second thing that happened is that about halfway through dinner the hustle and bustle of the little restaurant (we were eating inside this time ... in fact a man sat at our table to join the next table it was so crowded) halted with complete darkness. No power. Everyone continued to eat, the owner and workers continued to move around, and in about 30 seconds the lights were back and life continued as if nothing happened. I'll tell you more about the power another day.

Back at the hotel we end the day on the computers again and just before going to bed I have the pleasure of chatting with my lovely wife on facebook. What a crazy world this is. Aren't we supposed to be working here?