Elvis Is Titanic: Classroom Tales from the Other Iraq

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9780307264565: Elvis Is Titanic: Classroom Tales from the Other Iraq

In the spring of 2005, Ian Klaus, a twenty-six-year-old Rhodes Scholar, traveled eight hours from Turkey, via broken-down taxi and armed convoy, to reach Salahaddin University in Arbil, the largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Elvis Is Titanic is the poignant, funny, and eye-opening story of the semester he spent there teaching U.S. history and English in the thick of the war for hearts and minds.

Inspired by the volunteerism of so many young Americans after 9/11, Klaus exchanges the abstraction of duty for an intimate involvement with individual lives, among them Mahir, a rakish Kurdish pop star whose father, an imam, disapproves of music; Ali, an Anglomaniac professor of translation devoted to the BBC, with whom Klaus has a public showdown over Hemingway; and Sarhang, Klaus’s bodyguard, whose interest in American history is excited by Mel Gibson’s performance in The Patriot. Among the Kurds, a perennially oppressed but seemingly indomitable people, Klaus encounters both openhearted welcome and resentful suspicion—and soon learns firsthand how far even a trusted stranger can venture in this society. With assignments ranging from Elvis to Ellington, from the mysteries of baseball to the aperçus of Tocqueville, Klaus strives to illuminate the American way for charges initially far more attuned to our pop culture than our national ideals.

These efforts occasion Klaus’s own reexamination of truths we hold to be self-evident, as well as the less exalted cultural assumptions we have presumed to export to the rest of the world. His story, as full of hope and discovery as he finds his students, offers a slice of life behind the headlines.

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About the Author:

Ian Klaus, who now lives in New York City and Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote for publications across the United States while he was in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in history at Harvard.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: Beyond War

“Incoming text message.”

Class had let out and I was making my way across the city from one of the university’s campuses to another when I started to receive text messages from students I had dismissed not fifteen minutes before. It was a short walk, and though some of my friends preferred that I not take it alone, I picked my way through the more heavily guarded sections of Arbil, capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Students on cell phones passed, kicking up dust on newly paved asphalt; security guards settled into their chairs in front of blast walls, sharing observations about the city’s construction cranes. Text messages kept coming.

“Bounty? NO! Kit Kat? NEVER! Mars? . . . How about sugar?? Still can’t find anything as sweet as you!”

Almost a year after first arriving in Iraq to teach American history and English, I had returned to the same university in Kurdistan to present a couple of lessons on American education and language. Moving across the city that day, trying to gather my bearings, I found myself as acutely aware of the fortifications and arms as I had been twelve months before: Why is that building so heavily guarded? Who is in that winding convoy? Is it wise to be staying in a hotel made of glass? The anxious imagination as perpetual motion machine—what catches my eye is commonplace to the locals. The bus drivers picking up familiar passengers, the cabbies gossiping at black-market gas stations, the storekeepers in the bazaar were not likely to be talking about checkpoints and armored vehicles. The students on cell phones, too, had concerns of their own beyond the Kalashnikovs that over the decades had become so ubiquitous they were almost invisible. Other forces, beyond those of bristling militarism, were busy at work.

My phone kept vibrating with new messages.

“Triangles have 3 ends. Lines have 2 ends. Life has one end. But our friendship has no ends.”

Flirtatious, solicitous, and curious, all of the incoming messages testified to a hope of engagement, as much with the wider world as with me, its apparent proxy. After another class later that same day, I spent an hour chatting with a dozen or so students keen to work on their conversation skills. Most who hung around peppered me with questions about home, my favorite movies, and my views of the relative merits of Michael Jackson and Shakira. One young man, however, interjected to talk about himself and his goals. Slightly shorter than the rest, he was notably tanned, considering the winter season, and a bit pockmarked. He was in his final year at the university but wanted to continue to improve his English. With a heavily bearded and expressionless classmate looming over him, the young man described his plans: upon graduation, he would move to Mosul to work with U.S. forces. Translators, like all Iraqis working with Western media outlets, had been hunted, targeted, and killed by the dozens. Though aware of the dangers, he still considered this the best, indeed the only, route available to further develop his language skills. My phone continued to vibrate in my suit pocket.

Incoming text message: “If the sun forget the earth . . . If fats forget food . . . If heart forget beating . . . If valentine forget love . . . If Bush forget Bin Laden . . . but, I never forget you.”

To counter terror. To develop democracy. To serve capitalism. To spread freedom. The intentions of the American invasion of Iraq were articulated in relation to no few American ideals. But for these students, a single concern was paramount: opportunity. Opportunity to learn, to pursue contacts, or a career not determined by the state; and, finally, opportunity to be part of an independent Kurdistan. Their parents had suffered violently and bitterly under Saddam Hussein. And they had watched as the dictator was deposed with overwhelming power and violence. Now, this generation’s engagement with power was something different: amid violence and corruption, hope was diffused through cell phones and satellite dishes, meted out by markets and new parliaments.

“I want to practice my English and I can’t do it anywhere else,” the young man insisted. “I will take my chances with the terrorists.”
Chapter Two: How and Why: Feet on the Ground, Head in the Sky

When you reach the threshold of the great gateway
There’s a bustle of retainers, and folks gather round,
They guide you through to the hall,
Then all is hospitality and welcome to the guest;
The corps of retainers, bandoliers slung on shoulders,
Heads and hats swollen with bright silken turbans,
Hands upon daggers, awaiting their orders,
Be they to chop off a head or bring in dinner . . .
Kurdish poet Mirza Abdullah Goran, translated by C. J. Edmonds, political officer of Her Majesty’s Foreign Service, 1919–1925

Twelve months before, in February 2005, the head of the history department at Salahaddin University had given me a five-minute introduction and then left me alone with a translator in front of fifty rather bewildered students.

“Mamosta [teacher] Ian, what are you doing here?” a male student in the back of the class quickly asked before I could speak.

Young men in tight-fitting bell-bottoms or jeans streaked unevenly with bleach filled half the seats. Some shirts shimmered; on others the collar points drooped down halfway to the wearer’s shoulders. Footwear ranged from cowboy boots to knockoff Italian square-toed loafers, the whole scene a remarkable fashion hybrid: Middle Eastern, American Western, Roman boulevardier. Women, who would wear fabulous outfits of color and glitter some months later for graduation, were now heavily made up and bundled in coats against the winter’s cold. A gang of black-clad young men, some with full beards, quietly looked on from the back of the classroom. (Some of these more religious students would prove to be good students and even better people; others would not.) A few stragglers came in, pronouncing their apologies, their stories belied by small smiles of mischief. Cell phones vibrated on desks as ringtones of the latest Syrian songs filtered through pockets and handbags.

A barrage of various forms of the same question soon followed. A young man asked, “We mean, what are you doing in Kurdistan, not just at the university?”

The question was not unreasonable. After all, in a city and a country that had seen decades of war, where regional stability was precarious and the history of oppression and a sense of limited options weighed on every student, a classroom was not a place to expect strangers. It was, to be sure, a classroom in Kurdistan—a place where secularism had a strong toehold and virtual national autonomy had been established for nearly a decade and a half, but it was also in Iraq, where sectarian violence was fast becoming the daily norm.

“What do you think of Kurdistan? And how do you make out of the university?” one student ventured shyly in broken English. He added, “You are very welcome to Kurdistan. And thank you. And I want to talk about America too.” The United States had “liberated” them, to use a word floated freely by the Kurds in reference to the toppling of Saddam. American movies and consumer products were rapidly appearing in the bazaar. But despite the dramatic changes resulting from American foreign policy and economic might, I was the first American that most of these young men and women had ever met.

Behind the lectern, a faded map of Iraq, with the region of Kurdistan outlined, hung near the eraser board. Next to it, another map showed North Africa and the greater Mediterranean, including southern Europe, with the Middle East highlighted in bright green. These were the visual aids for what would be the first class in American history for the young Kurds, whose capacity to look West was restrained because they were in Iraq.
Four days before the January 30, 2005, elections, I had crossed into Iraq. Four hours north of the border is Diyarbakir, the southeastern Turkish city into which one flies when entering Iraq from the north. It has long been a stronghold of Kurdish nationalism and militancy in Turkey—this was true Anatolia, the East, a world away from the thriving cosmopolitan capital on the Bosporus. The plains stretching out around Diyarbakir soon give way to dusty and crumbling mountains as one heads south to the border.

This is a historic cradle of humanity, and the local people lay active claim to its heritage. Mount Ararat, the supposed resting spot of Noah’s ark, lies to the northeast, and to the southwest is Harran, the village in which Abraham first heard the voice of God. Taxi drivers, hoteliers, and soldiers alike tell tales linking them to millennia past as well as to stories common to the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible. A legend of Abraham’s birth is juxtaposed with a spotting of the ark by Russian pilots during the First World War. In places one can make out the train track that in better times carried people into Syria; now it is obscured amid the rocks and weedy growth of the border no-man’s-land. As one continues toward the border, the decaying past figures less prominently than the present checkpoints, and the minefields are more relevant to the future than stories. Like the dust, the roadside rubbish, and abandoned, broken-down vehicles, tokens of politics are ubiquitous; the overwhelming sense of nowhere is countered by reminders of geopolitics past and present. Every couple of hundred yards, there is evidence of stifled declarations of power and sovereignty, empty guard towers rising up from barren land.

In Silopi, a few miles before one officially crosses over into Iraq, an indiscriminate row of dirty shops stands apart from the road, fronted by a parking lot—an arrangement reminiscent of American s...

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