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."
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.