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.