An Education in Duhok

Duhok Travel Blog

 › entry 5 of 6 › view all entries
View of the city looking north.

The small city of Duhuk ultimately proved to be my main base during the time I stayed in Kurdistan IraqAs soon as I arrived, I found a travel agent to see about possible dates for flying from Arbil to Amman, Jordan.  Fortunately, there was a flight but it was for the day after my 10 day visa expired (March 1).  So I immediately headed to the visa office to see about getting a short (one day) extension.

Upon arrival to the Residency Office I lined up to talk with someone in a small hut attached to the main building.

A Catholic church at the west side of the city.
After getting through this first hurdle, providing a passport photo and getting the necessary paperwork completed, the official sent me off to room 11. So I grabbed my pack and headed around the corner where it seemed everyone was going.  Soon I saw a door with the appropriate number and approached a man there who indicated for me to wait.  However, at that point suddenly a couple soldiers appeared and quickly indicated that I could not be there with my bag and camera.  Oh oh ... a security breach ... good thing I was not a terrorist!  After bringing me over to the security hut, I left my backpack and camera and when they asked, I could not help but chuckle as I assured the guards I had no gun with me either.  So then back to room 11 where once I made it inside and the official looked at my paperwork  I was informed me that I had to go to the hospital for a blood sample.  However, with some assistance, I explained that I only needed an extension for one day and so ultimately managed to avoid the inconvenience of going to the hospital for a withdrawal.

With this second stage of approval completed, I then had to go upstairs to room 4.  After the security incidence, I was helpfully escorted  to this next stage in the process.  I waited for around 20 minutes at which point I entered the office of a military official who seemed to be fairly high up in the bureaucratic ladder.
Friendly traffic police who I chatted with while wandering around town.
  I then explained my situation again and although his English was not that good, this officer ultimately understood what I wanted.  Then thankfully, he signed the appropriate paperwork and even explained he was going to give a three day extension with the extra two days being for a safety margin. So then it was back to room 11 where I had to wait for about one half hour for the official stamp and then when it was all done, I had my visa extension until March 3.

Next, it was back to the travel agent to book my flight and then I headed off to find a decent hotel.  With a bit of help I finally ended up at the Saido Hotel which was quite nice for $30/night and close to the main market area..  So then I headed for the nearest internet cafe which ended up being a place I met a number of friendly folk who spoke some English.  Along the way, I also encountered Azad, a friendly parking lot manager/university student/father.    Whenever I saw him  we would chat as he much appreciated the opportunity to practice his English.

One of my other fortunate encounters was also when I met 
a young university student named Nawzad who eventually asks me, “Would you like to come to my dormitory to meet some of my classmates?”  Since I work in the field of education and am interested to know more about the Kurdish system, I eagerly accept the invitation.
Duhok university students at their dormitory.
  The 2-story residence is very close to the market and also typical of what one might expect in terms of a student dormitory building. 


Nawzad lives in a very austere room with a thin carpet and a bed each for him and his roommate.  A couple towels and a few shirts hang from hooks on the walls and, on closer inspection, small pile of clothes can be seen on the floor at the head of each bed.  Nawzad digs under his bed and pulls out his repertoire of books and photocopied sheets which serve as proof of his student status.  Flipping through a thick package of photocopies, I scan the pages from a university textbook describing the details of poetry.

One of the Duhok university campus buildings.
  The content is clearly academic and as a first language English speaker, I find it is not an easy read.  “How do these guys get through this?” I wonder.  The material is clearly not for second language speakers/learners of English.  Nawzad listens intently and his youthful desire to learn is clearly evident as I explain why even Canadian teacher candidates would struggle with his readings.


It is not long before word spreads of my presence at the dormitory and the room fills with other students also interested to hear what a foreigner has to say.  Even those who do not understand English very well are curious and listen intently as I converse with a number of their dormitory mates.

The Duhok university students who I chatted with in the student lounge.
  I learn that many of these 2nd and 3rd year university students are studying English and enrolled in the teaching program.  Needless to say, they are very interested to know about my thoughts of Kurdistan as much as I am interested in learning about their education program.  As I talk about the possibilities for tourism in Kurdistan, which is supported by the friendly nature of Kurdish people and the scenic landscape, I can tell that they are delighted to hear such positive comments made about their country.


Eventually, I am asked about possibilities for studying abroad and I explain a little about what would be involved for foreign students to attend a Canadian university.  It soon becomes apparent that despite the pride they feel for their region and culture, these university students still believe a successful future lays outside the country in Europe, or possibly North America.


They are all young men in their early 20’s but they also have incredible stories to tell about their experiences under the Saddam Hussein regime.  Sarbast, the obvious leader of the dormitory group and best English speaker (from working as a translator for the American army), recounts his memories of a refuge camp in Turkey.  “I remember going outside our tent and a Turkish soldier was there with his gun and he told me to go back inside.”  To hear that as very young children they had to walk long distances as they fled with their families to Turkey or Iran is very hard to imagine.  However, it also explains their general attitude of disdain towards Saddam and “the Arabs”.  This is especially evident when our conversation turns to a discussion of the tragic and horrendous use of chemical weapons that Saddam fired on the population of the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. 


At one point Sarbast unexpectedly asks “How old would you say I am?”  I am a little taken aback by this question, not really certain why he was asking.  After hearing my measured response, he points out that he and his classmates all appear older which is due to the stress they have experienced in their lives.  As I look more closely at their swarthy faces with dark shadows indicative of heavy beard growth, I realize that they do appear easily 10 years older than their age.  Whether their premature aging is a result of stress or some other factors is difficult to say.  However, I do know that their life experiences have definitely been much harder than anything I have been through.


The students are also very interested to know my thoughts about their university courses as they express concerns about how they are being taught.  Sarbast, in particular, asks “Is this what teachers in Canada have to know and how they are taught?” as he shows me his poetry, grammar and drama texts and explains what goes on in his classes.  I have to admit, the readings and the pedagogical techniques seem different from what students would get in a Canadian teacher education program but I remind him that, as he had told me, the teaching program at Duhuk University is still very new.


Ultimately, I am invited to join these students to visit their university and even sit in on their classes.  I jump at this chance and am most eager to experience life on a university campus in Iraq.  This turns out o be a real educational experience for me indeed.


The first thing that strikes me as I watch Sarbast’s classmates enter a very bare concrete classroom is the way the female and male students automatically segregate themselves.  This surprises me somewhat given that many of the women wear makeup and are dressed in stylish clothing complete with black, lace-like leggings and provocative high heel boots.  Of course, the majority do also wear headscarves.  Nevertheless, I had expected that things might have been a bit more progressive in a university setting, but such was not the case.  In fact, even within the cafeteria, interaction between the female and male students is quite limited.  When I mention this to Sarbast, he smiles and says “But with you here, we now have a good excuse to talk with the women.”


This comment underlies an observation I had made since arriving in Kurdistan Iraq.  Even on the streets of the city, it is not common to see many women and with the segregation that one sees at universities, this led me to ask the question, “How do men and women ever meet to develop relationships?”  Sabast admits it is not easy and proceeds to describe a process that reminds me of high school.  Other than the case where parents make arrangements, it seems that an intermediary (usually a friend of the boy) makes the initial contact with the girl and presents his “client” in the best possible manner.  Then, if the girl is interested, she passes on her cell number and initial contact is made.  From there, the relationship develops through many phone calls, arranged public encounters and eventually into more private rendezvous.  Despite the seeming complexity to this process, it does seem to work.


Fortunately, between classes, I am actually able to chat with some of the female students as I am especially interested about their thoughts of a possible changing role for woman in Kurdish society.  This question is stimulated by the fact that in their drama class, the students are studying a play with feminist undertones.  However, perhaps not surprisingly, these young female students seem quite content and not particularly looking for a change in their social status.  Of course, this may well reflect the fact that things have already progressed for them and they are quite happy with the pace at which this reform is occurring.  This is the same feeling Sarbast voices when he says “Change will occur in Kurdistan ……. slowly and over time.” 


And after having spent a few days with this dynamic, dedicated and inspiring group of potential teachers, I cannot help but think that positive changes are happening and there is a reason to feel some optimism about the future of Kurdistan Iraq.


es1418 says:
Thanks for the detailed writeup. I like hearing what people learned through their travels and how they transformed as a result.
Posted on: Jul 21, 2010
korrahh says:
excellent write! The intellectuals are the future of any nation and you investigated good points (education, future development, and relationships) great experiance.
Posted on: Feb 18, 2008
sheba124 says:
What a great blog and what a wonderful opportunity you had to spend time with them.
Posted on: Feb 17, 2008
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View of the city looking north.
View of the city looking north.
A Catholic church at the west side…
A Catholic church at the west sid…
Friendly traffic police who I chat…
Friendly traffic police who I cha…
Duhok university students at their…
Duhok university students at thei…
One of the Duhok university campus…
One of the Duhok university campu…
The Duhok university students who …
The Duhok university students who…
photo by: Aopaq