- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

IRBIL, Iraq — In the minds of some students, a degree from the first English-language university in Kurdish-controlled Iraq equates to a ticket out of the country and its uncertain future.

The same cannot be said for what one instructor at the school dubbed the “academic foreign legion,” a motley group of international teacher-travelers who have come to Irbil precisely because of its challenging environment.

Chris Whitney, director of English studies at the newly opened University of Kurdistan-Hewler (Irbil), said the program is a magnet for “alternative types who are not afraid to go to places where factors are unknown.” His small yet growing teaching staff hails from countries as disparate as Ireland and Iran, with educational experience in the most remote corners of the map.

Originally from Victoria, British Columbia, Mr. Whitney has taught in places ranging from Nigeria to the Marshall Islands. “As you get older, the consequences of making mistakes seem far less frightening,” he said. “Most teachers here have the same story.”

Robert Doebler of Princeton, Minn., arrived two months ago after a nine-year stint in northeastern China to take part in Iraq’s great experiment in nation building. So far, the biggest surprise for him about living in northern Iraq is the absence of a siege mentality: “I’ve walked around alone from day one and people just let you go, no staring, nothing,” he said.

Tanyel Taysi, a Turkish-American political lecturer from Seattle, worked for a Kurdish rights group in London for two years and published a book before deciding it was time to “come down from the academic ivory tower and into the street.”

Impossible to miss on his way to work is Simon Duffin, a Londoner normally seen in a red and white Scottish Balmoral cap. The Oxford graduate and self-described history junkie explained over tea that after an eight-month term teaching English in southeastern Turkey, the repression of the Kurds there had stuck a lasting chord with him.

Despite a tight budget, the Irbil-based Kurdish regional government is paying internationally competitive salaries to the teachers to cultivate a crop of savvy, English-speaking graduates who, they hope, will ensure the kind of enduring stability and socioeconomic growth that might one day sustain an independent state.

Under Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Kurdish minority was targeted in a systematic campaign of repression. By conservative estimates, 2,000 villages were razed and 50,000 people killed, many with chemical weapons. Mr. Duffin said one Kurdish student in his English class was out gardening when he stepped on a land mine that cost him a leg.

Students at the university say they are driven by the chance to learn in an environment where dissent is not only tolerated but encouraged by teachers.

“New connections are being made between teachers and students; there is normally a huge gap between sides that has been broken,” said Hara Ayoubi, a 34-year-old graduate student.

“Schools we studied in before in Baghdad used old teaching methods, where there was no dialogue or discussion. We feel free now,” he said.

Women make up about 40 percent of the 350-plus students enrolled at the university, and Mr. Duffin said they are treated in the same way as the men. “The women are very assertive,” he said. “They don’t want to be housewives; they want to be nuclear physicists.”

Courses at the university delve into formerly forbidden topics such as gender politics and the effects of globalization, another lecturer said. Given the conditions in northern Iraq, there is particular interest in the dynamics of the modern nation-state.

The foray into academic terra incognita can be tricky for the teachers. Mr. Whitney described the confusion in a recent class when he tried to explain why short legs gave australopithecus — an extinct species related to humans — an evolutionary advantage in fighting for females.

Another lecture on bronze statues came to a dead end after much tip-toeing around the word “nude.”

“Sometimes there is a clash of cultures here. We realize something is sitting uncomfortably, with students not sure what to think,” Mr. Whitney said.

The lecturer said he enjoying his experience in Irbil, but he finds it difficult to sit still for too long after decades of wandering the globe.

“We tend to be restless; working in the same place for two years is quite an achievement,” he said. “Lately, I’ve been thinking Central Africa might be an interesting place to go next.”

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