Monday, July 30, 2012

The Mohammadan Ministry of Truth

Arab television is weird.  For one thing, there are an absurd number of home shopping channels.  It is hard enough to believe that anyone buys things from such channels in the States, but the fact that six or so are successful cable channels in the Middle East is bizarre. 

Stranger still are the censorship policies.  On Arab television, the word "Jew" is bleeped out, lest any viewers become so enraged by the word that they detonate their explosive belts while watching TV.  That does not mean that there are no Jews on television.  Part of an ad for a television show featured an Orthodox Jew flipping over some poor Muslims guy's dinner plate.  This sort of thing is both horrible and hilarious.

In addition to the word "Jew," drugs are censored.  That is, the physical drugs themselves are censored.  A tasteful flower covers the part of the screen where drugs would appear.  This system is hilariously ineffective because the physical drugs are the only narcotic related thing that gets censored.

A few nights ago, our group was staying at a hotel in Zakho.  Before going to sleep I flipped through the channels and saw some very funny drug censorship.  One channel was showing a stoner movie that featured a song about marijuana.  The word "marijuana" was not censored, but when a character smoked a joint, they appeared to be smoking a flower instead.  Breaking Bad, a drama about a meth cooker, was showing on another channel.  Characters in the show were obviously consuming drugs, but their cocaine was covered by flowers.  Not only is the censorship totally ineffective, it actually makes drug use more noticeable by pasting flowers on the screen.

Drugs and Jews aren't the only things that look strange on Arab television.  The Olympics are painful to watch on the Dubai sport channels because whoever is in charge of their programing has a severe case of attention deficit disorder.  Most of an event will be shown, and just as the winner is about to be decided, the program suddenly switches to a different event, or to an awards ceremony.  The awards ceremonies are normal, except for one thing.  The Arabs mute the American national anthem.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Chaldeans

My group in Ankawa is serving the Chaldean Christian community.  The Chaldeans are descended from the Assyrians, the fierce warriors of the Nineveh Plain who terrorized the ancient Near East and nearly captured Jerusalem.  Eventually, the Assyrians were converted to Christianity, possibly by St. Thomas.  They survived Islamic conquest, and now live as a minority among Iraqi Kurds and Arabs.

Like most people in the Middle East, Chaldeans tend to look dark, at least compared to Europeans.  However, some are quite pale and there are a few with naturally blond or red hair. 

The primary Chaldean language is Sureth, a modern form of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ.  The Chaldeans also know Arabic, and some speak Kurdish and English as well.

Chaldeans prefer to use patrimonies instead of family names.  If you ask one of our students for their last name, many will tell you their father's name.  An Iraqi's full name as printed on Iraqi passports is First, Father's, Grandfather's, Family.

Chaldeans, like most everyone outside of the secular West, recognize that the family rather than the individual is the basic unit of society.  Marriage and family are extremely important and divorce is rare.  There are a lot of engagement parties and weddings here.  I attended a Chaldean wedding reception, which I will have to recount in a later post.

My fellow teachers and I attend mass at the Cathedral called Mar Yusef (St. Joseph).  The Chaldean liturgy is part of the Syriac family of liturgies and is conducted in Sureth.  The men congregate at the front of the church while the women sit in the back.  This segregation is strict in the men's area, but not in the women's, where the sexes mix but women predominate.  

Reportedly, many Chaldeans do not attend Mass regularly, but strictly conform to other practices such as fasting.  Like everywhere else in the world, there are some problems with formation in Kurdistan.  Hopefully, the theology department at Mar Qardakh can help treat those problems.

The Cathedral in Ankawa as seen from the choir loft:

My time with the Chaldeans has been brief and my observations limited, but I have a great affection and admiration for these people.  In the coming weeks, I hope to learn more, and share what I learn with you.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dispatches from Tatooine

I think it would be a good idea to write posts about particular topics instead of writing a general chronological account during my time in Iraq.  Today's topic is weather.

Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi summer is very hot.  At the moment, it is 115 degrees Fahrenheit.  Like they say in Arizona, at least it's a dry heat.  The lack of humidity allows the air to cool down at night to an almost comfortable temperature.  For this reason, shops and businesses are closed in the afternoon, and open in the evenings.

The natural environment around Ankawa consists mostly of dusty sand.  Whenever the wind picks up, sand gets kicked up into the air.  When the wind blows hard, a sand storm occurs.  Below is the view from the seminary roof during a calm day.

This is what it looks like during a sandstorm:

As I write this, I can hear a storm blowing outside.  Time to hunker down and hide from the Tusken Raiders.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Journey to Ankawa

I have been in Iraq for over a week now, and it seems like a good time to explain how I got here.

Near the end of the Spring Semester, an email was sent out to all Benedictine College students relaying Mike Schaad's request for volunteers to teach at Mar Qardakh, the Chaldean Catholic school in Ankawa, Iraq.  Mike is a Benedictine College alum and a faculty member at Mar Qardakh.  When I first read the e-mail my only thought was, "Iraq? That's crazy!"  It did not occur to me that I might volunteer.  Later, after I came home for the summer, I remembered the request for teachers, and began to reconsider my initial rejection of the idea.  After consulting with my parents, I contacted Mike, and pretty soon I had free round-trip tickets to Iraq. 

The day after a great Fourth of July celebration, I left home to start a really, really, long trip to Iraq.  I first flew from Tallahassee, Florida to Charlotte, North Carolina.  While at the Charlotte airport I made sure to eat some pulled pork BBQ, knowing that pork is hard to find in the Muslim world.  After filling up on southern food, I took my connecting flight to Chicago.

In Chicago, I had to switch to Royal Jordanian Airlines.  Waiting in line at the ticket counter, I observed the conquest of Europe, or rather the means of that conquest.  Most of the Muslims waiting to check in were traveling with their families.  These families were not necessarily large by Islamic standards, but they were large for American families and huge by European standards.  Demographics is destiny, and it will not be long before the relatives of the people who stood with me in the Chicago airport control what was once known as Christendom.

After a substantial layover, I boarded the plane that would take me to Amman, the capital of Jordan.  On the cabin dividers, screens displayed the plane's location on a map and periodically showed an arrow pointing towards Mecca.  Coincidentally, I was seated next to the only other white guy on the plane, a Texan Mormon named Dave who was on his way to teach English in Jordan.  Dave was happy to discuss politics and religion with me, topics that might have been rather awkward with the other passengers.  Our conversation helped make the absurdly long flight bearable.  Each seat on the plane had a personal entertainment screen that featured On Demand movies and TV shows, so in addition to questioning Dave about the Nephites, I saw Forrest Gump for the first time.  Good movie.  Somewhere over the North Atlantic, the sun rose on the morning of July 6th.

I landed in Amman, Jordan that afternoon.  Before I left the U.S. I had not made much of an effort to figure out what I was supposed to do in Amman.  I regretted this almost immediately upon stepping into the terminal.  I found myself in a strange foreign country with only a vague idea of how to reach my ultimate objective.  I managed to find immigration and get a visa stamp and transit pass, but I was lost after that.  I showed my ticket to several airport employees, saying that I needed to get to Erbil, Iraq.  After studying my ticket, they told me to "take the bus to the hotel."  I was interested in neither buses nor hotels, but in getting to the right gate and flying out of there.  I knew I had a long layover, so I wasn't panicked, but I did get a bit freaked out.

My situation was stressful not only because of logistical problems, but due to a general sense of alienation in the midst of a strange culture.  The most recognizable thing I saw at first was Che Guevara's face on the cover of an Arabic language paperback.  There's no escaping that commie punk; he's everywhere!  I was surrounded by a very foreign people who spoke no English.  Obviously, I didn't expect them to speak English, but it was discomforting to know that I couldn't communicate with anyone around me.  After wandering around the airport for a while, I finally stumbled upon the right terminal, and tried to get to my gate.

After confusing myself and a couple of security screeners, I discovered that I had to wait in the terminal for 7 hours before I could get to my gate.  Finding a comfortable chair to sit in, I observed a broad spectrum of Islamic society.  Or at least I thought I did.  My observations were based mostly on clothing choice.  Some women wore Western style clothing and wore no head covering.  Most wore conservative clothing and a head scarf, while others wore the Niqāb, a scarf that covers the entire face except for the eyes.  Most men wore business casual dress, but some wore the traditional Arab robe called the Thawb.  From my vantage point, I watched people go by and waited until my gate was opened.

At midnight, I went through security and went down an escalator to my gate.  There was something very curious about this gate.  The only way to get to it from the terminal was the descending escalator and there were neither stairs nor an ascending escalator with which to return to the terminal.  Once at the gate, passengers are trapped until they go out on the tarmac to board their plane.  A significant design flaw if you ask me.  I finally got on my plane to Erbil in the early morning darkness of July 7th.  

I landed in Erbil after a couple of hours of flying.  In the terminal, I met some Iraqi-American Chaldeans from Detroit who had come to work at the Chaldean orphanage in Ankawa.  I collected my baggage, got on the airport bus, and rode to the parking lot.  Pulling in to the lot, I noticed that it was guarded by a skinny Iraqi soldier who looked to be about 18.  He seemed only a little bigger than the assault rifle he carried.  Exiting the bus, I was very happy to see Diane and Hank McCormick, the principal of Mar Qardakh and her husband respectively.  They drove me to Ankawa, the majority Catholic suburb of Erbil, and put me up at the local seminary.  The seminarians are gone for the summer, and the seminary is being used to house American teachers.  After I was shown to my room, I tried to get to sleep despite my excitement.  I could hardly believe that I was really in Iraq.  I managed to fall asleep about the time I had intended to wake up, and a few hours later, I awoke, ready for my first day as an Ex-Pat teacher.

Meet the Walshes

Joe and Cathy Walshe are both volunteers at Mar Qardakh school and live in the seminary with me.  They have a really great blog detailing their experience in and around Ankawa.  Here's the link.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Sorry I haven't posted anything yet.  I have been keeping a journal, and will post edited parts of it while I'm here.  I am alive and well in Ankawa, a majority Catholic suburb of Erbil.  Below is a video in which I squint at things. 


By the way, I was told that I should not be overly concerned about security when blogging, so don't worry that I'm endangering myself or anyone else.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

I'm Going to Iraq

Tomorrow I fly to Kurdistan to help teach at a Chaldean Catholic school for about six weeks.  I will continue the blog as time and internet access permits.  If you're interested in the Catholic community in Kurdistan, check out this interview with a Chaldean Archbishop.


IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

We're Doomed

No, I'm not referring to Obamacare.  Scientist in Japan have created a robot that can beat humans in rock, paper, scissors, 100% of the time.  Red Orbit reports,
H/T: Dave Barry
It may be just a simple step toward world domination, but one robot is able to conquer its human adversary in a game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors” 100 percent of the time.
Ishikawa Oku Lab researchers at the University of Tokyo have developed the ultimate Rock, Paper, Scissors fighting robot.

The robot, which is essentially a camera-connected mechanical hand, is completely incapable of losing at the game.

The hand-game dominator bot reads the shape of its human competitor’s hand faster than the human eye could, and then translates the reading to create its own preemptive response.
“Recognition of human hand can be performed at 1ms with a high-speed vision, and the position and the shape of the human hand are recognized,” the researchers wrote in a statement.

They said the wrist joint angel of the robot hand is controlled based on the position of the human hand.

Once the robot figures out the shape of the human hand, it plays either rock, paper or scissors, depending on which outcome would leave it the victor. In other words, the robot is capable of cheating faster than a human is capable of seeing.