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.