by Renee Fite
Just like some people may think Indians in Oklahoma live in teepees, daily life in Iraq is different than some may imagine.
Dr. Kathrine Garlough (right), adjunct professor of English at Northeastern State University, spent the past year in Kurdistan, Iraq, on the northern border, as adviser to the minister of higher education for that country as it rebuilds and develops its educational system of universities. She says it’s not at all what’s depicted on TV.
“They’re very thankful to Americans for rescuing them from Anfal, Saddam Hussein’s campaign to annihilate the Kurds in the 1980s and ‘90s,” Garlough said. “He dropped gas, chemical gasses, on his own people.”
Now they have an Anfal ministry to help people who were victims, from the 5,000 villages he destroyed, she said.
“When Saddam was defeated and the fighting stopped, the Kurds were able to form their own government,” she said.
During her year stay in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan which has been continuously inhabited for 6,000 years, she was often treated like a celebrity.
“Think Sumerians,” Garlough said. “In Persia, which is now Iran, they speak Farsi. In Kurdistan they’re tri-lingual, speaking Kurdi, Arabic and English, which they start learning in grade school.”
She lived in an apartment and had a driver/bodyguard drive her to work six days a week. Friday is their day of worship and most people are Muslim, but there are Christian suburbs. The work day begins on Sunday, making Friday and Saturday the weekend.
As Iraq began to close its doors to Christians, Kurdistan opened its doors and welcomed them.
“Kurdistan opened its doors to Christians. Muslims don’t drink alcohol, but in the Christian suburbs the restaurants served alcohol, so guess where everyone ate?” she said. “It makes the nightlife interesting, with a very different atmosphere.”
There are no movie theaters, but TV offers some English-speaking channels.
“They’re just starting to gain an interest in a wider cultural expression, and they have their own music and dancing which is different than the Arabic,” she said. “We just don’t understand, people of Kurdistan and America, we have no issues person-to-person.”
Sometimes, she’s take a taxi after work to go shopping, but never drove alone anyplace, as it’s not part of the culture for women to go out by themselves.
Fashion varies by age, also like in America, and men are more fashion-conscious than women. About half the women cover their heads in public. Elderly women wear traditional dress, while middle-age women wear American styles. Men wear Polo shirts and khaki pants.
“The young people dress very European, and the men care more about fashion than women,” she said. “Women do wear high heels.”
About 70 Americans lived in Erbil, a city of about one million, working in reconstruction and helping with the rebuilding. A few did humanitarian and aid work. Every house, hotel, and school was surrounded by high walls with gates and armed security. The border between Iraq and Iran is very tight, with checkpoints like our toll booths, except they had soldiers with machine guns patrolling them.
Almost all jobs flow through the government. They even had people whose jobs were to serve tea or coffee in the offices, usually men.
In spite of that, she said she felt very safe.
“I liked being there and have every intention of going back,” she said. “When you live someplace for a year, you develop a fondness in your heart for it and the people, I have a strong desire to help them in their efforts to make Kurdistan a better place.”
What left her feeling not so safe was the lack of standards or inspections for things we take for granted, like food, buildings or elevators. She ate a lot of fruit with the skins on and nuts just to be safe. And they have no car insurance, so a wreck could result in two people shouting at each other or physically fighting.
“Kurds are a lot like Americans, optimistic, with a strong sense of unity which must have been threatening to Saddam,” she said. “They’re very into picnics, and are very family oriented. Busloads of people travel to see waterfalls.”
In the Middle East, an executive position comes with an apartment, driver and car, she said.
When getting her degree, Garlough didn’t expect to find herself in Iraq.
After completing a bachelor in business administration and specializing in entrepreneurship at Northeastern State University in 1997, she earned a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Oklahoma in adult and higher education in 2003. Her degree is essentially for administration of colleges, universities and college students, she said.
While at OU, she was project coordinator of a team that wrote a grant to the U.S. Agency for International Development, a government agency providing economic and humanitarian aid, to help support and revitalize the colleges and universities in Iraq.
“In May of 2003, the bombs were still going off in Iraq; the war hadn’t ended and there were sanctions against them,” Garlough said, “They’d been closed off to the world since the mid-’80s.”
Even through this, higher education existed; they sent their people away to get doctorates at Cambridge and Oxford and other world-class universities, she said.
“Where we may perceive they aren’t well-educated, they actually are very well-educated,” she said. “The amazing thing was we found people who would hand-carry messages to get a dean’s signature into places where there was still fighting and riots, so we could help them. We were able to help with capacity-building and administration at the ministry level.”
The prime minister of the Kurdistan region of Iraq has a cabinet that includes a minister of higher education, and she was an international adviser to him seven years after the grant project she headed at OU.
In the 1980s, before sanctions, the University of Baghdad had 80,000 students, and was known as the Harvard of the Middle East, she said. By the end of 2003, the University of Baghdad and some other universities were massively devastated. They’ve been rebuilding for the past eight years.
There are mountains in Kurdistan, a natural vacation region for all of Iraq and waterfalls that attract visitors.
“Kurdistan is unbelievably beautiful; it’s the Iraq that the media has failed to show us,” she posted on her website.
Tourists also like to visit the village on top of a cliff, one of the oldest villages left.
“As Americans, we trace our history back through time and space to Mesopotamia, while those in Kurdistan, Iraq, just trace their history back in time,” she said.
We’re a people based from migration. They did not migrate.
“If you go back far enough the birth place of our civilization is the birthplace of their civilization,” she said. “We’re all part of the same family. It just hit me one day, this is the cradle of our civilization and theirs.”
It’s not what you see on TV; Kurds are Indo-European, not Arabs,” she said. “I found Kurdistan to be safe and prosperous; the people warm and friendly, and, intriguingly, it is very Eastern, with little to zero Western influence.”
She was invited to lecture at the Universities of Salahaddin, Dohuk, and Suliemania. But she spent most of her time in meetings and on projects, and offered advice about assessment, evaluation and accreditation of their universities.
“I was invited to advise his excellency, Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, because of working on the grant and some friendships I made before,” she said.
One of the biggest projects she worked on as part of an executive team was an International Conference for Research to improve the research agenda for the Kurdistan Region.
“The faculty have to produce research and collaborate with the outside world,” she said. “We brought 150 senior researchers from around the world for a three-day conference.”
Another expected situation came on pay days. They don’t use paper checks, as it’s a cash economy, so she was paid with a stack of cash about three or four inches tall, about the size of a brick.
After her year in Kurdistan, she wanted a slower pace and to be around her grown children and grandchildren and friends. She has two daughters, a son, and four grandchildren. Daughter Rachel Gibson works at NSU in the Information Technology Department. Daughter Ericka Lile lives in Purcell. Son John Hatlestad is a student at Northwest Oklahoma State University in Alva.