There is a particular conundrum about teaching one’s national history abroad – finding the fine line where intellectual honesty and nationalist interest overlap, without compromising one or subverting the other.
Ian Klaus diplomatically negotiates that fine line in Elvis Is Titanic: Classroom Tales From The Other Iraq, his eloquent account of the year he spent in Iraqi Kurdistan, teaching at Salahaddin University in Arbil. The Rhodes scholar, twenty-six when he arrived via Turkey in the spring of 2005, gave lessons in American history and culture to pupils who in turn taught the young American instructor not only about the unfamiliar region that would be his home for a year, but through their classroom dialogue, engaged him in an ongoing exploration of the many contradictions in American domestic and foreign policy. Or perhaps not policy, but rather its often distant cousin: practice.
Walking the students through Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, Klaus elicited, from his perceptive class, questions regarding such contradictions in America. Why, one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, were Americans still lynching each other, wielding a most undemocratic power? And, consequently, would the mid-century U.S. not lose moral authority abroad when such massive inconsistencies continued to exist at home? All of which forced Klaus into self-reflection and ultimately, but not disingenuously, he responded that one might judge a country not by a running total of its flaws, but by how vigorously its citizens struggle against those flaws. That, Klaus offers, without excusing flawed behavior, might be a more meaningful measure of a nation.
In addition to these welcome moments of self-reflection, we learn about the peculiar realities of life in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1992, for instance, after Saddam Hussein cut the region off from the rest of the country, the UN, via sanctions, wound up cutting it off from the rest of the world.
As to Saddam, Klaus explores the full extent and effect of his brand of totalitarianism on Iraqi Kurdistan: “Dictatorship goes beyond curtailing those freedoms that define liberal democracy,” Klaus states, pointing to the Kurds’ “utterly disabling distraction” of living next to a tyrant. What, for instance, would a Kurd do when called to fight for Iraq in the war with Iran, potentially having to attack his own people?
On the arts, Klaus discovers a damaged region, attempting, slowly and with minimal success, to assert itself in the post-Saddam era. “Saddam had stifled creativity for so long it could not simply jump-start itself again.”
Genial and popular (the hotel gardener offered Klaus sunflower seeds in exchange for a quick, daily lesson in grammar), the young American agreed to give a special lecture on a key figure in America’s own artistic output over the past century: Ernest Hemingway. A close examination of the margin notes in a used copy of The Old Man And The Sea tellingly reveals that the previous reader, a Kurd, recognized what many Hemingway readers miss or fail to give him credit for: Hemingway’s characters have doubt, resignation and love. There’s always a “moment of human frailty.”
While nominally teaching American History and English, no subject was off limits. A healthy exchange on the topic of globalization provides insight as to how Klaus’ pupils view a considerably more open media (relative to the tight controls under Saddam). While the pupils were nearly unanimous in their praise of openness (and of globalization), Klaus challenged that “individuals are drawn to sites or channels that confirm what they already believe”, and as a result, options are rendered somewhat irrelevant if you just seek automatic agreement.
The elephant in the room is of course the American occupation of Iraq. On that subject, Klaus is quite frank: “One of the great failings of the Bush administration was its inability to anticipate the evils and ugliness of which people thrust into a violent legal vacuum are capable… And this applies to both the occupiers and the occupied.”
Klaus wrestles with his students’ cynicism regarding U.S. motives. But he also discovers that they are equally pessimistic as to their own (i.e. the Kurds’) reluctance to fully embrace freedom, their entrenched need to be “ruled.”
Freedom was a new thing, but it was not an elixir; it would be what one made of it.