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I Was a Professor at the Horribly Corrupt American University of Iraq... Until the Neocons Fired Me

Horror stories from the graft-ridden American University of Iraq campus in Kurdistan.

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Humiliation was the theme of all Agresto’s memories of venturing into the wider world, beyond the tiny enclave of neocon academics. Even his ideological allies seemed to hurt him; he once described Lynne Cheney, his boss at the NEH, as “gruff and manly,” then repeated with real hatred in his voice, “Gruff…she was gruff.”

All that bitterness, and all those wads of taxpayer cash, ended up in the creation of AUIS. It was planned, as we new faculty were told, as a three-campus system, with branches in Baghdad and Southern Iraq. But Reality mugged that plan savagely; any attempt to stroll the groves of academe in any part of Iraq other than the Kurdish far north would have been interrupted with a lesson in practical physics from an IED.

Agresto took that money to Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdish zone of Northern Iraq, and set up AUIS, with himself in charge. He apparently chose Kurdistan for the simple reason that Baghdad, the natural place to put an American university in Iraq, was already too dangerous for Americans.

So AUIS was sited in Sulaimaniya, a quiet Kurdish  town near the Iranian border with a long reputation of separatism towards the rest of Iraq, especially Arab Iraq. Saddam recognized Sulaimaniya’s tradition of fierce independence, once saying that "the head of the serpent lies in Sulaimaniya,"

“Suli,” as we expats called it, is a quiet, dusty town. When you fly into the Suli airport, the city seems almost invisible, because the favorite building material is concrete, and the beige and tan blocky houses blend perfectly with the dry brown hills. It’s hot in the summer and cold and damp in the winter and there’s very little to do. One of my colleagues described living there as “sensory deprivation.”

I arrived, with a dozen other new hires, in September 2009. We flew in on the same plane and were taken to our hotels on the same bus. Most of us were pretty flinchy at first, wincing at every loud noise.But we soon learned there was nothing to fear from terrorists or even street hawkers. The Pesh Merga, the Kurdish militia who run security, are extremely effective, and the Kurds themselves are a polite, phlegmatic people.We soon realized the only danger in Suli was crossing the street. Everybody who’s anybody in Suli has an SUV -- Kia Sportages for the middle class, Toyota Landcruisers for the rich -- and very few locals know how to drive. But there is no violence against foreigners, as far as I know. We learned to go back to sleep after hearing bursts of AK fire, the established manner of celebrating a wedding or an election or just the fact that it’s Friday night. The only time I really flinched, once we were settled in, was when a bolt of lightning detonated directly above our hotel in the middle of the night. And even then, though I assumed it was a bomb, I wasn’t worried for our safety; my first thought was, “Agh, they’ll send us home and I won’t get any more of that money.”

In fact, I want to say clearly here how much I like and admire the people of Suli, my students in particular. They were a wonderful change from the timid, bland kids I’ve encountered in my recent North American teaching experiences. Most of the students at AUIS could name relatives tortured or killed by Saddam, or in the vicious Kurdish civil war of the 1990s, and nearly all of them were studying in an alien language they’d had little chance to learn properly. Yet they were smart, funny and without self-pity.

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