by Rob Ferguson
The dog days of June. The temps go up over 40 during the day and dip down to not much lower than 30 at night. Air conditioning is not a luxury but a necessity. It may be a dry heat – most of Iraq is essentially desert – and much more bearable than muggy coastal heat, but once the temps climb over 40, I find a heat lethargy kicks in, rendering any activity trying. Blasts of cold conditioned air may make teaching and exam proctoring possible, but they inflict a low-level sinus headache and make my dehydrated skin flake off like snow flurries.
Erbilians take it in their stride. They’re outside working on construction projects, sitting in outdoor cafés and going about their lives as usual. Of course this climate is normal for them, and perhaps the rest of the world should study and learn how to adapt to the rapidly arriving Age of Warmth, or maybe more precisely, the Age of Wacky Weather.
Actually I’m always amazed at how adaptable humans are to the environment. I grew up in Winnipeg and as a kid thought nothing of playing outside in -30 C. As a young man I acclimatized quickly to the tropics and later found myself re-acclimatizing to frigid Mongolia. After cross-country skiing I had to soak in a hot tub to get the feeling back in my feet. Sometimes the central heating went out and we survived with only a portable electric heater. My favorite memory is the street vendors selling ice-cream cones in midwinter – they conveniently didn’t melt except in your mouth.
Maybe this adaptability explains most people’s apparent indifference to global warming. Fatalism is an easy way to deny responsibility for the world around us and just live and let whatever happens happen. This seems also to be the attitude of most of my students.
The semester has just ended and final exams underway. I’ve been teaching seven classes – two psychologies, two histories, an educational psychology, and two English communications courses – and my students are mostly cheerfully irresponsible about studying. They badger me about what questions will be on the exam – we don’t set the exams I remind them – and plead with me to be a generous marker – our grading is mediated I also remind them. There is no sense of integrity. Getting through the course anyway they can is the only goal – any way except really getting down to serious studying it seems.
I’ve already marked their essays and many plagiarized them from sites like Wikipedia. I tell them over and over again to paraphrase, but between limited English skills, especially when it comes to writing, and growing up with an education system that stressed memorization above all – some students literally memorize answers verbatim, which leaves them floundering when a question requires analysis – they feel overwhelmed and victimized.
“Study hard,” I tell them over and over again. “Ask each other the review questions. You can do it! You can pass!”
“Inshallah,” they say with fatalistic little smiles. Inshallah is Arabic for “God willing,” and it’s the most overused word in this part of the world. “I’ll see you tomorrow!” “Inshallah!” “Let’s study this weekend!” “Inshallah!” Often inshallah means you have no intention of doing something.
“God has nothing to do with it,” I preach. “This is your education, your responsibility. You have to study!”
Probably I should be saying, “God is willing, but are you?”
My existential secular western viewpoint is met with respectful if anxious skepticism. I am the teacher, a foreigner, I’m much older, English is my first language, and I seem to hold their fates in my hands, along with Allah of course.
The university administration backs up their attitude – it’s the teachers who are blamed when students fail. Well, someone must be responsible, and since students pay tuition, it certainly can’t be their fault. Some students are completely shocked and indignant when they fail, as if it’s totally inconceivable.
“I paid for this course,” one told me, “so you have to pass me.”
After marks are posted, the president of the university sends out emails to teachers with failing students: “This is unacceptable, please explain.” I figure these are automatically generated and don’t answer them, but if I did, I would probably say, “They clearly didn’t study and should never have been admitted to this course with such inadequate English skills.” Or maybe more effectively, “Despite my very best efforts, God was apparently unwilling to help them.”
As you have likely cottoned on to, our university is managed in a quaintly old fashioned way. Education in this part of the world is still largely a top-down business with exams generated without any input from teachers by a mysterious corps of nameless educators in Lebanon, where the university is headquartered. As we are only allowed to see them fifteen minutes before the students have to sit down and write them, unsurprisingly there are sometimes surprises. It might be a very peculiar essay question, or maybe a reference to some obscure point I breezed over in order to keep to the pacing chart.
After perusing one of the exams, I step outside the exam hall where my anxious students await; all are staring at me with expressions of alarm and trepidation.
“If you studied, it should be easy,” I tell them with an encouraging grin.
“Inshallah,” says a student with panic in her eyes.
“Inshallah,” I say, realizing that’s really all there is to say now.
The exams are now over, and I’m pleased and relieved to say that almost all my students passed. The few who needed Allah’s help, apparently got it and the very few who needed it and didn’t get it, well, to quote a line from Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”
Rob Ferguson has worked in communications and as a trainer in his native Canada, Vanuatu, Mongolia, Central Asia, the Caribbean island of Montserrat, Colombia and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. He has also worked as a freelance journalist, editor and instructor of English, creative writing and journalism. He is the author of *Dancing with the Vodka Terrorists: Misadventures in the 'Stans*, available from here. He currently lives and works in Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. This blog originated here. Contact Rob Ferguson at: FaceBook: Robert W Ferguson. Instagram & Twitter: robertissimmo
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Culture in Kurdistan!
I Kiss Your Eyes, Habibi!
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