I Kiss Your Eyes, Habibi!
by Rob Ferguson
One of the charms of working “overseas” is the affection and respect bestowed on us foreigners, whether we’re worthy of it or not. Thanks to the world dominance of western movies, TV, music, media and technology, people in the non-western world, especially those who are young, educated in English and well-off, are immersed and familiar with our lifestyles, freedoms and behavior. But I have learned to be careful: admiration comes at the cost of expectation and sometimes judgement.
One of the unfortunate side-effects of the wars and violence in the Middle East is the general impression in the west that the region is fraught with brutality and hatred. And while there are simmering animosities and sometimes horrible acts or terror – even in Kurdistan as I recently learned – overall the people are warm, friendly and hospitable. When I flew here almost a year ago, we landed in Amman, Jordan and my seatmate, who was Jordanian-American, told me, “You’ll never find more welcoming people than Jordanians. They’ll please you at every turn.”
This certainly holds for the people of Kurdistan as well. One soon learns that warm smiles and friendly greetings are the norm, and if you have any kind of problem, people will help you right away. A couple of days after I arrived, Renas, one of the university drivers, took me to Family Mall, the biggest shopping center in the city and a “highlight not to be missed” according to Lonely Planet Middle East. I needed a SIM card for my cell phone and he dropped me off to get one. An hour or so later he arrived back and found me near the exit, and taking my hand, led me to where he’d parked the car. The sight of a short Kurdish man leading a tall foreigner by the hand like a child through the crowds outside the mall fazed no one. I was amused and touched and would have been embarrassed except clearly nobody cared.
Here men are allowed to show great affection to each other. They hug and kiss each other in greeting, frequently throw their arms over each other’s shoulders and love to dance together. My buddy and former student Mohammed kisses me every time he sees me and on occasions when I’m about to leave without a kiss, scolds me. Habibi, he calls me, and all his friends, an Arabic word meaning dear, or honey or sweetheart.
“I kiss your eyes, habibi!” he likes to say, a Kurdish expression that is not followed through on, at least no one has kissed my eyes — yet. It always makes us laugh. This affection is sweet and charming and not gay, at least it’s not seen that way here. But in the west it would likely be frowned upon except maybe in big gay-tolerant cities like New York, London or Toronto.
Unfortunately this affection only works for men, who here enjoy many more liberties than women. Women are untouchables and any body contact with them at all is viewed as offensive. Once we were walking through the crowded bazaar and as I passed a woman partly blocking the way, I lightly touched her shoulder so she knew I was there. Mohammed immediately chastised me. When I said I merely wanted to prevent her from backing into me, which I saw as a worse transgression, he made clear it was a sin to touch her in any way. So now I keep a careful distance from women but slap guys heartily on the shoulder and accept their kisses. It’s okay, unless they haven’t brushed their teeth.
Recently the Guardian published a piece about a man in Kurdistan who publicly kissed his girlfriend and posted the picture on Facebook, triggering a storm of controversy. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/24/couples-kiss-kurdistan-protest-islamic-iraqi-vandalism-sculpture
“Everyone should be against the kiss,”said Muhammad Hakim, of the Kurdistan Islamic Group. “It’s an effort to disorient Kurdish Muslim youths.” The article failed to mention the glaring irony that men kiss each other here publicly all the time.
“Live and let live,” I preach to my students when these sorts of controversies come up in class. “Try not to inflict your values on others. Don’t judge others unless you want to be judged yourself.” But these are western liberal ideas based on individualism, and they conflict directly with religious teachings all over the world.
A few months ago, in an educational psychology class, I taught the Socratic Method to my students as part of a chapter on questioning methods used by teachers.
“It’s a technique Socrates used to make students question their own assumptions and beliefs,” I said, knowing I was moving into dodgy territory. “For example, how did we come to be here?” I asked. “God made us,” said a student right away. “Okay, but then Socrates would ask you, ‘how do you know that?’” No one answered so I said, “Well, maybe because it’s in the Koran or the Bible. And he would keep the questioning going until his students realized the answer was not so simple and that there were maybe several possible answers.” Then I brought up the Theory of Evolution. “Maybe our species evolved from simpler, earlier species,” I said. Most of them had heard of Darwin’s theory but they looked suspicious, so I added, “I’m not telling you what to believe. Socrates and I just want to open your minds to other ideas.”
Another big cultural difference here is that of respect and responsibility. Most foreigners are automatically respected, whether we have earned it or not, which can make living and working here rather pleasant. But this comes with expectations. Along with the friendliness and deference you are sometimes expected to do things in return. Often this is demanded.
“You must eat pizza with me tonight,” said one student after class. I said I had plans, but he wouldn’t accept that. “No, we will eat pizza together tonight!” I only got out of it by feigning an upset stomach.
“You must give me the answers,” one young woman demanded one day in a history class as we reviewed the questions at the end of a chapter.
“No, I can’t,” I said, “because 20% of your mark is showing me you did them yourself.”
“But you have them all!” she said. “So you must give them to me!”
Later, when she scored 50% on the midterm, she blamed me. “You didn’t give me the answers!” she said accusingly.
If students fail, the university blames us too. We get an email saying this is unacceptable. Some teachers send back emails blaming the students, saying they didn’t study or their poor writing skills were at fault. But I refuse to play the blame game as it only feeds this censuring attitude.
“It’s your education,” I tell the students, “and I’ll do all I can to help you, but in the end it’s you have to take responsibility for it.”
Most don’t buy this. But watching them, some of them anyway, I sometimes see their eyes opening. They may not be following the Socratic Method, but by their expressions I can see that other ideas are taking root. And for me this is one of the joys of living in Kurdistan.
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!
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