Thursday, August 12, 2010


As I am transitioning from one world to another and before I really get my thoughts together after trying to process the past 40+ days and nights in the Middle East, here are some things I want to make sure not to forget. This is also the key to unlocking my memories for anyone that wants the full story after I survive reverse jetlag. By sharing these personal memories informally, I hope this conveys both the realities of international engagement on the road as well as the generosity of spirit and the kindness of strangers that often become friends. Although we were all brought together by a love of the arts, our team, local partners and participants also bonded through collective problem solving and a shared love of popular world culture. So…in no particular order by country here is the unforgettable hit list:


Grease Number for Airport Film
The Airport. When we return our kids will be featured in a promotional video about Kurdistan to greet us as we go through the 5 levels of security.

 Just how Modern, “Modern City Hotel” was-it depends on who you ask.

 Finally conquering non-Western toilets. I cannot express how important this survival skill is while traveling abroad. There should be a book.

 The spontaneous folk celebration at the end of the Gala concert and dancing with John Ferguson and 300 exuberant Kurds.

 Taking photos with almost every single male student and being asked if I knew the girl in the Twilight movie. I am a little afraid of where all these photos will end up.

Entrance to the Citadel
 Exploring the Erbil Citadel with Dr. Brad and WherethehellisMatt.

 Teaching ballet to the Bboys (their request) and oboe to Hersh.

 Realizing that few can type confidently in Kurdish. It takes half a day to translate and a whole day to type. (My computer now has the fonts if anyone needs them.)

 Garden parties after midnight in the “Christian District” and the smell of hookah. In Erbil, “family” means women allowed and “Christian” means alcohol is available in the area. They are not mutually exclusive.

 Everyone, including the Iron Man, getting really, really sick for an average of 10 days. Trust me you don’t want to know.

 Watching Dr. Greg tune down his viola to play beautiful Kurdish folk music with Alan.

 All the forbidden teenage love drama (you know who you are).

Grand Piano Success
 Getting the grand piano onstage and likewise moving it back out again. Thanks again to all the bboys and volunteers that lent a hand. I do not offer this up as a best practice.

 The kids choosing to sleep on the streets of Erbil in the middle of the night because the AC broke in select dorm rooms and it was cooler outside.

 Watching the young women paint the mural outside the Ministry of Culture.

 Mariano’s exuberance about Spain’s progression and victory in the World Cup-we watched the key games outside despite the heat.

 The delicious apricot soup, the tea and the scary kabobs.

 Middle Eastern Bureaucracy. This holds true in all three locations each displaying a distinct and diverse flair that distinguishes it from similar N.America, Southeast Asia, African and European bureaucratic drama each of which has its own cultural characteristics.  And you thought government and bureacracy was boring! 

 How my laundry literally dried in an hour because of the lack of moisture in the air.

 The sheer genius of having your room key control the electricity. Also means you never lose the key. Recycling, though, hasn’t really caught on yet.

 Never knowing when the electricity would go off. Note: avoid elevators unless necessary.

 Having the office boys take me to the new modern mall. The outside photos feature beautiful, happy Scandinavian families.

 Dancing with Bruce at the Kurdish wedding we got pulled into. (See "The Newbie" for the full story)

 Using Iraq and Kurdistan labels selectively depending on who you are talking to.

 Trying to fit 2 administrators, 5 office volunteers, and 10 teachers into an 11 by 7 office. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

 The office guys getting excited about Shakira and Enrico Inglesias. SHAKIRA! In the Middle East it is also perfectly sociably acceptable for male friends (bromances) to hold hands, sit close and put their arms around each other.

 Dr. Gene’s famous disco shirt (it made an appearance in Syria too.)

 Goodbye dinner at the American compound cantina-can we say Mash with barbed wire anyone? Company and food were excellent though.

 Hearing all the amazing stories of our students many of whom sacrificed more than you can imagine to attend.

DAMASCUS, SYRIA (July 16-July 27)

 After too many days of functioning on too little sleep, I watched the bus pull away with my colleagues headed to Lebanon due to a lost passport. Let’s just say there is more than a little video of me streaming tears at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus that I hope stays locked away forever. On the plus side, I caught up on Little House on the Prairie and “Finding Nemo” in the waiting room and now have an emergency passport without any Arab state stamps. Guess I have a year to go and see Jerusalem. For the record, it takes the duration of 2.5 “Finding Nemos” to get a new passport when they are expecting you. (See "Finding Nemo" for the full story.)

 Border crossings. Seems Syria wants me to stay forever. I can always get in but seem to have a lot of trouble getting out. Wouldn’t have made it without our awesome taxi drivers that were willing to go to bat for perfect strangers.

 Green mosques lighting up the city at night

 Amr Hammour giving us the grand tour with the view of the city from the Mountain

 Seeing all the diverse women’s fashions. I love the sequin patterned burquas.
Supermen of Syria at Umayyad Mosque

 The souq and the old city.

 Flirting with the babies and talking with their moms using sign language at the famous Umayyad Mosque while my colleagues got a tour on the male side and I sweated it out in a borrowed Hajib.

 Running into other hotel guests at the border crossing that had witnessed all the lost passport drama. They were kind, I was embarrassed.

 The yummy delicious food at the hotel and the pistachio ice cream. I got an extra scoop at the souq because I was a smiling American.

 Early 6:30 am breakfasts and shopping with Miss Carole.

 Trying to figure out exactly how many hours of rest the gas station guys could get sleeping on the roof visible from the breakfast table. I finally caught them sleeping right before we left. My estimate is about 4 hours max.

 Mint lemonade and dinner at the old Damascene House with Amr and Dr. Gene.

 Splurge of the year…thai massage at Four Seasons around the block from our hotel. In my defense, I was desperately warding off my nemesis, migraine, and all the $6 bathhouses that allow women were closed. Best massage of my life to date though and totally worth it.

 Samaa and Abir’s kindness and essential help on the ground and rockin out to Amy Winehouse, “No, No, No.”

Our talented voice and piano students
 The students and translators randomly deciding not to show up on any given day. On the other hand, most of our students were very talented and dedicated thanks to their Soviet training.

 Ira working the audience with traditional spirituals.

 Late night talks with Anne Marie.

 Visiting the National Museum where they have evidence of the first written languages.

 Sitting under a full moon with about 1000 Syrians and three TV station cameras as my colleagues and the students rocked the outdoor venue.

BEIRUT, LEBANON (July 27-August 9)

 Reuniting with old friends. Singing showtunes everyday in the office with Mahmoud with guest voice contributions by Balsam, Amal, Omar and Eliane. There may have been some belly dancing as well to Arabic music but we are taking the 5th.

Omar at the beach. Courtesy of a colleague.
 Waking up to see the sea every morning outside my window.

 Watching Omar (visiting from Kurdistan) experience the beach at White Sands and Byblos after never seeing the sea before in his life. Once again at Byblos, life soundtrack was Shakira, Enrique and Beyonce from the party down the beach.

Jeita Grotto! (Please vote for a as a new wonder of the world. I have never seen anything like it!)...and that entire day (notable as my one day off.) Hezha, you have a rewarding future ahead of you as a Minister or tour guide.

Pirates of the Caribbean
 Bruce’s interactive conducting of the score from “Pirates of the Caribbean” while wearing an over-the-top Pirates Hat. Concert highlight was the hat flying off and hitting a cellist after a perfectly executed turn. After a brief pause, cellist and conductor fully recovered and immediately the show went on.

 Eating at Petit Café suspended on cliff supports near Pigeon Rock with Marc, Greg and John. (Eating was usually the only time off for admin.)

 Taking the teenage dorm kids to see the third Twilight movie, "Eclipse"-their request, and debating Edward versus Jacob all the way home. Cheesy vampire love stories CAN facilitate cultural exchange!

 How close Lebanon and Israel came to war over a tree incident that left five dead.

 Seeing Cynthia Schneider so far from home on our first day.

 A nameless staff member with a devilish laugh signed into the dorms as Satan in room 666 one early morning and then was too sick to work. He blamed it on the wings, I blamed it on the absinthe. As management, we were NOT happy but I still had to secretly laugh.

 Manoosh for breakfast. Ahh manoosh! Think big salty cheesy personal pita pizza with thyme and spices.

 Improv with Chris and the hip hop class.

 Michael Parks Masterson in general (this goes for Iraq and Syria too.)

 Dunkin Donut farewell breakfast with Amal and Eliane, our fabulous chaperones.

 Amal’s mother’s chocolate coconut balls. The staff went through two batches in two days. Shokrun, shokrun, shokrun!

 After a failed border crossing and 3 hours of sleep, a perfect 4 hours of writing at Café Younes just in time to meet two deadlines.

 A free taxi ride on the way back from the supermarket in Hamra to Bliss Gate (completely unheard of) offered due to my heavy load. In comparison, another taxi driver dropped Miss Carole and I off 8 busy highway lanes away from the grocery store, told us to walk, lied to our translators that we had called and then tried to charge us double (foreigners cost extra) after an hour of getting lost.

Feeding all the wild cats
 American University of Beirut kitties everywhere. They feed and water the wild cats daily.

 Dad using Skype for the first time!

 Arabic and bachata dancing with Bruce and Mahmoud at the goodbye party.

Its official! I can live without Starbucks, my blackberry, air conditioning in extreme heat, western toilets and even the Internet (which I had maybe 30% of the time). Not only is it possible, but I reconfirmed that some of the most intense and rewarding experiences of my life can take place.

Thanks to all my fabulous colleagues, our wonderful students and everyone that touched my life during the past 5 and a half weeks. I hope to be back next year (Inshallah!) And, finally, thanks to all my loved ones and colleagues stateside for being so supportive and letting me have this essential, annual, field experience which always successfully re-inspires my work as a teacher, policy advisor and researcher. Photos of classes, the 10 concerts and life on the road can be found at under Photos or on Facebook at YESAcademyKurdistan, YES Academy Syria and YES Academy Lebanon 2010. Donations to American Voices for 2011 can be made through

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