A Slice of Life – Kurdistan: Volume 3

I woke up this morning to bright sunshine creating shadows on the walls. It is almost spring in Kurdistan. While indoors it is still brutally cold because of concrete buildings and lack of insulation, all of nature is breathing signs of spring. From goslings to buds on trees, life is bursting forth.

We have heard that March is a spectacular month in Kurdistan. It is a month long celebration of life and the new year. Nowruz (Persian and Kurdish New Year) is celebrated on the 21st of the month and we have heard that people picnic both that day and all the days surrounding the celebration. Winter has felt long here, even without snow. The rains come and seep into your bones and through cracks in the walls so that your body and your environment are constantly wet. It’s a bit like monsoons in Pakistan. With the dryer, warmer weather all of life feels easier.

A Daughter Visits…

Our younger daughter visited us this past week and in her presence we felt once again the joy of belonging. We rearranged our schedules to maximize our short time together and let her experience as much as possible.

We visited Darband and looked out onto a brilliant blue lake with snow capped mountains in the distance. We hiked up a small mountain behind the university and took in the expansive views of the area. But the highlight was a friend driving us up a steep mountain road where hairpin turns and switchbacks had us gasping and wondering if we were all going to die. We didn’t die and as we stopped to take in our surroundings it was all worth it. The view from above was magnificent. The sun was setting and the entire area was bathed in shades of fuchsia, gold, orange, blue, and grey. We could see where the lake detoured into smaller pools and rivers. We saw mountains beyond mountains and hills beyond hills. Almond trees dotted the landscape, their small pink blossoms whispering the hope of spring. Kurdistan’s beauty was on full display as if to say “I’m so much more than people realize!”

And it is.

In addition we were invited into homes of dear friends who showed Stefanie the warmth and hospitality we have been bragging about since we arrived in Kurdistan. It was an incredible gift to have her here with us and to show her why we love Kurdistan so much.

Beauty & Kindness of the People,
Stunning Landscape,
Generous Hospitality

There are times when I feel like our life resembles a National Geographic magazine article. Surrounded by adventure, beauty, and uncommon experiences as compared to the Western world, we find that each day holds a story or ten. But far more than that, what I long to communicate from our time here it is the beauty and kindness of the people, the stunning landscape, and the generous hospitality that is shown to us at every turn. I long to challenge stereotypes and show people how much they miss when they are locked into media perceptions. This is why these slice of life posts are so important. They are read all over the world and I can only pray and hope that my small words will make a difference.

But my words are inadequate to describe the beauty that we have seen, so I will leave you with pictures. Enjoy and as you look at them, think of Kurdistan.

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A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!

Work

We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.

Miscellaneous

Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

On Scarcity and Abundance

On Scarcity & Abundance

I’m sitting on my couch, feet stretched out. The mosque next door has just begun their Friday sermon, and it is broadcast loud in a language that is still unfamiliar to me. The electricity is on and I am trying to be grateful instead of fearful that it will go off.

I have thought a great deal about scarcity in recent weeks. I began thinking about it after a conversation with one of my sons in Greece, where he described someone as living and loving out of scarcity instead of abundance. This stayed with me and I find myself deeply challenged.

Until moving to Kurdistan, I didn’t think much about electricity, heat, or hot water. Now, these are regular thoughts on my mind. Will the electricity be on? Will it be cold in my office? Will it be cold in my apartment? (The answer is Yes – it will be extremely cold.) Will there be enough hot water to have a shower? To wash my hair? To wash dishes? I find that I want to horde what I have, to try and capture it so it won’t go away. I think about this all the time. I am living out of fear that there will not be enough – I am living from a mindset of scarcity, not abundance.

In the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives the authors say this: “Scarcity captures the mind…when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.  The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food…For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent…Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little.  It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.” Similarly, Michael Beckwith says:

There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’

I fear this is how I have begun to live.

 And yet, I am surrounded by people who are extraordinarily generous with their time, their food, their homes, and their help. I am surrounded by people who live with this scarcity but don’t let it affect their daily lives.

Years ago while living in Pakistan, I had a secret stash of special food. Ironically, the food I stored I no longer care for, but at the time cake mixes, taco mix, and chocolate chips were special and unavailable where we lived. I never let anyone know that I had these special, uniquely American food items. Chocolate chip cookies would appear, as if by magic, baked when no one was around to see what treasures I had hidden deep within my cupboard. I was obsessive about my secret stash.

One day, I went to the cupboard anticipating baking with some of my special supplies. I gasped in dismay. There were the unmistakable sharp marks of a rat’s teeth. I looked farther, holding my breath in hope that my beautiful, secret, special stash of food would be salvageable. It was not to be. There were rat droppings everywhere, teeth marks on bags that had been chewed through – all of it totally destroyed. I pictured the rats having their midnight feasts, an abundant feast sponsored by an unwilling, silent me in my bed. I was furious. I cried tears of anger and persecution. What had I ever done to deserve this?

My stash was gone. In those moments, I realized how tightly I held to those food items. They had become a security, a secret way to cope with what I found difficult. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized it was symbolic of the way I lived my life. I lived as one who operated out of scarcity and secret food stashes. I didn’t live out of the abundance of the joy and goodness that surrounded me. Whether it was money, food, time, or emotional capacity my subconscious mindset was one of “not enough”.

It affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
There was never enough. I was not enough. I did not have enough. And God was not enough. My mindset was one of scarcity and it affected all of my life.

It has been a long time since that food stash, and in truth, after the rat incident I never again tried to store up treasures that would be eaten by rats. But I find myself thinking about that time during these long days where electricity is scarce, where heat is scarce, where I live far from the abundance I have been used to. Because even though I am not hoarding food, I am well aware that I am operating out of scarcity.


If scarcity is a mindset, then so is abundance. I recently wrote about my friend Betsy, a friend who lived her life out of abundance not out of scarcity. “Scarcity was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She lived her life extravagantly and radiated the joy of giving.” I ended the post by saying that I want to live like this. I want to live out of abundance.

As I write this I’m sitting in one of two coffee shops in Rania, and the electricity has just come on. Adele plays on repeat, her beautiful voice burrowed into my mind. I want to capture this moment because I am content, I am warm. And the electricity is on. But capturing the moment is yet again acting out of scarcity. So I sigh. I breathe. And Adele says “Hello!”

A Christmas Story about Advocacy and Failure and Kittens

A cat had kittens in our building about a month ago. We were alerted to this by our neighbor. The cat is fiercely protective, constantly foraging for food and growling lest one of us gets too close to her precious offspring. There are three kittens – two jet black and one with some orange stripes in the black mix. They are as cute as you can imagine. They have begun to roam the hallways and scratch at our door. We sneak food to them when their mom isn’t looking- small bits of chicken, bread crumbs soaked in milk. They are resilient, they are cute, and they are fun – Kurdish all the way.

I find myself feeling a fierce protection toward this mother cat and her kittens. I want them to survive, I want them to thrive. It’s symbolic of a story I want to share with you. It’s a long story of disappointment and frustration and falling down and trying again. It’s a small story of what it takes for Kurdish students to succeed and the barriers that stand in their way. It is my story and it is their story, and I am so privileged to tell it.


It was in early June that I first found out about a group of Kurdish nursing students who had submitted a research paper to a conference in South Africa. The paper had been accepted and they were invited to attend the conference. After speaking with others at the University of Raparin, I set up a fundraiser.

I naively thought that this was just about fundraising. We would get the money, the students would go and have an opportunity to speak with other students and faculty from around the world. They would come back encouraged and share what they had learned. In my head it was all so easy. In my head I was also probably a bit of the story’s hero. I saw a need, I did something. Small in the big scheme, but big in the lives of three students and a faculty member.

That was almost seven months ago and my naiveté has been trampled under the boots of bureaucracy, my role as a hero has evaporated, and my eyes have been opened to some important truths.  I want to write about it, because it has taught me so much. As I write, I hope I can help give you a glimpse of what it has been like to fight, fail, and fight again.

About the students….

The students are delightful. They are new graduate nurses having graduated in October at a ceremony held at a large stadium here in Rania. Their names are Sima, Didar, and Sarhang – two young women and a young man. The women are beautiful, and smart. Sarhang is a handsome and engaging young man.It can be difficult to find jobs here in Rania as nurses so they all work at pharmacies, a common occupation for nursing graduates.  They are joined by Bewar who is an amazing staff member at the University of Raparin. Bewar is beautiful, fluent in English, and a tireless advocate for anyone who has a need. Bewar has helped me through many things these past few months as I learn to navigate life in Rania and in Kurdistan.

About the process….

There are only 21 countries where Iraqis can travel without visas, among them Malaysia, Ecuador, and Haiti. All other countries require visas. Although Kurdistan is an autonomous region in Iraq, they are considered as from Iraq on the world stage and by other governments. All laws and policies that apply to Iraqis apply to Kurds. If you have ever had to apply for a visa, you know that even in seemingly easy situations, it is not easy. You need pictures, you need to fill out the application with exact information, you need to have documents and letters and reasons for why you need the visa, and you need buckets full of patience. Kurds need even more patience.

South Africa and disappointments…

The first disappointment was South Africa. By the time the students had the required university and family permissions, they could not get the visa. The conference came and went, even though the paper and presentation had been accepted and the registration fees paid. I met with all of them and with Bewar. Could we submit the abstract somewhere else? Was there another conference that they could go to? We worked together and developed an abstract that we submitted to a nursing conference in Lisbon, Portugal. At the same time, we began the process of getting visas for the students to travel to Portugal. It was a long, tedious process. Finally all the documents were in order and they traveled to Erbil. Because Portugal does not have a consulate in Kurdistan, the Dubai Consulate in Erbil handles all the requests for Kurdistan and the applications are sent to the Portuguese Embassy in the United Arab Emirates.

Portugal and disappointments…

First we heard from the conference – the abstract was accepted and they were invited to do a poster presentation at the conference in early December. The conference wrote a letter on behalf of the students letting the Portuguese Embassy know that the students were presenting a poster. We waited anxiously to hear from the Embassy. We finally received a call that the passports had been sent back to Erbil but we did not know whether the visas had been granted. Late afternoon in early November I received a call from Bewar. The visas were refused.

I was so angry and I was so sad. I couldn’t believe a country would reject visas for students who were going for an academic conference. Bewar and I spoke later that evening. “Let’s appeal!” we said. We have nothing to lose. So I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter and I began calling the Portuguese Embassy in U.A.E. Each time I spoke with Habib. First they wanted more information from the University of Raparin. Then they wanted more information about finances. Then they wanted a bank statement. The requests seemed endless. Finally, after ten phone calls and multiple emails I convinced them to send in the appeal.

At this point I was no longer in Kurdistan. I was in the United States to be with my daughter for the birth of our grandson. Each day I checked email. I called U.A.E some more and spoke with Habib. Had he heard anything? Would he let us know as soon as he heard? No, he hadn’t. Yes, he would.

On November 28 at 5:40 in the morning I couldn’t sleep. I had terrible jet lag and was tossing and turning when I decided to check my work email. I had to read the message three times before I believed it:

The Embassy has the pleasure to inform you that the VISA for the 4 students are approved.

The Embassy needs the original passports to stamp the VISA.

Kind regards,

Embaixada de Portugal em Abu Dhabi

The appeal worked! The visas were granted! Glory to God! I could hardly contain myself. At this point, the work day in Kurdistan was over. I texted my husband and emailed Bewar and the Director of International Relations at University of Raparin.

“The visas are granted! You need to get the passports to the embassy in UAE immediately! The conference is on December 3rd. We have only a couple of days.”

We were frantic in our emailing back and forth. Could this actually be happening? Could they actually get to go? 

I had to let it go. It was now in the hands of my husband and University of Raparin staff. I would eagerly check my email whenever possible, but at this point the Portuguese Embassy and the University were both closed. I slept fitfully, and woke up to the news that Cliff and Araz had both been calling the Portuguese Embassy repeatedly only to find that the Portuguese Embassy would be closed because of a UAE holiday until December 3rd.  The conference began on December 3rd and would be over by December 4th. There was no way we could get the passports to UAE, visas stamped, sent back to Erbil and have them attend.

I felt physically sick to my stomach. So many people working on this and thwarted because of a holiday? It felt so wrong, but I realized this is what Kurds go through all the time. This is only one example of hundreds of disappointments that the Kurds have felt for many, many years. I was so angry and hurt. How could this be?

Bewar and I communicated by email a day later. We would send the passports anyway and get the visas stamped in. We would look for another way for the students to go to Portugal and share their research.

It was unbelievably complicated. We couldn’t even get DHL to pick up the visas in UAE. I will spare you the nightmare, but finally the passports arrived, the visas stamped in them. The visa expiration date was on January 3rd. That was a few days ago. At this point over $2000 had been spent on visas, travel, registration, and translation to get to events that the students didn’t get to attend with no refunds given. It was a dark, dark comedy.

When do you give up and say “this is not meant to be.” I was at that point. All the work, all the minute details, all the ups and downs and disappointments – it all felt like way too much. We needed to just give up.

Bewar and I talked. I would try one more thing. If a group in Portugal was willing to sponsor and meet with them, then maybe this could still happen. But there was also the matter of money. We only had a bit over $3000 to cover airfare to Portugal and hotels while there. There was no way we could do this. The students don’t have money, and we had no more money in the fund.

And then we received a lovely message from a group in Portugal. They would love to meet with the students. They would love to hear about their research. They would love to share ideas. We began working on the necessary documents from the university and I began searching for tickets.

It all feels like a miracle but we were able to find affordable tickets and a basic hotel where they will be able to stay. All the necessary documents are obtained and tickets are booked. It all feels a bit anticlimactic because I’m so, so tired. But the reality is that this is a miracle. From acceptance to funding to denials to appeals to the granting of visas to the flexibility of the students to the advocacy of Bewar to the invitation from the Platform fo Women’s Rights to the unbelievable price of tickets to the cheap bed and breakfast in Lisbon to the upcoming trip – it’s all a miracle. Life in Kurdistan is hard. I can attest to this at the core level because of the last few months. From lack of infrastructure to lack of basic amenities to lack of university funds – it is all hard. This difficulty is met with resilience that is recognized worldwide, with hospitality to strangers, and with incredible laughter and joy in living. So this miracle is not just about these students – it’s about the University of Raparin and Kurdistan.

The University of Raparin is home to some of the brightest best students we have ever met. Rania is home to some of the brightest and best people we have ever had the privilege to meet. The opportunities are so few and it gets so discouraging that people stop trying. This situation is a witness to not stop trying, to continue fighting and advocating, to not give up….and to expect miracles.

Learning and more learning…..

What have I learned? I have learned about barriers beyond my (or the students) control. I have learned more than I thought possible about perseverance and about wanting something so desperately for someone and something completely unrelated to my well-being. I have learned about visas and appeals and belonging to a country that is not welcome in most countries of the world. I have learned about my own privilege and my own sense of entitlement, I have learned that I am not the hero in any story – nor do I want to be. I have learned about advocacy and trying and failing and appealing and succeeding, and trying again and failing. I have walked only a few steps in the shoes of a group of people who face this at every, single level. Whether it’s through Baghdad, the United States, or the Portuguese Embassy, there are forces that are so far above and beyond our control.

I’ve learned about trying and trying again and I have learned about miracles.


As I write this, I hear the kittens running through our outside hallway. They are oblivious to miracles, to Christmas, and to how much they represent survival and joy. But they are there and they remind me that in a few days, I will celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation, the miracle that is Christmas.

Merry Christmas and may miracles abound in your life.

If you would like to donate to other projects at University of Raparin College of Nursing, here is the link – and thank you!

Support Nurses in Kurdistan! 

Some Ramblings on Life, Loss of Ideals, and Culture Stripping

I arrive back to Rania in the rain. The mountains along the road from Erbil to Rania have changed from dusty brown to lush green. They are beautiful. Rivers are rushing with muddy water, an indication that it has rained for some days, and the sun is seemingly lost behind clouds.

It’s hard to believe that this lush land is the same one that we arrived to in early September. Gone is the dust and brown of summer, replaced by vivid shades of green with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Long hours of power outages accompany the rain and we sit on a couch, huddled in our robes sipping spicy, turmeric tea. It’s not as romantic as it might seem. Flickers of discontent are below the surface and I try hard to focus on the positive.

I bake a cinnamon tea ring and the rich scent is a spark of hope until I realize the bottom has burnt. The dim light from a candle wasn’t enough to see if it had cooked long enough and I kept it in the oven too long. The result was as disappointing as you might imagine.

Along with that we are facing some difficult relationship problems and it makes us want to curl up and isolate. Sometimes nothing works out and that’s the honest truth. When everything seems to go against you in a cross-cultural context you begin to question everything.

The rumblings of discontent stir and then boil. As the electricity stays off and we have no hot water for the fifth day in a row, those rumblings erupted and boiled over the pot. We huddled in our living room as I write an email to see if someone could help us. They could and they did. Within 24 hours we had electricity, we had someone to come and fix some other things that were broken and friends brought us over a kerosene heater to take the chill out of the air when the electricity went off again.

Independence and self-sufficiency are all-American values and in many ways they aren’t very good ones. The idea of “do by self” creates a lot of loneliness and defeats the idea of community. We are in a position that could lead to great loneliness and we are more American than we thought when it comes to trying to do it alone or letting our needs be known.

Along with that are reminders of what we left behind. We came from strong church, work, and friend communities – communities that would give and come alongside us, that challenged us to open our hearts and homes to those around us. In our move to Kurdistan, we left those behind. We have been given much in terms of hospitality and genuine friendship, but it takes a long time to grow an old friend, and we haven’t been here a long time. We are also in a place of need. We don’t know things about living here. We constantly need help. We are two adults who are like children when it comes to our understanding of cultural norms in Kurdistan. We would love to invite people to our home, but it’s small and people have bluntly told us that they wouldn’t come anyway. Instead, we accept invitation after invitation without giving back.

Here’s the thing: We have been stripped of our ideals at every level. 

What does all this mean? Those reading may immediately cry “culture shock”. But I think some of this is not just culture shock – it’s what writer Rachel Pieh Jones calls “culture stripping”. She describes it well in an essay at A Life Overseas, and I quote some of it here as a reminder to me:

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

These words from Rachel reveal my heart, they reveal what I think is happening under the surface of all that feels hard. In so many ways I hate it. I hate what it reveals about me, I hate that I am not stronger, better, kinder. But in other ways, it reveals truth, and I want truth. I don’t want to live a lie. I want to grow, learn, and move forward even when it is hard. I want to lean into the discomfort. 

As Rachel says, this stripping is not a one and done event. It is like the long journey in the same direction – you keep on going because every once in a while you see a glimpse of yourself without the dragon skin, and that glimpse is so worth it.

So – to you who are on this same journey, a journey of culture stripping and cleansing, of getting rid of our cultural dragon skin, may we share the non-idealized versions of ourselves. These stripped and humbled versions that are vulnerable are ultimately far more useful than the ones we try so hard to cultivate.

I write this as I hear the evening call to prayer. The rain and gloom continue outside, but inside there is warmth and healing. A bit of the dragon skin has been peeled but there’s more to come. For now I sit, grateful for the stripping.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan

“Write more about Kurdistan! I want to hear more about your life!”

This text came from my younger daughter recently. I realize I haven’t written much about my new normal. Perhaps it’s because my new normal sometimes seems so far beyond what I ever imagined that I can’t find words. Other times it feels so similar to my past lives in Pakistan and Egypt that I feel I have stepped back in time.

My work at the college of nursing is difficult to describe. Every day is different and every day I learn something new. The route to my office is changing as the weather changes. These past few days as I walk to work I don’t revel in the crunchy, golden leaves of fall in Boston. Instead I see mums, a cactus, and a palm by our plant store along with an open fire boiling tea for students and faculty as they pass by.

Yesterday I went with the 4th level nursing students to the village. I have spent a good deal of time with the community health teachers, as that is my specialty, and this is the second trip I have taken with the group. The first was to one of the primary care centers in the city of Rania. Like the United States, Kurdistan has worked hard to strengthen its primary care infrastructure. The result is that every district has several primary care centers. This takes the strain of preventive and regular care off of a hospital system, and puts non-emergent care into clinics. Vaccines, sick visits, well-child visits, physiotherapy, tuberculosis care, and more are all done in out patient settings. The students visited the center and had an introduction to everything the center does. They then split into groups to observe a specific area of the center. Yesterday, continuing in the vein of community health, we went to one of the villages outside of Rania to do home visits.

We traveled by bus along a winding road that, if taken far enough, would eventually lead to Iran. The weather was cloudy and the mountains surrounding us have ground coverings of green from the recent rains. On the way we passed orchards of pomegranates and figs, the pomegranates bright red as it is late in the season. You could see people going about their daily lives in every village we passed. Two women in Kurdish house dresses chatting at the side of a road, men sitting and eating sunflower seeds and drinking steaming cups of tea, children on their way to school – all normal activities for this time of the morning.

About 25 minutes from the university, our bus driver found a gravel area to park off the side of the road, and faculty and students got off the bus.

I stood there for a moment looking at my surroundings and found the whole situation surreal. It was quiet and you could hear birds chirping, whether in Kurdish or English – who could know? Here I stood in a village in Northern Iraq with thirty some nursing students and three other teachers. I was surrounded by mountains, winding roads, Kurds, and Kurdish. I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to comprehend my life. I couldn’t. If someone had told me a year ago that I would be in this position, I don’t think I would have believed them! I think I would have said “In my dreams, maybe, but not in reality.” Yet here I am.

The students divided into groups of four and headed off to complete questionnaires through home visits in the village. I followed along with one group and another teacher. We stood on a balcony overlooking the street while the students sat and asked questions of a mother and her daughter. Culturally, this is not easy for the students. To go to a stranger and invite yourself into their space, to ask questions about their family, to find out things about their health and their living situation – none of this is easy. But it is part of learning about a community, part of learning about the health of the community. In what I have learned is typical of Kurdish people, we were all invited inside – Come for tea, come for a meal, come stay! But the students came with a specific purpose, so we refused all but the tea. The tea was most welcome, served hot, strong, and sweet in small, decorative glasses with saucers that matched.

Soon after we hugged goodbye, but not without promising to return. We headed back to the bus but first had our prerequisite group picture, standing on an incline near the village school.

That’s just as small snapshot of my life. As I said, It feels at some points unbelievable, and at other points unbelievably normal. That’s what strikes me each day.

I get up every day and I sit in my living room to reflect and wonder and pray. I sit and watch the sun’s light grow brighter on the mountains that I can see from our living room window. I drink my coffee and think about life, what it means to live, to redefine success from my narrow view; what it means to live here in Kurdistan.

I think about how my life has changed and what it is like to continue living in a paradox, my worlds so far apart. I think about living between worlds, how hard and yet how rich it is. I think about how I am an outsider here, and yet sometimes it’s easier to live as an outsider here than it is for me to live as a supposed insider in the United States. I think about the dilemmas that we between worlds people feel and face, how the complexity of these feelings never really ends, but we learn to be content within them. We learn to be satisfied with life in the in between.

I think about all those things, but most of all, I think about what it means to love God and love people a little more each day.

So that’s my slice of life today. Who knows what tomorrow may hold? 

“Why?” – On One ‘Why’ Question a Day

“Really?”

I raised my eyebrows as I looked at my husband. “You’re going to waste your one ‘why’ question on this?”

“Doesn’t count!” he said emphatically!

“Does too!” I replied.

“Does not!”

We stood there like two children in the middle of the dusty road in back of our apartment, the afternoon shadows of the mountains creating shade despite no vegetation of any kind. A lone chicken had begun to cross the road toward us, only to confront my husband midway, squawk indignantly, and turn back to the other side.

The ‘why’ question was the age old question with a Kurdish twist: “Why did the Kurdish chicken cross the road?”

It was this that I responded to.

We moved here six weeks ago. After a whirlwind of closing the doors, windows, and chapters on one life, we traveled thousands of miles to a completely new one with little that links it to the old besides us.

We could not be more delighted to be making our home here in Kurdistan. We are in a small city that has welcomed us in wholly and completely and we are grateful. But because we wear our own cultures like body suits, tightly fitted to our form, there are times when we are assaulted by cultural differences, some big and some small.

In an essay “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong” writer Joann Pittman walks through a series of tips for expats who are learning to live well in their adopted countries. It is an excellent article, and well worth keeping bookmarked, but the best advice of all is unforgettable. She gives a numeric limit to the number of ‘why’ questions you are allowed to ask a day. The number is one. That’s right. One ‘why’ question per day. And I will tell you – it is a life saver. It is a marriage saver. It is a friendship saver. And it is genius advice.

She says this: “One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) ‘WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?’ Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one ‘why’ question per day.”

One ‘why’ question a day.

Think of how many times you ask why in your home culture. Chances are that it is far more than you are aware of. Now think about being removed thousands and thousands of miles from your home culture, and being in a culture where you don’t know the language, the rules, or the culture. Yet still – one ‘why’ a day.

So if I use it poorly, I’m done. Like “Why did it take us three weeks to get our residence permit, and it only took that other expat one day?” No. NO. NO. Bad why question. Bad. Because who knows? And does it really matter? These governmental procedures are way, way out of our control.

It just happened that way, and don’t worry about it. We now have our residence permits. We have our passports. We are happy.

Here’s another ‘why’ question with no answer: “Why did they put our western toilet over a Turkish toilet so it rocks back and forth?” Also not a good ‘why’ question. We will never learn the answer to this.

“Why are you charging us an extra five thousand dinar for our mint lemonade?”

Answer: “Because you had the nuts.”

“But we didn’t ask for the nuts.”

“Okay. Then we won’t charge you the extra money.”

Now that question was a good why question! That question had an answer.

“Why are all the tire stores together?”

Bad. They just are. You might just as well say “Why aren’t the tire stores together in our home country?”

The good ‘why’ questions are the ones that help you better understand your host culture, and thus be able to enjoy and adapt and live effectively within that host culture.

The not so good ‘why’ questions are the ones that are often based on cultural superiority. The ‘we do things better where I come from, so why don’t you change your ways to be like ours?’. This may be painting broad strokes on why questions, but my experience tells me that it is not. When we learn what is behind a particular way of doing things, we are better able to understand it, even if we don’t agree with it.

If we limit ourselves to one ‘why’ question a day, we take ourselves away from constantly questioning and instead put ourselves into a posture of learning.

Let’s face it – there are some places and situations where we could ask ‘why’ all day long. I just left government service in Massachusetts. Believe me, government and state institutions around the world are not that different. There are always too many employees to be efficient. There is always too much bureaucracy, and there are always too many leaders who don’t care. This was true in Massachusetts, and it’s true here. I wasted a lot of time at my job in Massachusetts asking ‘why’. Why, for ten years, did I have no support to go to continuing education events? Why was there so much bureaucracy? Why. Why. Why. I should have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day while I was there.

Instead I waited until I came to Kurdistan. And in Kurdistan I am enjoying life so much – partly because I have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day.

So people – One ‘why’ a day! If you’ve crossed cultures it’s a necessity. If you haven’t crossed cultures, try it anyway! I guarantee that your life will change!