Not many Americans are brave enough to follow the troops to Iraq, but Oxford graduate Ian Klaus felt obligated to give his time in making Iraq a stable, successful country. In January 2005, he traveled to the democratic Kurdish region of northern Iraq to teach English and American history at a university. Although there is always inherent danger in being in a war zone, Klaus and his students felt comfortable enough to talk about everything from American history, to pop culture, to politics.
The Kurdish are adopting some of our social conventions, such as democratic government, but it is much different there. They would be appalled to see our voting statistics that show how many people chose not to vote. While Klaus was there, there were many who skipped work to vote and 34 of them were killed in shootings or bombings. They knew that they were risking their lives to vote, a privilege that Americans take for granted. Klaus wrote his latest book, Elvis is Titanic, to give Americans a glimpse of the Kurdish culture.
Sarah Hutchins: How long did you spend in Iraq? Ian Klaus: The book takes place over the semester I spent teaching there in 2005. I returned in 2006 and 2007 to give some talks and to catch up with friends. Calling through to Iraqi Kurdistan at that point was almost more difficult than flying there–though I did have to pay for my ticket with cash at the airport.
SH: Do you still correspond via e-mail with the students from your classes? IK: Yeah, I remain in touch with a handful of them. They were, after all, a pretty special group of people. Some have gone on to ministry jobs in Baghdad while others drive taxis in Kurdistan.
SH: How do you think that your time spent in Iraq has shaped your future goals? IK: History can be an abstract thing–we read it, learn it and teach it, at times without any sense for how it shapes our view of the world. My students reminded me that history, our views of it, shape what we think we can do in this world, what our limits and hopes can be. My time teaching in Iraq has certainly inspired me to try to make accessible the understanding of the ways in which history shapes our lives.
SH: Is your main goal to inspire or inform readers? Or both? IK: I think they can be one and the same. My students had overcome so many challenges in their lives that their sheer insistence upon hope, love and successful careers was to me both inspiring and informing. Optimism and humor can persist in times of terror–that’s a wonderful lesson.
SH: How do you hope that your book will impact readers? IK: I hope it succeeds in showing just how much all of us–Christians, Muslims, men, women, those of the East and the West–really do have in common. Beyond that, as much as it is serious, it is also a funny book, I think. Cross-cultural meetings, sensitive as they are, can be really funny things.
SH: Do you plan to return to Iraq to teach again?IK: I plan on returning this year, but I’m not sure about teaching. Maybe I’ll enroll in the courses now taught by my students and friends. One of them, after all, is writing his dissertation on Hemingway.
Elvis is TitanicIan Klaus$24256 pages