A Rhodes Scholar’s turgid account of a semester spent teaching U.S. history and English in occupied Iraq.
Inspired by Cecil Rhodes’s call to “fight the world’s fight,” the author headed for Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005 to teach at Salahaddi University in Arbil, aiming to bring English and “the American experience” to a nation struggling with democracy. Facing a generally appreciative classroom, he led far-ranging discussions on an eclectic array of writers, including Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr. Klaus is at his best when simply capturing the voices of the Kurds and other nationals he encountered. Among the impressive, vibrant, tragic people who leap off the page: his direct, colorful students; the staff, fellow guests and South-African bodyguards at the hotel where he resided; and the awkwardly charming busboy who never lost an opportunity to practice his vocabulary with the American. Unfortunately, Klaus truncates these profiles to focus on pedantic exposition and lofty generalizations that verge on the incomprehensible when not faintly paternalistic. (“They had not yet assimilated the luxury of abstraction that attends self-determination.”) Disorienting temporal shifts and poor segues further hamper narrative clarity. The obviously well-read author incessantly quotes political thinkers, historians and Orientalists (Tocqueville, Graham Greene, et al.), drawing stultifying parallels between their work and his own observations. Concrete personal details are curiously absent or glossed over. For example: Who arranged for his bodyguards? How did he manage to meet Iraq President-to-be Jalal Talabani weeks before the election? Perhaps the indignant penultimate chapter about being outed to Kurds as Chelsea Clinton’s boyfriend explains these assiduous omissions. The end result, however, is disappointingly muddled and off-putting.
Inflated in scope and ambition, but worth reading for direct glimpses into the hearts and minds of everyday Kurds.