"What happened in Iraq didn't stay in Iraq."
That statement was an inside joke, and the joke became a shield, thrown up while we adjusted to the fact that this trip rocked our world, brought new joy, new responsibilities, new questions.
Twenty of us went to Iraq for a groundbreaking academic conference last December. Since returning, we've been trying to build on the foundation of that experience, and to sort it out emotionally. It's not going too far to say we see Baylor differently today. When we run into each other on campus, we find ourselves giggling, hugging each other, calling each other by nicknames, almost wanting to cry. We believe Baylor at this moment is in a position to make a significant impact in northern Iraq. And the trip changed us.
Just after fall classes ended, 18 faculty and two graduate students left for Iraq, fulfilling a promise made by William Mitchell, who told Iraqi educators during a brief trip last August that Baylor would be back before the end of the year. Mitchell, head of Baylor's Center for International Education, is a former commander of Air Force bases in Turkey. Helping lead the group was another former Air Force officer, Mark Long, a professor in political science and in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core.
The three-day conference had to be cut short by a day because weather forced cancellation of a flight from Ankara to eastern Turkey. We made that leg of the journey on a chartered bus, a 14-hour overnight ride through the mountains in snow and ice. That was followed by another long bus ride, most of it along the Syrian border, where we kept our eyes on a succession of machine-gun towers just across a minefield from our highway.
Once in Iraq, each of us gave presentations on research developments, teaching methods or theory. Sessions were held at the schools of engineering, medicine, law and arts and sciences at Dohuk University, one of five universities participating. We delivered baggage limits of textbooks and other teaching materials -- more than 50 pounds per person -- for each host school. We had time during tea breaks and meals for passionate discussions about the future of their country. We were welcomed into our colleagues' homes and fought for spare minutes to see the city of Dohuk and a bit of the countryside.
Just after we left Iraq, Baylor Provost David Lyle Jeffrey wrote us a thoughtful e-mail in which he said, among other things, that this kind of work helped our University be "more plausibly Christian." For a host of reasons, this trip prompted dialogue about what it means to be Christian, and what it means to be Baylor.
In the months since the trip, many of us have pursued follow-up projects. In April, Asmat M. Khalid, president of Dohuk University, made his second visit to Baylor to speak with Mitchell's political science classes. Twenty-one Iraqi graduate students will be on campus this summer under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of State. Larry Lehr, senior lecturer in environmental studies, is supervising an Iraqi doctoral student on a dissertation based on extensive water-use data the student collected in more than a decade as a civil servant in Iraq. Lehr is considering how water quality can be affected by civil unrest and oppression and what might be done to offset the damage. Bill Hair, associate dean and associate professor of libraries, is working on a way to get thousands of volumes of donated books from Moody Library to Dohuk; many students in Iraq read English, and they have a thirst for the classics (John Steinbeck, for one, was banned by the censors under the previous regime).
Our colleagues there, especially the younger ones, expressed great interest in what Amy Hubbell, lecturer in the French department, described as "the democratization of the classroom," which entails more interactivity, more creative responsibility for the students, more flexibility on the part of the professors. One project being explored for this year is a two-week seminar focused exclusively on teaching techniques.
Our work in Iraq falls under the heading of "building civil society," which comprises organizations outside of government that speak in the public arena, appeal for public support and claim to work in the public interest. The autonomous university tradition is a key part of civil society, and universities are good places to nurture public institutions such as the legal system, professional associations, political parties and free media. Those who believe a civil society must be "homegrown" to be effective should be encouraged by the Baylor team's eagerness to listen, adapt and support, rather than dictate or pontificate.
As we try to build, we continue to reflect. The plans and projects are easy to describe, the emotions much more difficult. Certain details and conversations stick in my mind. Our Kurdish colleagues, without making much of it, might mention that a family's village was wiped out in a chemical attack, or that an entire city had to be evacuated for fear of a final attack during Saddam's last days in power. The unthinkable had become routine; atrocity had lost its novelty.
On the positive side, I recall the pure joy of talking politics on the front porch of the law building with graduate student Justin Page and law professor Haval Rauf. I would find out later that this building had been used as a prison and execution yard by Saddam's forces before the first Gulf War. But on this day, the subjects were civil society, Alexis de Tocqueville and federalism. Justin was experiencing an initiation by fire into the world of academic debate, under conditions of unique passion and relevance. Haval was full of questions: How could President Bush lose the popular vote and win the presidency? Would such a system help protect a minority region such as Kurdistan from the tyranny of the majority? I had a question, too: Do we thank God for the gift of politics, for the gifts of reason and judgment and inherent, God-breathed value? I will never forget standing in the cold drizzle on that porch, my hands warmed by a tiny cup of tea, my spirit warmed by Justin and Haval, the ghosts of Jefferson, Madison, Locke and the ghosts of thousands of Kurds and Arabs whose children may experience democracy.
The phrase the provost used in his e-mail to us -- "more plausibly Christian" -- is a step toward solving a riddle. We have been taught that others should see Christ living in us, that we should glorify God through our actions. That's intimidating and a little presumptuous. Surely, a Christian should be humble, fully -- painfully -- aware of limitations, shortcomings, failures. How can an honest person who knows Christ not feel inadequate? But we have to try. To be "plausibly Christian" -- credible, not ludicrous, worthy of at least an "E" for effort -- is a worthy goal, for a person, a team or Baylor itself. Especially in these times.
Owens, BA '82 (Baylor), MA '91 (University of Texas at Austin), PhD '98 (Georgetown University), is assistant professor of journalism.