Two hours after I arrived on campus, students at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani staged the largest protest in the school's brief history.
At lunchtime, roughly 100 students — about 20 percent of all enrollees — gathered on the steps of the main administrative building. Some wore traditional Kurdish clothing. A few draped the Kurdish flag around their shoulders. They sparred verbally with the dean of students, an American who insisted they speak English, the official language of the university. At other points, they sang a song in Kurdish that I later learned is the region's anthem.
The students were protesting a plan by administrators to remove Sulaimani from the university's name. As a journalist and a professor at the University of Tampa, I found the scene intoxicating, but also bewildering.
I was on the campus of a school founded in part to overcome the sectarian strife that has bedeviled Iraq. Did this mean the experiment wasn't working?
To frame the answer to that question, I first needed to understand better where I was. I wasn't just in Iraq. I was in Kurdistan, an ethnically distinct region that has long yearned to break free of the dominance of Baghdad to its south. A number of times during my visit I saw the tension between Kurdish pride and efforts by Kurds to adapt to the ideal of a pluralistic society.
The first example of this tension was the student protest and how the fledgling school newspaper chose to cover it.
In the middle of the protest, I had almost no clue what was going on. Arez Hussen Ahmed understood completely. As a student and editor of the university's three-semester-old student newspaper, the Voice, Ahmed knew the protest was an explosive story worthy of the next issue's front page. He also knew he couldn't cover it.
Ahmed started at AUIS as an employee at age 17. During informal conversations carried out while he worked, he impressed faculty and administrators with his ability to speak English and knowledge of international affairs. He applied to the school at the suggestion of the previous chancellor, quickly becoming a model student.
Last summer, he traveled to the United States as a participant in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program. Rosalind Warfield-Brown, director of the AUIS English language program, recalled telling Ahmed at the time, " 'Arez, a year ago, you were sweeping my floors and now you're going to America.' I mean, he's a Kurdish Horatio Alger. He really is a rags-to-riches story."
AUIS has similar aspirations.
It is a small school with big plans still very much in start-up mode. A majority of its staff from the States is on short-term contract. The student center and cafeteria recently switched spots. The library holds only a few hundred journals and books.
Yet, its future is bright. It has garnered financial support, U.S. accreditation and the backing of powerful figures. The goal is to attract students from all corners of Iraq who want instruction in English, greater freedom to pursue personal academic interests, the opportunity to participate in clubs and athletic teams (a rarity in Iraq, especially for women), and the chance to interact with peers outside their ethnic group.
"Schools for the most part in Iraq are not mixed ethnicities," said Timothy Doyle, director of enrollment management. "After liberation (in 2003), local schools tended to unify under a specific ethnic and political paradigm. We are aggressively not that."
AUIS is currently teaching young Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Kurds, Persians, Turkomans and Yazidis. Arab students are the dominant minority — many coming from in and around Baghdad. Kurds make up the school's majority, Doyle confirms, making up close to 75 percent of the student body.
In part, this is where Kurdish nationalism comes into play.
To Kurdish students, the school's home, Sulaimani (affectionately dubbed Suli), is not just a city. It is a symbol of larger Kurdistan, a homeland often referred to as "the other Iraq" for its disparate politics, culture, history and dominant language. Kurds have a significant presence in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but are unrecognized on the world's stage. The closest they come to an autonomous identity is in the spot I was visiting.
Many Kurdish students saw Suli's rumored removal from the university's name as a blow to the region's ethnic identity.
"We are a nation of 40 million people and we have no country of our own," said Kurdistan Fatih, an AUIS student and Voice reporter. "We are cut into pieces. Our neighbors" — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — "are the owners of our parts. From the deepest part of my heart, I want to have an independent country. I want people to know there is such a thing as Kurdistan. ... When it seemed like they were cutting the S from AUIS, it looked like they were dividing my country into pieces again."
Amid the protests, Arez Hussen Ahmed was also admittedly divided. As a Suli native born during the March 1991 uprisings that led to a recognized Iraqi Kurdistan, he said, "I'm always stuck between being a Kurdish nationalist and a good journalist."
To really understand Kurdish nationalism, I had to make a trip to Halabja. Halabja is Iraq's Columbine, an area synonymous with a singular tragedy. In March 1988, a poison gas attack orchestrated by Saddam Hussein killed more than 5,000 Kurds. I am ashamed to admit I never knew of this genocide. But it is one of the events that defined Ahmed.
"I can't even describe it," he said, referring to his Kurdish pride. "How did you feel on 9/11? It is like that, times 20, all the time."
He had described his newspaper work to me similarly. "I feel like the Voice is a part of me," he said. "I always think about (it). Sometimes I dream about it. I never thought that I would feel that much passion for anything."
While planning the newspaper's protest coverage, these dual — and dueling — passions left him most reliant on journalism's bottom line: objectivity.
That's not a word one hears a lot regarding Iraqi media, according to Judit Neurink, director of the Independent Media Center in Kurdistan. Nor do you hear independence, accuracy and solid sourcing.
"Media here are all tied to parties," said Neurink. "Most media are only writing what the party expects them to write."
The Voice is the exception. It is the first editorially independent student newspaper in Iraq. It boasts a clear demarcation between commentary and news and not even a whiff of political influence.
To ensure no actual or perceived bias, Kurds and Arabs serve together on the editorial board and general staff, a rarity within the Iraqi press. The Voice also typically avoids stories about political, religious or ethnic issues, viewing that coverage as a slippery slope toward party-controlled media.
Yet a protest on the school's main steps was impossible to ignore. Ahmed knew a Kurdish student with strong nationalist feelings such as Fatih or himself would not be perceived as an objective reporter.
So he assigned the story to Hussein Hussein, an Arab student from Baghdad who fell in love with journalism for its "investigations, how you find the news, find the truth, meet people and talk to them."
Hussein described the media atmosphere growing up as "all Saddam, all the time." He recalled once watching an important soccer match on television between Iraq and Jordan, only to have it suddenly interrupted by a broadcast of yet another Saddam speech. By the time the station cut back to the game, the Iraq side had scored. "We didn't get to see the goal," he said.
Hussein and Ahmed agreed the goal with the protest piece was to accomplish something Saddam-era media often failed at — to present a story people most wanted to see, fairly and factually, from all angles. It premiered in print early the next week as the top story on the front page.
All rumored plans surrounding the school's name change have since been dropped. A Voice editorial called for togetherness, noting, "AUIS is still for everyone." The sectarianism is back beneath the surface, but still present.
Just before my flight home, I saw a student reading the paper near the cement wall that surrounds the school's temporary campus. A portion of the wall sports a colorful three-word phrase — in English — atop a rendering of the Kurdistan region's flag.
It reads, simply, "Kurdish and Proud."
Dan Reimold is a professor of journalism at the University of Tampa.