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Saturday, April 21, 2018

WCC Instructor Searches for History—and Lives it

  • Elisabeth Thoburn

From February through April 2011, WCC humanities instructor Elisabeth Thoburn traveled to the Middle East in search of history. With travel plans carefully arranged and finalized months ahead of time, Thoburn found herself in Cairo as protesters swarmed Tahrir Square and the Egyptian government toppled.

Later she trudged through snow and cold temperatures in Ankara to visit the mausoleum of Atatürk, the man responsible for the creation of Turkey. In Iraq, she and what she describes as a “colorful mix of nationalities” also touring the area were escorted by armed guards through UNESCO monument sites in Samarra as they made their way to Kurdistan.

Thoburn will share these and other experiences from her 2011 Middle Eastern travels in a lecture with slides at 7:00pm on Wednesday, Nov. 9, in WCC’s Towsley Auditorium. The public is welcome to attend the free event.

Following are excerpts from a daily blog that Thoburn kept during her travels. You can read the blog in its entirety at her website.

A 10-Year Mission Accomplished?

Traveling is something that simply takes me over. I don’t want it to end. The Germans have a great word for it: Wanderlust. Wandern is actually hiking or trekking and Lust is the fun of it and the joy; not quite what ‘lust’ is in English. But I like that the English word of wandering implies a bit of aimlessness. As structured as traveling has to be if you want to accomplish anything, traveling is so full of unexpected twists and turns and encounters that just can’t be planned; all of which ultimately become part of the path leading to the goal.

In 2002 I went to Jordan, in 2007 to Pakistan, in 2010 to Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, and in 2011 to Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel. I never made it to Afghanistan, but have not given up on it. With the countries I did reach, I got a good sampling of the variety of the Middle East or the so-called Muslim world. I was glad that I was able to see some of the non-Arab countries of that Muslim world: Turkey and Iran. I did get a good sense of the differences between these countries, which from our perspective are often lumped together as if they are a uniform block.

I wanted to gain more understanding of the Middle East since my schooling was in Western and in Asian cultures with a blank spot right where I needed some background. It has been almost ten years since I started this mission: Trying to understand the Middle East, its art, architecture, culture, and to gain an insight into the conflict between the Middle East and the West, which for better or worse seems to become the central issue of this century. I knew I could gain this insight from books and the news. But I wanted to gain it through contacts and first hand experiences.

I made friends from all strata of society; I heard stories, and I saw historical sites. I talked to people and saw the discrepancies between political or religious theory and the reality on the street. I have food for thought more than I have time to process! And I know that now an intense time of book learning and research has to follow. Did I accomplish my mission? Yes and no. I made a significant start but I realize how hopelessly huge this topic is. And I have a new goal: Get a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies. Perhaps when I am 60 I will graduate?!

Day 5: Egypt—Tahrir Square

After yesterday’s difficulties and searches, I was trepidatious about going out this morning by myself. Many of the journalists had left. They had bad stories to tell—equipment taken, colleagues missing, etc. Funny enough, on government TV we had seen an announcement expressing the government’s assurance to protect journalists, and their apologies for any incidents. The announcer was calling on the population to extend to foreign journalists every help necessary to assist them in doing their job. I guess, that was one of those falsehoods one of the female reporters on Government TV recently resigned over, since tonight, we had a Spanish journalist couple arriving who had been stripped at the airport of almost all of their equipment.

Temoris, Michalis and I took to the streets together. We felt that if anyone would be contained, it would be the guys. I was a security token for them and could hopefully report if anything was going to go wrong. Temoris convinced me to leave my camera behind. Even he, a journalist, left his camera at home. I agreed. I cannot afford to lose my camera at this point. Whatever I would see, was already on the news, on blogs, Facebook, or Twitter much nicer than I could photograph. Michalis, however, hid his camera in his pants…

The streets of Cairo had a completely different feel to it than yesterday. The stores that were white washed yesterday, had been scrubbed and were open. Traffic was flowing in all directions, people were walking. Even the police were on the streets directing traffic! That was surprising. They had completely dropped off the face of the earth for almost a week. And there they were. What does that mean? A good will gesture? A threat? Nobody in the news is addressing this. What is going on?

Our plan was to head towards Tahrir Square and to see how far we would get. No checks or pat-downs at all until we got to the square. I was surprised to see how close we actually live. It’s much less than a mile. Then, however, we were searched multiple times by civilian guards. The square was relatively empty. Still, hundreds, if not a couple of thousand people were milling around. What I observed is most likely old news to anyone of you who has been watching western TV over the last few days. But to see it first hand was amazing. Nothing “exciting” happened while we were there, but all the small slices of life on the square we could observe were deeply moving to me. 

Day 40: Turkey—Ankara

The city was almost walkable today and temperatures around 6/45 degrees helped not to make things worse. I had already imagined what would happen to all the slush from yesterday if temperatures had dropped way below 0/32. It would have been a disaster. The sun even poked through once in a while. I reconciled with Ankara in part but only because I saw the three sites I wanted to see and I am leaving tomorrow.

My first stop this morning was Atatürk’s Mausoleum. I wanted to do my duty as a visitor but I did not expect too much. Atatürk is important to every Turk and responsible for the creation of this nation.

The complex built as his resting place and known as Anitkabir is huge. An L-shaped monument situated in a large park, it overlooks a whole section of Ankara. One has to go through security; my backpack did not pass muster, but I could take my camera. After a walk through a thickly forested park you climb up some steps to two pavilions that show a model of the complex in one and the history of the project and the architects in the other.

Two soldiers in glass cages hold wake there. Then there is a long avenue lined with 24 huge stone lions that represent the strength of the Turkish nation, not defined any further. This was a clear reference to imperial Chinese tombs, which always have animal avenues leading up to them. Who came up with that idea!? For a special ceremony today, soldiers were parked between the lions holding their rifles at attention.

Day 65: Iraq—Samarra

Today we started our northern loop. Final destination should have been Mosul, but Mosul is still a hotbed of war and conflict and it is simply impossible for us to go there. It is surprising how close to it they will allow us to travel. But our security guards may also change their mind at a moment’s notice. We have to take residence in Arbil, a town in Kurdistan, and make a day trip to at least one of the most important sites in the area. Three major sites, two of which are UNESCO monuments that would be a must on anyone’s tour will not be accessible to us: Niniveh, Hatra, and Ashur. We will have to do with Nimrud.

On the way to Arbil you pass Samarra, which until recently was a hotbed of sectarian violence and Sunni guerrilla warfare. The town has changed hands a few times and it is one of the sites where the Americans were still fighting until recently. We got the full works of security checks and in addition to our two armed guards, were outfitted with an army convoy of two cars with four soldiers each, sandwiching us between them. Traffic had to stop and move out of our way and the soldiers got a real kick out of posing for us in between their more serious mission of checking each monument for potentially hidden bandits.

If it were not so serious, it could have been hilarious. Before we were allowed to enter any monument—these are desert castles, mosques and minarets in the middle of hilly, sandy nowhere—these machine gunned soldiers would jump off their vehicles and run through every part of the monument with their guns pointing into every corner to make sure no enemy was hiding inside. If we wanted to venture from the cleared path we could, but they would precede us again, making sure the area was clear. 

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