The people of Erbil, Iraq, are a fascinating bunch, resilient and strong. My UCLA colleague, social worker Albert L. Hasson, and I are here to help the Iraqis develop a survey to assess substance abuse in their country and, ultimately, to develop a system to address substance abuse. In spite of all they’ve been through — tyranny, war, genocide, invasion, insurgency — our hosts are warm and generous. The food is excellent — masgoof, a seasoned flame-grilled carp that is Iraq’s signature dish, is particularly delicious — and the portions are gigantic.
|(From left) UCLA social worker Albert Hasson, project director of UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs; Dr. Nesif Al Hemiary of the University of Baghdad School of Medicine;
Dr. Richard A. Rawson, the author; and Dr. Ali Abutiheen of the Karbala University College of Medicine take some time to sitesee at the ancient Citadel of Erbil.
Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Richard A. Rawson
The company, however, is all men. A woman from the U.S. Department of State was invited to dinner, but she had to decline. People who work in Iraq for the State Department cannot leave the embassy grounds without major armed support, so they spend 95 percent of their time within the secure compound. Earlier, this attaché — a former social worker from Northern California —was able to come to one of our training sessions, and she said it was the highlight of her last six months in Erbil. I can assure you that our training should not be the highlight of anyone’s life, but since she rarely had an opportunity to leave the embassy grounds. it was a treat. Americans working at the embassy cannot have spouses or children with them, and they live in temporary one-room windowless container buildings. This woman had been here since October 2011. God bless her; I don’t think I could live like that.
Three-hundred kilometers south of here, in Fallujah and Ramadi, to the west of Baghdad, a full-scale war is still going on. The government is fighting Sunni Muslims who were disenfranchised by the current Shia government. But life in Erbil, which is the capital of the Kurdistan region and is the fourth-largest city in Iraq, seems to proceed without concern. Still, all of those who have come here for our training will have to return to their home cities around the country, and everyone expects the current hostilities to spread to the rest of Iraq as elections near. With elections come bombs. When we were in Baghdad, last May, there had been a period of quiet, with fewer security measures. Now they tell me all the checkpoints are back, and more.
Al and I try to walk every day. We can’t run because the pavement is too broken up. At 5:30 am, we walk past a dozen small bakeries where bread is baked in earthen ovens and sold from storefront windows. The smells are delicious, and men and women line up outside to purchase a bag of bread for about $1. Next to the bread windows are people at small tables with large aluminum pots over fires, selling ful (pronounced “fool”), an Arabic dish made from fava beans that is commonly eaten for breakfast. The routine is to take your bread, buy some ladled cups of ful and squat on a patch of open ground where you make Arabic burritos and, voilà, a morning meal.
The people gather in the dark, eating their food, illuminated only by the light from the bakeries and the fires under the ful pots. They usually greet us with “Salaam alaikum” — peace to you — with a hand over their hearts and a slight bow.
The training is going well, but this is not an easy group. We have Sunni, Shia and Kurds from all over Iraq as trainees. There are many disagreements about how the survey should be conducted, but our host and friend, Dr. Nesif Al Hemiary, a psychiatry professor at the University of Baghdad’s College of Medicine, is an absolute magician. With his use of gentle humor and cajoling, he gets people to stop arguing. When that doesn’t work, he takes command and makes whatever decision needs to be made.
I’m not sure that the national drug survey we are helping the Iraqis with is going to make this country a safer or saner place. But I do think it’s important for Iraqis to know that there are others in the world who are interested in what happens here. And like everyone else everywhere, the people we work with want to have families and jobs and futures. The smiles, handshakes and thanks we get for coming and being interested in them is worth a 16-hour plane ride, several nights in a 1-star hotel and being awakened by the morning call to prayer blared from the nearby mosque at 5 am. Salaam alaikum, indeed.
Dr. Richard A. Rawson is associate director of UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs and professor-inresidence in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences. He has been conducting substance-abuse research at UCLA, as well as addiction-related training in many parts of the world, for 40 years.