While the United States government was secretly preparing to bomb Syria, I was in my Siberian university classroom. It was the first day for a new group of third-year linguistics students. The seven young women were settling in when a young man stepped into the room and asked if he could visit the class. “I want to practice my English,” he said. I asked my students if it were OK, they agreed, and the class began.
After the class all told me something about themselves, I asked the stranger where he was from, as he was clearly not Russian. His name was Ali (the shortened version of an impossibly long name we had to beg him to tell us). He was a first-year medical student from Iraq. One of 40, he told us, and surgery would probably be his specialization.
I was pleased when he returned the next day so I could find out more, and before class I asked what town he was from. He answered, “Karbala. You know it is a very religious place, with the Imam, it is a beautiful city.” And I nodded my head politely rather than have it hang in shame. The truth is I knew nothing about Karbala.
When I got home and googled it, I realized Ali was also being very polite. He did not reference the most recent battle of Karbala, the one that took place during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The mention of his home city as a religious center added an element of anxiety as I proceeded with my lesson plan. I was introducing the 1950s, the first module in my course “American Culture During the Cold War: How Politics Influenced Culture and Culture Influenced Politics.” I talked about how Russian culture in the form of Malevich, Mayakovski, and Balanchine influenced American culture through the Abstract Expressionists, Frank O’Hara, and ballet.
Only Ali and one of the other students thought that verses without rhymes could be poems. “As long as it makes you feel something, it is a poem,” he declared. It was my presentation of the transition from Sinatra to Elvis that made me a little nervous thinking about Karbala, as I was not using the Ed Sullivan waist-up version of Elvis. Ali was the only one who had never heard of the King, but he liked him. At some point I remembered the other question I wanted to ask our guest: How did he like Siberian winter? He didn’t like it but it wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be. “You get used to it,” he said.
I asked if he had cross-country skied, and he hadn’t. I lectured that he was missing one of life’s great pleasures, skiing through a silent, snowy Siberian forest, and suggested he and his 39 countrymen establish the Iraqi ski club next winter. One of the students, Christine, who spent the break talking to Ali, suggested they try snowboarding instead. The class ended with a short intro to next week’s lesson about the 60s: two minutes of Kennedy’s inaugural address. I was moved as always by the “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” portion that, unbeknownst to me when I first heard it as a 6-year-old, would become the guiding principle for my life’s work.