10 June, 2010

Suly 6: Travel as a second language, and other ramblings

The taxi driver - who knew a few words of English - rummaged among his collection of cassettes and pulled forth a bright yellow one with the title "Let's Speak English". He popped it into the deck. A radio-drama sort of scene, where a man was asking a woman (article by article) whose clothes these were by the side of the lake, and the woman replying they were not hers. Of course, when the hapless swimmer arrived…

Then a song started up, a catchy little thing with the chorus "whose can it be". The driver didn't understand the lyrics, but he certainly had the tune memorized.


Researching to develop the travel plan going forward, i ran into a series of roadblocks. Just 40 kilometers' hike eastward, and i'd end up in a Tehran prison. To the west, as of June 1, Syria began enforcing a previously ignored rule, and stopped issuing visas-on-arrival at the border for American travelers.  Traveling south to the Persian Gulf, or getting to Jordan or Israel overland through Iraq? I'd be turned back at the checkpoints leaving Kurdistan, since Baghdad remains a war zone. I looked into Cyprus, only to find that travelers entering through ports in the Turkish Cypriot occupied territories (the ports i could reach by ferry from Turkiye) are not permitted in the Republic of Cyprus. Could my path to Georgia lead through Armenia? Though it would make for a better route, no; Turkiye's border with Armenia remains closed, and according to news, attempts to normalize relations between the two countries recently took a step backwards. As we say in Maine, "you can't get theyuh from heyah, deah."


"Why would you want to come here?" Andy asks rhetorically. "There's nothing to do; nothing to see."

Why would you want to go anywhere, i ask myself? Souvenirs? Pictures? To stare at ruins? Lie on the beach, learn a language, climb the hills and look around? To taste the food? Can you know a place in three days? Should you even try? I sat in a park and thought on paper, reflecting on the past few days, and my lack of direction. Most people, i figure, manage to drown their lack of direction in doing and seeing, but with nothing to artificially fill the hours, what do you do with yourself?

I should head straight for Erbil, but i feel as though i have something left in Suly, that i haven't given it a fair shake yet. Could buy some dress pants in the Suly bazaar, where good quality clothes run about U.S. $8.50, but i have too much to carry, and i'd second-guess my style choices. A sense of futility had become the haze in my morning sky. Andy remarked how there's a spate of movies about the end of the world; zombies are "in", as is cannibalism ("The Road", "Book of Eli") and other doomsday scenarios. It seems that, on the brink of global economic collapse, the End is foremost in the human psyche. Maybe  we're programmed to self-destruct; maybe Armageddon's a self fulfilling prophecy, a tale whose cultural impetus enables its realization. But, i remind myself, these examples reflect largely the American (and European) psyche. The West is debt-ridden and idle, longing for a real  crisis to break the monotony of media-generated crises, to snap society out of its uroboric obsessions with C-Span, HGTV, and the rest. I scribbled, realizing as i wrote how much the texts of "Visual Technologies and Visual Narratives" have affected me:

This young guy working to start the sprinkler - other workers are wearing Kurdi pants but he wears jeans. His slim-fit shirt is brown with earth, torn at the shoulder, collar pulled up to meet his soft-brimmed hat. Let's work, man. Let's plant the wheat, plant the rice, side by side. There is no perfection save this one, the perfection of What Is. The anxious Spectacle devours itself, but we, having walked beyond its edge - though satellites overfly us, our psyches are not prey to their mathematical hopelessness. There are bricks to be laid, mortar to be mixed. We seek refuge in the Incalculable

People do not make war, prejudices make war. 


I wandered down the street, still not ready to leave, towards the skeleton of an infant skyscraper. To the left, a mosque which had no dome - only a flat roof - but the minaret was made of green glass. A picture would be nice, but this was a poor angle. A few meters ahead, under a tree, i stopped at a food cart. I could communicate only through gestures, but managed to indicate falafel in a wrap. The two men offered a chair and insisted i sit, also that i not pay for the food, and that i also drink a pepsi. I was abashed, but i've learned that it's no use arguing in body language and stutters (when you might be sneaky and leave the money somehow).

I sit in the shade, and it's really good falafel. Next thing i know, there are two teenagers ordering food. I thought i heard a word of English, no, that's Sorani i'm hearing....

"But you said you hate onions."

Wait - that is English! I clumsily point this out to the teens, and a conversation is born. Next thing i know i've met Rosa and Rusty, and the latter insists on paying for my food, which of course leads to a brief disagreement with the vendor, over exactly whose generosity will prevail. (Does this ever happen in America?) I pipe up that i really want to pay for my own food, and Rusty casually rebuffs me, saying "you're too kind."

These kids remind me of characters in an educational story, the sort of sweet, polite, role model teen you only find in pedantic literature, only they're real. It turns out they teach English at the building next door. Labeled "Center for Kurdish Documentary Heritage and (?)", the fourth floor houses a nascent English Institute. Suddenly i'm surrounded by children from 7 to 13 and their teachers in a chaos/chorus of eager speakers: "hello."

"Hello," the class echoes back.
"How are you?"
In loud unison: "Fine, thank you."
"I am nervous. We just started teaching."

Rosa and Rusty are sixteen, but the teachers range from 15 up to adults with small children of their own. They're one week into this summer job, worrying they will lose patience with the children, who don't seem to retain things. Twenty whirlwind minutes later, i'm in the office meeting their manager, who hopes i can come and talk to the students on a regular basis. Regretfully, i won't be here. But i wait through their staff meeting, hoping to chat more with Nur, who will go to America in July, and Rusty, who's headed for Istanbul next week.

While the teachers and their manager talked, i scanned the curriculum materials. No wonder it's tough for the kids to connect with this. The lifestyles described in these books have no immediacy to them. Models, travelers, London, Paris, New York. What would it look like, i ask myself, if ESL teaching materials were designed to have cultural relevance to the students, describing lifestyles and values that bear some resemblance to their own, things within their reach? 

As a current second language learner, i've begun to realize that many traditional teaching approaches are inefficient when it comes to building the ability to self-teach - and peer-teach, a crucial skill for language learners which must overcome the desire to speak to friends and classmates in the mother-tongue - and fail to introduce words such as verbs in clouds of relatedness (emphasizing similarity and difference, which facilitates encoding and memorization in more natural ways than rote learning). It strikes me that language curriculums should be developed by language learners, not grammarians! To put it simply, prepositions are really useful. I leave thinking it would be a fascinating challenge to develop a program of culturally directed, speaking-partner-oriented instruction relevant to all ages.

And guess what? From the office, i had a great angle on that green glass minaret.