Soran, 12 November 2013

I’m woken by cockerels calling across the city at five am, then the call to prayer, then the steady surge of traffic and voices in the street below. The two Yazidi boys who provide the catering have been given a wake-up call, so we breakfast on fried eggs, then yoghurt, instead of naan and jam. Then we then walk to the University – about twenty minutes through the bazaar.

Our plan was to meet with our team of researchers and carry out preliminary training, preparatory to a dry run with a volunteer – the mother of one of the researchers. But a University-wide meeting has been called at the last minute, which all staff must attend. Qais Kakl leads off with a speech that lasts almost an hour, his soft voice both urgent and soothing. Then the president, Dr. Muslih Mustafa arrives and addresses us with the aid of a PowerPoint slide show. We get a partial translation from Kurdish, but the gist of the speech is motivational: the need to raise standards of teaching and research, the need for publications, for a University journal, for more commitment, international links and accreditation. Impact factors are invoked at one point and I could be back in Lancaster tangling with the tentacles of the REF.

A long discussion follows in which many members of staff – about 160 in all – air their views. It’s an impressive display of democracy, but a significant consumption of person-hours, especially when the President has already reminded them that staff at European universities work much longer hours than they do here. Despite all that, the lecture gives me an insight into the aspirations of the university, both in the region and beyond. The staff are remarkably attentive, though the door to the meeting room constantly opens and closes allowing in a surge of noise from the corridors beyond where the students still mill about.

Unfortunately, our training opportunity has been missed, though we manage a glass of tea back at the hotel with Dr. Nahro Zagros, director of curriculum development to discuss our project with him. He’s helpful and committed and I even promise to link him up with a PhD student at Lancaster who may have an interest in the myths surrounding the local caves – which he tells me are very numerous. After my trip yesterday to Rawanduz, I can believe it. By now darkness is falling outside and the windows are streaming with headlights. Tomorrow we’ll have to make good our lost time.

Click here to see a gallery of pictures from Graham Mort’s visit to Soran