Sarah, a UCSB undergraduate, is smiling so wide it looks as if her cheeks might burst. She’s staring at a blank projector screen in UCSB’s Multicultural Center, which, in moments, will transform into “a magic window to Iraq,” as a fellow student aptly described. Sarah is one of about 90 students eagerly waiting to participate in a teleconference with students from Islamic University in Baghdad, the main event of Global Access Media’s “A Dialogue for Peace: The Iraq Peace and Reconciliation College Tour,” which launched at UCSB on Sunday, May 9.
Global Access Media’s college tour, a 2010 Clinton Global Initiative University project architected by Mark Manning and Natalie Kalustan, the co-founders of the Santa Barbara based-nonprofit, aims to build relationships between the next generation of Iraqi and U.S. leaders and to break through the myths that perpetuate violence, according to Manning.
At around 11 p.m. PST, the faces of hundreds of Iraqi students appear on the screen and the crowd at UCSB breaks into “oohs” and “ahs.” The students curiously survey each other for a few moments, while the camera on the Iraqi side pans across the room. It’s 9 a.m. in Baghdad and temperatures are in the high eighties, which would account for the servers rushing through the crowd with silver trays of water bottles. The camera stops to zoom in on faces of the Iraqis sitting in the rafters, rendering a number of the American students misty-eyed. Many of the Iraqis wave their camera phones and camcorders at the screen. “We have been preparing for this event for nearly one year,” explains one of the Iraqi moderators, who braves the heat in a full navy blue suit.
The enthusiasm in the room was palpable and the only pause in conversation came when the Islamic University lost power, which is not uncommon, said Manning. The Iraqi event coordinators started up a generator to continue the teleconference, which went on until 1:30 a.m. PST, thanks to the Santa Barbara crowd who insisted on staying on as long as possible.
Most of the Iraqi students’ questions concerned U.S. notions about Iraq. Some inquired about mainstream views of specific political theory, such as Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, while others gauged students’ knowledge of Iraq’s rich history, and inquired about mainstream political views within academia. One American student’s response garnered a standing ovation. “George Bush was an extremely unpopular president…none of us agree with him..we did not believe you had any intention to destroy us..I believe that we have more to learn from you than you from us because we know very little about you and we are sorry for that.” There were a few light-hearted moments, a brief discussion about the World Cup for instance, but, all in all, the atmosphere was poignant.
“What is daily life like?,” asked one American. “Few people can go about their daily lives…go shopping, meet friends” replied an Iraqi. “It is a hard, miserable life here”.