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Book Review: Elvis is Titanic: Classroom Tales from Iraqi Kurdistan by Ian Klaus

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Just as anyone could have predicted, the Iraq “war” has quickly slipped out of both the American consciousness and off the front pages of the daily newspapers – what is left of them. But a recent book can, if read — and it should be read — do much to bring it back to at least the front of our minds. Elvis is Titanic: Classroom Takes from Iraqi Kurdistan is an intelligent, thoughtful and beautifully written account of Ian Klaus’s time teaching English and history to a series of students in Iraqi Kurdistan during the height of the American invasion of Iraq in 2005.

Klaus, an innocent, in some senses, with a strong sense of purpose and a wealth of education as well as a deep commitment to doing something good, was a university graduate who had just completed a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. Perhaps not incidentally he was also at the time Chelsea Clinton’s boyfriend, a fact of which this reviewer was, gratefully, ignorant (despite the dedication) until the final chapters. But his minor celebrity status notwithstanding, Klaus is both a wonderful observer, reporter, writer, and an intriguing storyteller and he displays a keen and clear-eyed insight as to both the history of the Kurds and to the special place they occupy in the ongoing incursion.

The beginning of Elvis is Titanic is complex and historical and sets the scene for Klaus’s entry into the university where he will encounter a variety of students whose knowledge of both English and American history is both admirable and amusing. As he says in his introduction: “Was it foolish or reckless for an American to be in Iraq at this moment leading discussions on American history? Perhaps. Maybe it was imperialist in a small way. But if I hadn’t been there, who would have answered the young man who asked, ‘Why does America only go where there is oil?’”

His passage into the country is truly harrowing as he describes it, harrowing and funny and infuriating all at once as he describes truck drivers delivering oil in a fashion that almost mimics a Keystone Kops caper, and yet there is no reader who would wish to take his place. And Klaus, with exquisite detail, takes us through the manners and mores that fashion Kurdish society so that were we dropped there suddenly we could almost function adequately ourselves. He describes his own education, too, at Oxford and beyond, as he traveled the world, and broadened his reach, that led him, inevitably, to Iraq:

    It was in distant pubs and gardens and seminar rooms, far from Iraq and from Washington, in conversations with people from across the world that I first began to think in earnest about the relationship between American and the world … I was admittedly much closer to the abstract, lofty ideas and partisanship that had created America’s venture in Iraq than I was to the sand and violence within the country itself.

Klaus also offers a cogent analysis of Mid-East policy, including discussion of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror and the 9/11 Commission Report, but Elvis is Titanic really shines as he begins to describe his classroom experiences and is asked what kind of weapon is he going to carry even as he is assigned a pair of bodyguards who will travel with him everywhere. Although Iraqi Kurdistan is not nearly as dangerous as Baghdad or the other cities that made their way on the news for years, still the threat of violence hangs over Klaus’s head, even as he seems to ignore it fairly well. The students, however, so eager to learn about America, to discuss America, its history and its culture and its politics, and Klaus’s ability to so beautifully capture their unique personalities, cadences of speech, wonder and sincerity are what make Elvis is Titanic ultimately so joyous and important a read.

At Salahaddin University in Arbil, Klaus has his work cut out for him as he teaches Pasternak, Hemingway, and other writers, all to students with somewhat limited English skills, and those skills taught by teachers of English, rather than American English (which makes for an amusing few pages in the book). But the author’s real challenge comes in teaching American history, with all its complexities to a country within a country, a people — the Kurds — with their own complex and rich history, who have been subverted first by conquerors and then by a cruel dictator and now find themselves in the midst of a war that they do not fully understand. America’s history lesson proves even more confounding.

As Klaus so eloquently puts it: “There is a particular conundrum about teaching one’s national history abroad – finding the fine line where intellectual honesty and nationalist interests overlap without compromising one or subverting the other. The effort is limited and made more difficult by a lack of national consensus. Our often strident disagreement over issues at home, our sometimes vocal criticism of the government or of individual parties, nevertheless takes place within a set of shared principles, a general philosophy upon which most Americans agree… we all continue to believe axiomatically in the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [But] we assume at our peril that our notions of the individual in society resonate intuitively with other cultures.”

The title of Klaus’s book comes from two cultural references to which the students are universally familiar: the rock star and the Oscar-winning film, which one student puts, logically or not, together. Ian Klaus, in this his first book, a lovely memoir of a year plus in a war-torn country, has painted his readers a portrait none of us who view it will soon forget. For so young a writer, he is full of knowledge and insight and we would do well to take the gift he gives us and remember that our actions provide historical documents for generations to come.

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