Attacks on universities and cultural institutions have made getting a good education in Iraq difficult. Many intellectuals have sought refuge in the northern region of Kurdistan, where educational reform is underway.
Books are written in Egypt, printed in Lebanon and read in Iraq, according to an old Middle Eastern proverb. In the region, Iraqis have long been considered well-educated and interested in learning.
Baghdad's Mutanabbi Street was once known throughout the entire Arabic world. Eyes would light up in Cairo or Beirut when someone mentioned the avenue known for its booksellers and as a hub of the country's intellectual life.
Baghdad was long seen not just as a center of trade and entertainment but also of art and education. Those in the know would head to Mutannabi Street on Fridays and come back home with a small mountain of used or new books. In the Schabander coffee house, artists, writers, filmmakers and intellectuals met for discussions with one another. The country's elite surrounded by books - that was the image that the Iraq of the 1970s and 80s offered.
Looking back fondly
"Education was highly valued," recalled Riadh Kaddou, who studied engineering and did an internship in London. His parents had both done exchange programs in the US at a time when the government was generous, offering millions in scholarships for studying abroad. Those with less impressive high school grades could study in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or Egypt. And when the students returned from abroad, they were often enticed with jobs in management, state-funded housing and other privileges.
"That's why I wanted to have a good education," said Kaddou of the hunger for learning at the time.
"That's still there," said the 51-year-old of developments in recent years, "but today everything is different."
At the time, an Iraqi dinar was worth three dollars. Today, a dollar is equal to just under 1,200 dinars. The country has suffered an immense downturn in many respects.
No exchange in isolation
The destruction wrought by three wars affected lives well beyond the country's rulers and military. The embargo following the Kuwait War in the 1990s divided Iraq. The Kurdish provinces in the North developed differently than the rest of the country. A no-fly zone enforced by the UN offered the Kurds protection from further persecution by Saddam Hussein, but it also blocked progress. Academic exchange was practically impossible, and archaic familial structures quickly penetrated academic life.
When children were sent to school at all, it was generally the boys that got to go. Girls had to stay home or were pulled away from their studies too early. Thousands of Kurds fled to other countries in order to escape Hussein, but the no fly zone led thousands more to flee.
The rest of Iraq was also isolated, albeit in a different way. Exchanges at both the secondary and university levels still took place, but the country became visibly poorer. Academic buildings decayed, and new technologies were not installed either because the embargo made them unavailable or because they were simply too expensive.
When Saddam Hussein was overthrown in April 2003, the university equipment dated back to the end of the 1970s or beginning of the 1980s. Scholarships for studying abroad had been cut.
Attacks on the elite
Terror followed the American and British invasion that many school and university experts perceived as harsher than anything that came before. Iraq had never experienced such a brain drain as in the post-Saddam era. The academic elite were hunted. Professors, teachers, doctors, lawyers and politicians were shot, kidnapped or threatened. When lecturers gave out bad grades on account of poor performance, they had to consider the possibility of being murdered by students.
One professor at Mustansiriya University never left home without a weapon. On March 5, 2007, two car bombs went off in front of the university's buildings, destroying the entire street and killing nearly 100 people. For many, that signaled the end of the country's long dedication to education. Nearly a million people have left Baghdad in the last 10 years, including many educated people.
In the last two years, the number of attacks has dropped off significantly, but those who fled still see grounds for mistrust. Few of them have returned home since then.
Reforms in Kurdistan
In Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region partly located in northern Iraq, developments in recent years have taken a much different shape. The region has been largely unaffected by terrorism, and many teachers and professors from Baghdad have sought refuge in the three Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah, where many now work.
The academic refugees can enjoy contact there with thousands of Kurds who have now returned home from exile, bringing with them their years of experience in Europe or the US. One individual returned from Sweden three years ago and became an education minister in the region, introducing the Swedish school system there. That marked the first step to in a thorough school reform process, said educator Mazim Rasul.
"Now the pupils have to start preparing for their exams in the 10th and 11th grades rather than in the 12th grade like they used to," Rasul explained. The baccalaureate exams will also account for just two thirds of the graduation requirements.
Another sign of the region's educational renewal comes by way of Rasul, who returned to Iraq from Nuremberg and helped found the first German school in his home country in the city of Erbil. The school has existed for two years.
But the region's public schools still employ traditional educational models, says Principal Jürgen Ender.
"The teacher speaks while the students take notes and learn things by rote," he said.
He would like to see instruction methods favored in Europe take hold, such as using group work and letting students learn by way of giving presentations, but believes introducing such practices will take time. Currently, students in Kurdistan are taking to the streets to protest against the added pressure that the Swedish approach brings.
Author: Birgit Svensson, Baghdad / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen
Birgit Svensson has lived and worked in Iraq since the US and British-led invasion in 2003. As a freelance reporter, she works primarily for newspapers as well as for Deutschlandfunk and DW.