Students stick out like sore thumbs in Kazan, where their country is criticized for its military action in Iraq
By JAMAL E. WATSON
Posted Tuesday, March 25, 2003; 10:15 a.m.
Editor's Note: On a day when students were free to travel the city in search of interviews or souvenirs, today's daily dispatch reporter Jamal Watson put his reporting skills to work and tried to discover what the Tatar on the street thought about the conflict in Iraq.
KAZAN - Mira Shimunova, like many people living in this city of one million, located six hundred miles southeast of Moscow, is opposed to the current war in Iraq and worried that the conflict could quickly spread throughout the world.
"This war is no good," Shimunova, 29, said in halting English, pounding her fists into the air to express her disapproval with the U.S.-led bombing in Iraq. "Of course the war is about Islam. America hates Muslims."
In a city where nearly half of the residents are Muslim, Shimunova's anti-American sentiments seem almost commonplace. For the 17 students from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism spending their second day in Kazan studying religious life here, the feelings of city residents toward Americans grew clearer all the time.
In between shopping, checking email and interviewing local students at the city's Islamic University, some class members expressed discomfort about being Americans in Russia at a time when their country seems at odds with much of the world over the war in Iraq.
"They were looking at us like we have ten heads," said Daniel Burke, while eating a Big Mac inside the McDonalds on Baumana ulitsa, the city's major shopping street. "They were also muttering statements under their breath."
Burke also wondered how he would have been perceived as an American if he had been in Kazan during a time of peace. After all, McDonalds appeared to be the most popular restaurant in town, packed with people at all hours of the day. And some residents did appear excited to meet group members, who seemed to be the only Americans in town during their visit.
However, at a time when political and religious conflicts around the world are often intertwined, locals here said they fear America's war on Iraq will worsen international relations in the long run.
"When we hear what goes on with Iraq, it does not make us like Americans too much," said Zorani Gerasimovski, 27, a student at Kazan University, speaking through a translator. "America tells everyone what to do and they do it. It's not good."
For years, Gerasimovski had dreamed of studying in the United States - it was the one goal that he promised everyone he would achieve. But now, Gerasimovski says he can't bring himself to think of traveling to the country that he despises.
"I rather stay here," he said, his face expressing a real sense of defeat. "It's sad, yes, but it's the right thing to do."
"I understand," said journalism student Kodi Barth, reflecting on Gerasimovski's viewpoint. "Considering that there are at least 15 million Russian Muslims, it is understandable that they expect the American war in Iraq to be anti-Islam. They will be inclined to identify with their Muslim brothers in Iraq."
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© 2003 The Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.