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From Baghdad to New York: an Assyrian Archaeologist's Journey

January 15, 07
By Nina Burleigh

Donny GeorgeDonny George at SUNY-Stony Brook.  

Donny George, man of history, had vowed never to leave Baghdad, where he was the keeper of the keys to the looted Iraqi National Museum. Then his teenage son opened a letter with a bullet inside and a threat to cut off his head because his father "worked for the Americans." An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have fled their country since the U.S. invasion, but George, an archaeologist, along with his wife, Najat, and 17-year-old son, Martin, are some of the very few--only 500 a year--who've been granted a visa to live in the U.S. Which is how the short, stout 56-year-old ended up in Long Island, driving a Mitsubishi Galant, listening to Shania Twain, and preparing to teach Mesopotamian archaeology at suny--Stony Brook this spring semester. His older children, Marian, 21, a medical student, and Steven, 23, a computer scientist, couldn't get papers. They remain in Damascus.

In the month or so he's been here, George has learned his way around the campus, but he hasn't yet reckoned with the modern ziggurat of the multilevel parking garage. Apologizing, he drives against one-way traffic up the ramp. They've been searching the suburban groceries for familiar foods and spices, while explaining to curious clerks and furniture movers that they are Assyrian Christians, neither Sunni nor Shiite.

During the past two decades, George oversaw fieldwork at some of the most significant excavations in the world. In 1987, he was head of a field expedition in Babylon when Saddam Hussein paid a visit. "I met him and took him around. He was very calm. He was just listening. In one of the museums there, we had some inscriptions translated. In one, Nebuchadnezzar was saying that one of the gods had sent him to protect 'the black-headed people.' Saddam said, 'You should change that.' And I said, 'No, sir, it's scientific, we can't change it, this is exactly as it was said. It doesn't mean that people are black, it means "all the people." Because if you have a crowd of Iraqis, all you see are their black heads.' He wanted to change it to 'all the people.' And I said no."

Later, "one of his bodyguards took me aside and said, 'How can you say no to the leader?' And I said, 'It's science.' And he said, 'Well, good. God bless you. Otherwise, you would have vanished.'"

In early 2003, as the invasion became imminent, George urged his bosses at the museum to protect the collection by sealing it up in the basement. "I begged them, 'Please, for God's sake, for the Prophet's sake, we have to do this, it will be stolen.' And all I heard was, 'No, you are exaggerating. Saddam is here. Nobody will dare to come to Baghdad.'

George estimates that the museum lost 15,000 pieces and that Iraq's archaeological digs lost much more. "From the site looting, we have retrieved about 17,000 objects, but if 17,000 came back, how much went out?" He's heard that many of the objects have made it into growing private cuneiform collections in New York. "It's very sad. There is one solution for this: If the American government will stop the tax deduction for people who donate it, the museums don't buy it. But they encourage rich people to buy and then donate."

George is politically cautious; he wants visas for his other kids too. He wouldn't comment on the president's plan for a troop increase. In the end, though, he says, "The solution is entirely political. And it involves Syria and Iran." In his worst imaginings, he says, he never predicted that Iraq would descend into a religious civil war. "Even during Saddam's time, all these differences were dissolving. I never asked my neighbor or friend if he was a Sunni or Shiite, and Muslims would not ask each other either. It was a shameful thing to ask." Meanwhile, the Iranians, he says, have already penetrated Iraq. He heard that Farsi is heard in the markets of Basra as often as Arabic. Before he left, there were rumors he was going to be replaced by a Muslim at the museum. The church where he and his wife were married has been blown up. Still, he is convinced they'll go home someday. "Listen, we know history. We are the people of archaeology. We know it is impossible for it to stay like this."

He plans to give a few seminars on the American occupation at Stony Brook Manhattan this winter. The primary lesson he wants to impart is that Iraq has a heterogeneous past. "I would love Americans to know this is a country with multiple, different kinds of people--Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Kurds, Yazidis--people of different religions. These people have lived together for hundreds of years."

By Nina Burleigh




Who are the Christians of Iraq?

Kanoon II = January

From Baghdad to New York: an Assyrian Archaeologist's Journey January 15, 07

US Jewish lobby warns : it may not be able to block the Armenian genocide bill
January 15, 07

T.V. Report about the plight of the Assyrians in Iraq January 14, 07

Kurdish Christianity; Falsification of Facts January 13, 07

Murders, Abductions, Threats, Everyday Occurrences for Mosul Christians
January 12, 07

A Biography of Helena Guergis, Canada's Secretary of State January 12, 07

Turkey Shouldnt fear the Assyrian genocide January 11, 07

A Christian Neighborhood in Baghdad January 11, 07

Christians Shut Out Of National Conference In Baghdad January 11, 07

A Christian Exodus From the Arab World January 11, 07

World War One Genocide in Turkey January 10, 07

The Ken Joseph Report “I sat in stunned silence…” January 10, 07

Paris approves Armenian genocide bill January 8, 07

Assyrian Woman Appointed As Secretary of State in Canada January 8, 07

Few Stories of Hope for Iraq's Christians January 7, 07

US must recognize Iraq's humanitarian crisis January 7, 07

Good News For The Christians of Iraq ! January 5, 07

Theological university and seminary moved January 5, 07

If Iraq fragments, what's Plan B? January 4, 07

IRAQ: Minorities tormented under sectarian violence January 4, 07

Christian Assyrians in Iraq January 4, 07

Why Are Iraqi Kurds Furious With the US? January 3, 07

Kholo Malke on the way to Germany January 3, 07

Expansion of The Assyrian Radio program "Qolo" January 3, 07

Assyrians Iraq's Forgotten Minority January 3, 07

Georgia Releases Assyrian General on Bail January 2, 07

Ancient Assyrian Fortress in Iraq to Be Preserved January 2, 07

Kanoon I = December

Exiles joyful, concerned December 31, 06

Killing goes on as Saddam Hussein is executed and churches pray December 30, 06

Iraqi Americans react to death of Saddam Hussein
December 30, 06

Turkey Should not Deny the Turth if it Wants to be Believed December 30, 06

Forgive Saddam Hussein ? December 30, 06

Ancient Assyrians in northwest Iran near Urmia December 26, 06

Assyrian Genocide Claims 'Bogus,' Says Turkish Historian December 26, 06

A Tireless Campaigner for the Assyrian Christians of Iraq December 26, 06

Iraq, Christians Come Out to Worship December 26, 06

Christians Celebrate Christmas in Iran December 26, 06

Iraqi Christians Debate Self-Autonomy to Halt Exodus December 26, 06

Iraq's embattled religious minorities December 26, 06

We Must Not Forget the Plight of Middle Eastern Christians December 23, 06

Avoiding the Final Betrayal: Protecting Iraqi Christians December 23, 06

Nina Shea Testifies Before Congress on Behalf of Iraq's Assyrians
and Other Minorities
December 23, 06

Conference in Sweden Calls for Assyrian Safe-haven in Iraq December 21, 06

Christians thrown to the lions in Iraq December 21, 06

Iraqi refugees - a tragedy stretching beyond Syria December 19, 06

Iraqi Christians under fire December 19, 06

Fleeing Nineveh: Assyrians of Iraq and Self Governance December 18, 06

No Christmas Celebrations in Iraq, Says Chaldean Patriarch December 18, 06

Groups call for relief for Iraqi Christians December 18, 06

Methodists Highlight the Plight of Indigenous Iraqi Christians December 17, 06

Pontiff Appeals for Aid for Iraqi Refugees in Syria December 17, 06

Christmas in Mosul Under Threat of Sharia December 15, 06

Kurds and the Assyrian Homeland December 15, 06

Assyrian National Party rejects Baker-Hamilton's plans December 15, 06

U.S. Iraqi Christian Community Debates How to Help Relatives December 15, 06

Deviousness of the Kurdish officials December 14, 06

Iraq Insurgents Threaten Attacks Against Christian Women December 14, 06

Gifts for the Children of Nineveh December 13, 06

Help Our Assyrian Children December 13, 06

Iraq : Another Pries Feared Kidnapped December 10, 06

Iraq shapes the Assyrian cadet's background, future December 10, 06

Jordan, Syria May Close Borders to Iraqi Refugees December 9, 06

Visitors from Iraq December 8, 06

Assyrian Delegation in the European Parliament December 8, 06

Private Saudis Said to Fund Iraq Insurgents December 7, 06

Terrorists Bomb Church in Iraq December 7, 06

Iraq Is the Fastest-Growing Refugee Crisis in the World December 5, 06

Iraqi Christians plead for help, tell of 'ethnic cleansing' December 5, 06

Assyrian Christians 'Most Vulnerable Population' in Iraq December 5, 06

One Priest Killed in Iraq, another abucted December 5, 06

Comparing the Muslim and Christian Conceptions of God December 4, 06

Assyrian Delegation from Georgia Visits North Iraq December 4, 06

Another clergy murdered in Mosul December 4, 06

Dutch EP Member Inquiry Into Assassination of Assyrian Leader December 3, 06

Assyrians: Iraq's Overlooked Victims December 2, 06

Christians for Assyrians of Iraq Plan Demonstration December 2, 06

Iraq's Vatican Ambassador Seeks More Help December 2, 06

Assyrian Delegation At the European Parliament December 1, 06

Relief Agency Sheltering Iraqi Chaldean Refugees in Turkey December 1, 06

The Turkmen: Eerie Silence in Northern Iraq December 1, 06



October, November 06

August, September 06

June, July 06
March April May 06
February 06
December05 Januray 06