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From Baghdad to the L.I.E.

How an Iraqi archaeologist survived Saddam Hussein, only to have to flee to Long Island in the face of the civil war.

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Donny 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.”

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