Iraq National Museum director starts new life in US

denny.gifBy Agence France Presse (AFP)
Catherine Hours / Agence France Presse
BROOKHAVEN, New York: In his little office at Stony Brook University east of New York City, the former director of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad has hung a maxim of Martin Luther King: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” For seven months, Donny George and his family have tried to rebuild their life in the US. Even as the radio plays American country music, their thoughts are always on Iraq.

George and his family, Iraqi Christians, are among the scant 133 Iraqis who have been allowed to relocate to the US since the beginning of 2007, according to government figures.

George, 56 and an expert in Mesopotamian archeology, says the country needs to take in more. “I believe 100 percent that the United States should help the Iraqis that are outside and the ones inside who have left their homes. Specifically the Christians,” he says. “Both Sunnis and Shia are now attacking the Christians … They are going from door to door, ordering them to convert or pay a tax or leave or be killed.”

He and his family fled Baghdad last year with just a few bags. A small man with a sweet smile and tired eyes, George says they decided to go after receiving an envelop containing a bullet said to be for his son, 17, who was accused of blaspheming Islam.

For months afterwards, George drove with a gun under his seat.

The museum had to be closed: It was too risky to go to work. He says his responsibilities were scaled back by the Tourism Ministry, under the influence of the Shiite group led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Recruited by Stony Brook, he finally abandoned Iraq for this peaceful campus near Long Island Sound, about 90 kilometers from New York City.

“I’m happy here,” he says. “The main thing is to be safe. The family is adapting well.” His youngest son has just earned top marks in US history class; his daughter has entered pre-medical school and his elder son is studying digital arts.

He meanwhile indulges his love of jazz, of Stevie Wonder and in his car he plays Canadian country star Shania Twain.

“I really love the people here, there are wonderful people,” he says.

He has just come from a trip to the American Indian village of Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, where the settlement reminds this scholar of the ancient world of northern Iraq.

Still, his heart is back in Iraq, his Internet connection to back home always on. The news is often bad. “Today I learned that one of my students in Basra was killed,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes. “He had asked to be transferred to Basra because Baghdad is more dangerous.”

On the wall is a picture of another student, killed in April in a car bomb attack.

From a distance, George’s hunt for pillaged Iraqi antiquities continues. For 30 years he has worked at all the major archaeological sites, and is often called upon for his expertise to identify pieces.

He says his museum lost 15,000 pieces, 4,000 of which have been recovered, mainly in Europe and in the US. The total number of pieces lost by the country – which counts some 100,000 archaeological sites – remains “the big question.”

At Stony Brook, he teaches archaeology, and also a course on the American occupation of his country.

“A lot of students knew nothing about Iraq and Mesopotamia … They thought everyone in Iraq lived in the desert, riding camels and living in tents!” he says. “I told them we had one of the best symphonic orchestras in the Middle East, we had painters, actors.”

The war stirs up much debate. But for George, it is not the time for the United States to remove its troops. “They have to finish it,” he says.

But he lashed out at the Baghdad government’s weakness and the interference by Iraq’s neighbors. He even expressed a wish for a “good dictator” to lead the country.

“Not Saddam Hussein, but someone who feels good for the future of the Iraqi people. It is not the right time for Iraq to learn democracy. Democracy can’t happen in one day.”

As a man of history, he sees the violence inevitably ending.

“But a lot of people will suffer” before that, he says.

Meanwhile he dreams of reopening the National Museum with a grand ball.

“There would be at least 1,000 guests from all over the world, in the garden inside … There would be a quartet of Iraq national music, a quartet of classical chamber music and Iraqi food.”