A TRIBUTE TO DR. DONNY GEORGE YOUKHANNA: OCTOBER 23, 1950-MARCH 11, 2011
(Aaron Hughes) Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, the former Director of the National Museum of Iraq, and former President of the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, passed away last Friday at the age of 60. I mourn the loss of an inspiring and courageous figure, a brilliant scholar, renowned archeologist, a generous teacher, a loving family man, and friend. As most of you know, Dr. George’s story serves as a focus of “The invisible enemy should not exist,” an ongoing project that I have pursued in close consultation with him and his colleagues in the field of Mesopotamian archeology.
It was an article in The New York Times in April, 2006 titled “The Ghost in the Baghdad Museum” that first inspired my project, in which the author, Roger Cohen paid special attention to Dr. George’s role in the recovery of half of the approximately 15,000 artifacts that were looted from the Iraq Museum in April, 2003. Additional details also rose to the surface in the story: under Saddam Hussein, Dr. George worked at archeological sites to avoid Ba’ath Party meetings and also sidelined as a drummer in the band “99%”—short for 99% of excellence— which specialized in Deep Purple and Pink Floyd songs. It was after reading this that I fell in love with him. He was a lot like an artist, I thought, circumventing authority to do what he believed in and surviving. My project, in addition to presenting reconstructions of missing artifacts from the museum, featured drawings that detailed these and other events in Dr. George’s life, including his and his family’s sudden and tragic exodus to Syria in August of 2006 after his son was threatened by insurgents if a ransom was not paid, and his arrival to the US in December of that year, where he would teach at SUNY Stony Brook. Inspired by Dr. George’s rock star pursuits, the crowning element of the installation was a cover of Deep Purple’s “Smoke On The Water,” performed by the New York-based band Ayyoub, complete with Arabic instrumentation.
It was clear to me that Dr. George’s story was the story of millions of Iraqis who fled—and continue to flee—their country as refugees. It was a story that was also mirrored in the status of the stolen artifacts, many of which turn up in other countries such as Jordan, Iran, Italy and the USA, and are unable to be repatriated because it is still too dangerous.
I had the good fortune to meet Dr. George in February 2007, shortly after his arrival to New York. The occasion was arranged by Barbara Paley, whose husband Sam, who passed away last year, was a distinguished archeologist and very close with Dr. George. At the brunch, colleagues and old friends officially welcomed him and his family to the US and donated books, some of them their own scholarly works, to fill the shelves of Dr. George’s office at the university. It was very moving, warm, and celebratory.
When we were introduced, Dr. George remarked on the drawing I made of him playing the drums, asking where I found a photo of him performing. There wasn’t any photo, I explained. There are no jpeg files on Google of “99%,” no mp3’s, no YouTube videos. I showed him my source images for creating the drawing: a photograph of him at a meeting collaged in Photoshop with one of Ringo Starr drumming away. An image created from fragments of other images. “That’s archeology, too,” he told me with a big smile.
When he did visit my show in New York, I was unfortunately at home in Chicago. Dr. George would later explain to me that he became emotional while standing in front of the reconstructed artifacts because he discovered that this was probably as close as he was going to get to the originals ever again.
Over the next four years, I got to know Dr. George more and more. As I heard one incredible story after another of his undying and continuing efforts to recuperate stolen and damaged artifacts from his old museum, I added more drawings to the project. Inasmuch as the work was about humanity’s collective loss of a shared cultural heritage and history, it had also become a loving portrait of a man I greatly admired.
One of the stories that Dr. George told me is one that doesn’t get told enough, and I feel underscores who he was, as someone who upheld his beliefs and maintained his integrity, under any circumstance. As he recounted to New York Magazine, he was the head of fieldwork at the excavation site in Babylon in 1987 when the Iraqi president 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.'”
I only knew Dr. George for four years. It feels like I lost a family member. Maybe I see my grandfather, who fled Iraq in 1946, in him. Maybe I see the story of every Iraqi who is not at home, who is not able to return. Maybe I see a devoted husband and father who did everything he could to save his wife and children and give them a good life. Whatever it is, I feel the huge loss that his family, friends and colleagues are feeling and today, I said goodbye to him at his funeral here in Chicago.
My last drawing from “The invisible enemy” featured a personal message from me to Dr. George. In pencil, I wrote the traditional Arabic greeting, “Ahlan wa Sahlan, Dr. George.” As many know, it is loosely translated as “May you arrive as part of the family, and tread an easy path (as you enter)”. I was thinking to close my personal remembrance of this great man with an awesome line from a Deep Purple or Pink Floyd song. Somehow, I think Dr. George would have liked that. But instead, I found sections of a fragmentary Sumerian lullaby, translated from tablets dating from 3,000 B.C.
Come sleep, come sleep…
And you, lie you in sleep.
Array the branches of your palm tree,
It will fill you with joy…
Stand at the side of Ur
Goodnight, Dr. George. I will miss you.