Monday, August 6, 2012

My Name is Danny Breegi: The Tragic Story of the Iraqi Mandaeans

As a lifelong student of the Middle East, it’s not often that someone tells you about an entire ethnic group numbering in the tens of thousands that you’ve never even heard of before. In a conversation in my living room last winter, my friend Danny Breegi did just that. He was kind enough to share the story of his family and their people, the Iraqi Mandaeans, who have been damaged and displaced almost completely from their native homes by the 2003 Iraq war. I interviewed him recently about this little-known community to which Americans owe a great debt, as they were one of the hardest hit ethnic minorities following our invasion of Iraq. Below, he shares his story, that of his family, and that of an ethnic group few people know anything about.

Mandaean men in traditional costume.

Vicky: Tell our readers a little about yourself.

Danny: My name is Danny Breegi.   I was born on the outskirts of Baghdad, in Buquba, Iraq. I belong to an ancient ethnoreligion called the Mandaeans. I am not a first generation American but I grew up in Boston since I was 1 year old.

I now realize my name means and represents so much. My parents wanted to leave Iraq for an English-speaking country, so they scoured every source looking for the right name for me. They called me Tuna in the meantime.  They found Danny, which means "the most cherished in the heart". My Great-Grandfather Yaser, God bless his soul, wanted to name me Salam, meaning "peace", since the Gulf War ended two weeks after my birth in February.

We ended up in Boston a year later, after making it out [of Iraq] – just barely – and staying in Madrid, Spain. My full name has been changed twice. In ancient tradition, you are named after your father and your father’s father and so on. And under this patriarchal (Arabic not Mandaean) system, my name was Danny (Wisam Latif) Kethir. Then my father chose to change it in 1999, going even further back in the family tree and choosing Al-Haider, the family of my great-great-great-grandfather Haider. Although my father chose to use the original and ancient Mandaean name of the family (Breegi), my mother wanted to stick to the name of my great-great-great-grandfather Haider, because it was the one we as a family were known by in Iraq and because of the rich political and social history the Haider family has.   Then the Twin Towers fell, and all of a sudden I was “Al-Qaider” Danny the middle-eastern boy. It was an easy joke to make about my name “Al-Haider” sounding like “Al-Qaida”, especially to the wonderful suburban youth of Boston. So, on a social and personal level it was a bad idea that since I was being bullied at school constantly. I didn’t go a day in middle-school or high-school without someone cracking a terrorist joke. Because of the social repercussions as well as the name sounding too “Arab” my father went further back in the family tree to the highest clan name, Breegi.

The Breegis are just one of many major families in the Mandaean community. Now my religious name is Adam Yahana Bar-Mehnesh. In Mandaic, that means Adam Yahana the son of his mother, Mehnesh. Accordingly, Mehnesh is my mom's religious name. Matriarchy characterizes the Mandaean religion and reverence of our women is paramount. So, knowing all this, I would say my parents did a great job with the name, and my religious name serves as my rock. I cling to it as a reminder of all the meaning life can possess.

Boston is a multicultural mosaic and the sad part is I grew up alone, outside of my community. I am an only child and we are the only Mandaeans in Boston, but I have become a part of another mosaic like Iraq once was. I am a Mandaean-American Iraqi. I will be a senior at Boston University studying Health Science. I work with Professor Geck of Tuft's Medical School on a cancer study and I enjoy it very much. I started blogging about Mandaeanartifacts and the religion itself and I've been working on an autobiography for a year. 

Vicky: How would you describe the Mandaean people? Where do they come from primarily? What is their religion? What language(s) do they speak?

Danny: The Mandaean faith and geneaology extends back to the Jerusalem-Sinai area, and all Mandaeans regard themselves as pure descendants since we have been intermarrying since the beginning. We used to be 100,000 strong, and at one point we were less than 10,000. Now we are at less than 60,000 worldwide. We have almost no serious genetic disease [considering the degree of intermarriage in the community], no hereditary problems or predispositions, just very normal people, medically speaking We have excelled in our ancient artisanal traditions and turned them into silversmithing hundreds of year ago and have progressed into goldsmithing as well.

We are not only jewelers; just within the Breegi family there are artists, doctors, astronomers, physicists, businessmen and engineers of every kind. We were always accomplished and educated and represent a protected class of Iraqis that once stood for Iraq’s wealth of knowledge. However, we have only lived in the southern marshes of Iraq and Iran, known as Khuzestan, for 2,000 years. We were once a single community, but after WWI the geopolitical border cut the Mandaean community between Iraq and Iran. Within a hundred years, the Arabic Farsi-speaking Mandaeans outnumbered the Iraqis two-to-one, and they are the only Mandaeans who still read and write Mandaic, considered a dead language in the region.

Vicky: Where is your family originally from? Why did your family choose to emigrate?

Danny: After the families chose which country to go to [Iraq or Iran], more and more became educated and they went north to their respective capitals. From Amarra in the south of Iraq, my forefathers moved to Baghdad to seek education and commerce. We lived and worked among all Iraqis of all faiths, and we were well off, especially for being non-Arab People of the Book, as Muslims saw it.

Fast forward to the Iran-Iraq war, the post-collegiate draft the men were subject to, and the lead up to the Gulf War. The country suffered a terrible brain drain, but my parents didn’t decide to leave until the air raid over Baghdad when I was born in February of 1991. The academics saw dark days coming, and my parents knew it would only get darker. We had to leave for the first country we could, and then, maybe we could find a home. 

Vicky: What was the experience of the first émigrés in your family when they arrived in America? Is there a large Mandaean community here they could join, or at least an Iraqi one?

Danny: A handful of Mandaeans came to America before us. To this day, we are the only ones in my direct family in America and the only Mandaeans in the Boston area. Recently my father worked with the U.N. and the US Government to bring over one thousand Mandaeans from Iraq, Syria and Jordan to America.  Iraqis loved American pop-culture for many decades, dating back to their love of American cars, American products, and American weapons that adorned the highest officials of Iraq. But my Dad believed in the American idea, the thought of such a free country. So from Madrid we chose America over Canada and my father contacted a friend  (Mr. John Walsh) who worked on animal protection and preservation, a veterinarian who visited him at Baghdad University in the early 1980s. He fondly remembered my father, and accepted to be our sponsor in Boston.  The Mandaean community stayed relatively small compared to others until the 2003 invasion. In 2008 my father single-handedly started the project to bring people to Massachusetts. He worked with growing the community in Worcester, MA, but we were getting scattered everywhere. Everywhere. Stockholm, London, Sydney, Toronto, San Diego, the Gulf countries, just a mass exodus and a mess for the community. Mandaeans are now officially international, an unprecedented occurrence in their 4,000 year history. 

Vicky: What are some cultural traditions from your Mandaean origins that you and your family still practice here in the U.S.?

Danny: Mandaeans share the most of our similarities with Judaism, although our practices and beliefs can also be seen in Christianity and Islam. We have a New Year celebration in July called Karsa when we stay indoors for 36 hours. The good spirits leave for that period and only bad spirits are left on the physical earth, so it's a great time to spend with family and to reflect. We can't eat certain foods like meat or shellfish during these holidays. This year we ate steak and lobster (which is not kosher to start with) before sundown on the first night.

We are religious, but many more Mandaeans take it even more seriously and have the healthy lifestyle of our Rabba's [a religious figure similar to a rabbi] diet, which is predominantly vegetables, fruit, nuts, honey, fish and unleavened bread. He baptizes people whenever he can and otherwise prays and reads. He can get married, have kids and lead a normal life and choose to pursue one of four distinct levels [of religious study]: Tarmetha, Ganzavra and Raish'imma and Rabanni. We get baptized as many or as few times as we choose to a year when a Rabba decides to visit. We only have a few dozen Rabbas so they must make rounds to all of the Mandaean communities of the world. We are baptized according to the ancient way of John the Baptist in a free flowing river (living water) with white robes with no worldly possessions adorning us.

A Mandaean baptism. Source: Shane Hensinger.

My first baptism was in the Charles River in Boston in 1999, which was the first Mandaean baptism in American history. "I love that clean water" isn't what we say here, but believe it or not, my parents went in with a team of other scientists and the water checked out on microbes and heavy metals. A-OK. Thank goodness, the ritual takes a while and at one point when you are in the water you have to drink some. I'm fine. 

Vicky: What have been the hardest cultural adjustments for the first- and second-generation émigrés coming to the U.S.? Has any of your family moved to other countries? Why?

Danny: The hardest thing to accept in America is the level of freedom and security, especially for war-torn minorities like us. The level of support shocks Mandaeans; my parents felt the same and they are proud Americans because of it. But many Iraqis think America is more dangerous than Fallujah (that would be the Wild West mentality). Even my parents’ families thought it was a risky idea. My dad’s side lives in Manchester, England and my mom’s side lives in Rotterdam, Holland. These decisions to move were based upon security of the country and what the U.N. offered them as refugees; they would be living in refugee camps otherwise. The story is no different today, but it seems those in America are the most well off of the Mandaean refugees.

Vicky: What was life for the Mandaeans like under Saddam Hussein? Were they a persecuted religious minority or a protected one?

Danny: We lived under Saddam and were protected (if you did not disagree with him, which was hard for the peace loving Mandaeans), but we still lost many people because of him. If you kept your head down and swore loyalty to your Republic you were alive. But the Mandaeans still belonged to underground anti-Baathist parties that were Communist or just plain opposed, but any intelligence officer will tell you that meant they wanted democracy. That is why my family believes in America so much that we are willing to go the largest organizations in the world to plead our case and have our voices heard. America is made for Mandaeans. But it wasn't easy making it.

Vicky: What was your family’s reaction to the invasion of Iraq by the U.S.?

DannyMy family is highly regarded in the Mandaean community as intellectuals and trustworthy people. We have diplomatic connections even though we were not politicians, so we had seen the signs of war coming long before it happened. The University of Baghdad, which my parents attended, had some of the brightest minds in the world, and my parents were very involved and dedicated students. So when their esteemed professors started leaving, they began to see their fears being realized, that war was coming. But everyone saw the war coming from top to bottom in Iraqi society and why it was worth toppling the dictator and pursuing the oil, especially my father who called for the community to leave Iraq in the early 1980s. War was coming for decades, but leaving proved to be easier said than done for many people from financing their escape to emotionally parting with Iraq. All Iraqis have an astounding passion and truly deep love for their country because it was so diverse and it had so many beautiful aspects in its society from culture to education.

U.S. soldiers pose in front of the "Hands of Victory" in Baghdad. Photo by Tsgt. John L. Houghton, Jr., USAF.

All those facts still wouldn't dull the pain, shock and sadness that ensued. Their home, their memories of living in the Land of Two Rivers, and the people they loved were all destroyed. Most importantly, the fear of the loss of their faith and heritage became reality. I grew up frustrated but I chose to be an ambassador to represent my proud heritage, instead of being bitter about all that was lost. It was hard for all of us to realize the need for pragmatism over emotionalism.

Vicky: What has been the effect of the 2003 Iraq war on the Iraqi Mandaean community?

Danny: The war devastated the community. Directly, people were starving and dying. Then, isolation turned into targeted killings by extremists: our women raped, whole families executed if not for their gold then just for their existence. We used to live in peace, and now we are on the margins and can't hope to call Iraq "home" any longer. It's just not the same country; it's run by criminals now and life simply isn't safe in any measurable way for Mandaeans. We are full of sadness and yet no matter how tired and depressed I see new immigrants, we have an incredible capacity to stay strong, to endure. We believe in our faith and each other.

Vicky: What is your reaction to these statistics: 50,000-60,000 Mandaeans in Iraq before the invasion, maybe 5,000 after. What are some of the reasons for the Mandaean exodus? What does it have to do with their regional location, community leadership, and sectarian violence?

Danny: The statistics clearly illustrate our need to leave Iraq for good. Those left in Iraq are actually something like less than 2,000 people. As we speak, there is a plan to get the Iraqi-Mandaeans out via Jordan and then America. We have 16,000 signatures petitioning the American government to take the moral and legal responsibility as a byproduct of their war to save the most precious community in the region. I have a good feeling this will work, since the people left number so few, but we must join together to get the American government to act. We are caught in a war, and there is no enclave, no world Mandaean organization with a substantial history enough to support this cause. We aren't protected by Israel, like the Iraqi Jews were when they were persecuted half a century ago. The Christians not only have areas they can hide in with their own militias in Northern Iraq, they also have an international community that can help them. We are too small, too peaceful and too novel to the world political arena to have any such luxuries.  

Vicky: What do you think the international community’s role is in protecting the Mandaean people? Given the U.S.’s primary role in the deterioration of Mandaeans’ security in Iraq, does it have a special responsibility to provide them with some kind of relief?

Danny: The American-Mandaean community has communicated in various ways to the American government, some of which were not the right way to do so, since, as any group, some have their own agenda. Ideas of lumping ourselves with the Christian minorities or staying in Iraq as a "protected" group are some pretty bad ideas that have come along. My father has done the most significant work to aid the Mandaean people and get the message across to the State Department as well as individual politicians.

The bottom line is that the American government has to act quickly and decisively to save another minority they have accidentally put on the fringe, which is not a new occurrence. All that we ask is the ability to foster the remaining community here within the secure and free borders of the United States and to rejuvenate the Mandaean community worldwide knowing that we are all finally safe and able to move on with our lives. That is our dream, and we have worked very hard and encountered every complication in the book and yet here we are, nearly a decade after the invasion and our hopes are higher than ever before. We will survive.

Danny Breegi

If you’re interested in learning more about the Mandaean people, please visit:

To learn about and support Danny’s father’s cause, visit:

Save the Mandaean Refugees

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