By Brad Petrishen. Telegram & Gazette Staff. Posted Sep 3, 2016 at 6:00 AM Updated Sep 6, 2016 at 11:40 AM
WORCESTER – The scent of incense contrasts sharply with the splashing in the water and the shrill oaths uttered in an ancient tongue.
“Kusta!” the Mandaean priest – one of several dozen in the world – says in a near-dead language, as the man he is baptizing repeats the Mandaic word, which means “truth.”
Both men and dozens on the beach are dressed in flowing white robes. Their dress, beards and features connote Biblical times. Indeed, they revere John the Baptist and consider themselves descendants of Adam, though there is much more to their intricate religion buried in detailed, poetic texts.
The man being cleansed closes his eyes as the priest splashes water over him three times. The priest, using his left hand, pulls the man to his side and submerges him three times underwater.
The priest thrice uses his wet finger to draw a line across the man’s forehead, from right to left. Three times he brings a palm full of water to the man’s mouth, and three times the man drinks.
Oaths are exchanged, as is a handshake, also called a kusta. A small wreath of myrtle, a Mediterranean plant, is removed from the man’s finger and placed under his turban, at which time the priest unleashes a string of holy words muffled by the thin white cloth covering his lengthy beard.
The ritual, choreographed down to the minutest detail, is far from complete. After aquatic consecration, a lengthy ceremony on land begins. The priest smears sesame on every forehead, taps every head dozens of times and through it all speaks in Mandaic, Arabic and sometimes English, softly at times, loudly at others, but always with a stunning, frenetic energy and rapidity.
The Mandaean baptism harks back some 2,000 years. By design, it looks the same in 2016 as it did in 216. It is, the Mandaeans believe, a routine cleansing to prepare one’s soul for eventual travel to heaven – the “Lightworld.”
If all was right in the Mandaean world, it would not be happening here, in Lake Quinsigamond, a few feet away from a battered metal sign reading “Caution, sudden drop-off.” It would be taking place in the Tigris or Euphrates in Mesopotamia, sacred rivers the Mandaeans have worshiped for two millennia.
But all is not right in the Mandaean world – or the human world – and the marshes of Iraq are no longer a safe place for this pacifist people to pray to God in peace. Raped, murdered and kidnapped in Iraq by multiple strains of extremist Muslims after the fall of Saddam Hussein, most Mandaeans have fled the country.
About 3,200 have made their way to America, and a full quarter of those to Worcester. In the heart of Massachusetts, the largest concentration of Iraqi Mandaeans on American soil struggle to plant their roots, yet praise their newfound freedoms and don T-shirts emblazoned with the flag of the nation whose invasion sparked their demise.
Theirs is a human drama of survival and rebirth as old as religion itself. In a world increasingly hostile to refugees, they are a people 50,000 to 60,000 strong who do not accept converts, and consider those who marry outside apostate. Scattered across the globe, some speculate they will die out within generations, as more and more of their children assimilate and marry outsiders.
In Worcester, there is no priest and no place of worship. So the people gather here on the banks of Lake Quinsigamond, where fly fishermen and teenagers on Sea-Doos cast them sideward glances, and, every so often, somebody calls the police.
They do not complain. The men and women who now worship at the waters of Lake Quinsigamond have been through much, and though the future of their religion is in doubt, for now, they are safe.
The kidnapping happened 6,000 miles away, but while distance can ease fear, it cannot erase memories.
“Turn left,” Samer Salman, now of Worcester, remembers the men following his car through the darkened streets of Baghdad telling him over the phone. “Turn right.”
It was 2005, and Mr. Salman was 25. He was alone in his car with $10,000 in cash to secure the release of his younger brother, Ramiz, who’d been kidnapped by men who hated him because of his Mandaean religion.
The farther Mr. Salman got from home, the more he feared he would not live to see the child growing in his wife’s belly.
“Left,” the men continued, as they sent Mr. Salman down a maze of streets to make sure no one followed. “Back up here – turn right.”
There was no one following. This was not a movie, and there were no police taps or rescue plots.
“The terrorists threatened to kill the whole family if we went to police,” Mr. Salman said. To prove their callousness, he said, they had slit the throat of a young boy whose family couldn’t afford ransom in front of Ramiz’ eyes.
“Please Papa, help me, pay what they need,” Ramiz had told his father shortly afterward over the phone. “They’re going to kill me.”
As he weaved through the city streets on the whim of his brother’s captors, Mr. Salman grew increasingly afraid they would both die.
“I’m never going back again,” he thought. “They would take my money, kill me and kill my brother.”
After nearly an hour, the men told him to stop.
“Here’s the money,” he heard himself say. “Where’s my brother?”
The men took the money. They did not kill him. But Ramiz was nowhere in sight.
“Go back – you will have your brother soon,” he was told. And again: “If you call the police, we will kill your family.”
As the words were spoken, Mr. Salman’s mother, Methal, was standing outside her home, where she and other family members paced in agony.
“My heart was outside my body,” Mrs. Salman recalled, as she prayed that she would see her sons alive again.
Mr. Salman returned, but hours ticked by with no Ramiz. As the cruel hands of the clock ticked past midnight – the curfew that had been imposed by the state – the family thought he was dead.
And then, like a ghost from the shadows, he came walking up the street.
“Nobody could believe he was alive,” Mr. Salman said, as his mother shook her head. “They had dropped him off 5 miles away.”
The Salmans are among 800 Mandaeans directly resettled to Worcester since 2007 in what has become the largest concentration of Iraqi Mandaeans in the United States. Leaders here believe the population, with births and interstate relocations, has swelled to more than 2,000; stories like the Salmans’ are all too common.
“They tried to shoot him, but the gun didn’t work,” Zahra Khazal, 20, recalls of the men who broke into her father’s jewelry store. He was pistol-whipped, but survived.
Ms. Khazal’s great-uncle was not so lucky. A wealthy man, he paid a ransom for his freedom.
“They shot him anyway.”
Family after family in Worcester has a story about a note they received threatening death.
“After my brother returned, they sent me a text message,” Mr. Salman said. “They asked me to select how I would like to die – by the gun, with my family, or we burn your body.”
Self-protection has never been an option, as Mandaean teachings forbid carrying weapons. Most families left most of their possessions and fled to Jordan or Syria. The Salmans left behind a large house in Baghdad 11 years ago. They have no idea what became of it.
In neighboring countries, Mandaeans were often barred from working or sending their children to school. Most spent up to five years trying to get admitted to countries like Sweden, Australia or the United States.
When they got to their apartments in Worcester – where apartments were much cheaper than Boston, and the city government friendly – life was difficult.
“They’ve gone through a lot,” said Mireille Thomas, a local translator who worked with many Mandaeans. Generally placed in rough neighborhoods, the quiet, Arabic-speaking people were often afraid to go outside, she said, because most knew little English.
Refugees qualify for government assistance, but the majority of Mandaeans got jobs as quickly as they could, Ms. Thomas said, at warehouses, factories, anywhere hiring.
“A lot of them were jewelers, very well off (in Iraq),” she said. “To come here and do blue-collar jobs is demeaning.”
But if Mandaeans are inwardly bitter about their vocations in America, they don’t let it show publicly. At a recent baptism, dozens praised their quality of life.
“I like the freedom,” said Nawras Algailani, a polite man of 25 who lives with his family in a three-decker on Vernon Hill. “Here you can say whatever you want, and practice your religion without somebody bothering you.”
A cashier at the Gulf station near Kelley Square, Mr. Algailani marveled at the melting pot of America.
“They share love, money, everything,” he said. He has taken a shine to Elvis Presley and country music.
Nadiya Al-mandiwi, 21, smiled as she listed Shakira, Michael Jackson, French fries and Chinese food as new favorites.
Ms. Al-mandiwi’s life in America has not been easy. Like many other young Mandaeans, she has been counted on to learn English and translate for her family. Her parents have been unable to learn, while her brothers have been too busy working long days.
“When we first got here, it was very hard,” Ms. Al-mandiwi said. “I cried.”
All told, life is much better in America. She serves as a personal care assistant for her ailing mother and takes classes at Quinsigamond Community College.
“In Iraq – very terrible,” she said, shaking her head. “No work. No school. In Iraq, I can’t drive.”
Shahad and Hind Handhal, 17- and 20-year-old sisters who attend Doherty Memorial High School, also translate for their parents. They laughed as they recalled using the movie “High School Musical” to learn English.
“It was so hard to leave our country, but we had to save our lives,” said Shahad, who has developed an affinity for Charles Dickens novels.
Mr. Algailani said nobody he knows plans to ever return to Iraq.
“I’m going to stay here forever,” he said.
The sentiment appears widespread among locals in Worcester, who estimate they’ve grown to as many as 2,500 following births and recruiting of fellow Mandaeans elsewhere in the country.
“This is a community by design,” said Dr. Wisam Breegi, a longtime Woburn resident and Mandaean who was the driving force behind the Worcester settlement.
Dr. Breegi and Jozefina Lantz, of the former Lutheran Social Services, for years sponsored individual families stuck in the Middle East. Unlike Mandaeans from Iran, who were granted refugee status in 2003 after government persecution and allowed to immigrate as a protected group, Mandaeans from Iraq have to go through a lengthy vetting process.
Dr. Breegi and other Mandaean leaders have been trying to get the state department to relax its rules for years to no avail.
Dr. Suhaib Nashi, president of the Mandaean Society of America, said while lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have sympathized with him in face-to-face meetings, nothing has ever happened.
“Look what is happening now,” he said of present-day Iraq. “It is genocide.”
A religion without a voice
In fact, Secretary of State John F. Kerry in March called the slaughter of Yezidis and other minority religions in Iraq by the so-proclaimed Islamic State genocide, though he did not specifically name Mandaeans.
With the Associated Press last week documenting 72 mass graves filled with IS victims, it seems clear that the fewer than 5,000 Mandaeans in Iraq are in peril.
Zeki Khamisi, 48, tenses when he thinks of his mother, who still lives there. The Worcester Mandaean is struck with fear every time he hears of a suicide bombing; he’d like to get her out.
But with still no decree of protected refugee status from the State Department, the likelihood of getting relatives out is low.
“Nothing will happen now,” Dr. Nashi said, noting the gridlock in Congress and the harsh tenor toward immigrants in the raucous election cycle.
U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, said he has sent a letter within the last year to the administration asking that Mandaeans be allowed to relocate in the U.S. He said he does not believe he has received a response.
“We’re talking about a small group of people who are nonviolent, who have not done anything to harm anybody,” he said. His office said it is “actively” engaged in trying to help, though Mr. McGovern acknowledged the task is difficult.
“One of the casualties of the current political climate has been compassion,” he said. “I think maybe people are losing their human ability to feel.”
Dr. Breegi said while he appreciates Mr. McGovern’s words, he believes the congressman could “do much better” in his advocacy.
“He has tried to actually be proactive, in a way, to support us, but there was not a lot of push, maybe, or great interest, to follow up on things,” he said.
Dr. Breegi said hundreds of Mandaean families in Iraq, Syria and other refugee countries could be saved if the government would deem them as a protected group.
“I’ve told (Mr. McGovern) many times – get me to Washington and I will testify,” he said. “Our case is clear.”
A faith without a home
Since Mandaeans began fleeing Iraq, their leaders have pleaded with the world’s governments to settle them all in one country. Given the marriage requirements, only a consolidated population, they argued, would give the ancient religion a chance to survive.
But no country stepped up, and, ultimately, families were scattered across the globe. The United States has sprinkled 3,222 Iraqi refugees in 35 states since 2007, State Department data shows, from large settlements like Worcester to single-refugee placements in small Midwestern towns. It has also resettled nearly 2,600 Mandaeans from Iran since 2003, mostly in Texas.
With no one place to call home, the question of how long the religion will survive is a pressing one.
“They are in danger of extinction,” said Jorunn J. Buckley, a retired professor widely recognized as the pre-eminent Mandaean scholar. “There’s no doubt about that.”
With only two active priests in the U.S. and less than 50 in the world, baptisms and weddings often depend on flight schedules, while funerals sometimes simply can’t be done in a traditional way.
It’s an unavoidable erosion of ritual in a religion that hinges upon consistency, and, predictably, it’s taking its toll on the faith.
“My daughter said, ‘You’re Mandaean, I’m not,’ ” said Rose Nasser, who immigrated to New York in 1999 with her ex-husband seeking greater religious freedom.
Growing up in Queens without a large Mandaean community or places of worship, two of Ms. Nasser’s four children decided the religion was not for them.
“My girls – they have gauges, tattoos,” said Ms. Nasser, 47, who now lives in Worcester. “They don’t want to even see our community.”
Ms. Nasser believes her daughters’ shunning of their religion was influenced by city life and friends in Queens – on that pressure, conscious or unconscious, to assimilate.
“Our religion is going to disappear if our kids don’t follow it,” she said. “And the family cannot control the children here (in America).”
Charles Haberl, a linguist and Rutgers University professor who has studied Mandaeans since the 1990s, said the Mandaic language is already dead except for some older Iranians. When they die, he said, it is likely that only the priests will speak the tongue.
“They are disappearing before our eyes,” Mr. Haberl said. “When you have something as beautiful and ancient as this Mandaean culture, it’s worth saving. Not just for the culture, but because it tells us something about ourselves.”
If there is a solution to the Mandaean problem, neither Ms. Buckley nor Mr. Haberl have heard it.
“They have different answers as to how to preserve themselves,” Ms. Buckley said, with some, more secular members suggesting the faith relax some of its conditions, including the undisturbed bloodline.
Some scholars have argued the barring of converts may have historically been a way of making the faith less threatening to dominant religions. Now that exile has finally happened, they reason, perhaps a change is possible.
But Ms. Buckley said for many Mandaeans, the lingering trauma of their ouster has made considering material changes to their faith too difficult. Others go the opposite route, she said, slipping into their new society and letting their faith lapse.
Though many do propose solutions, there is often not much consensus, and conflicts within the faith – between Iraqis and Iranians, conservatives and moderates – threaten to stymie action.
“There are too many chiefs and too few Indians,” Mr. Haberl said. “Schisms happen.”
A recent study of Worcester Mandaeans by Clark University students hinted at tensions among Mandaeans in the city.
Dr. Breegi has shepherded hundreds of families to Worcester and overseen many aspects of their daily lives. He has helped find a suitable cemetery and met exhaustively with local and state medical officials to lobby them to not touch the skin of the Mandaean dead, something reserved for Mandaeans.
Yet Dr. Breegi has been polarizing at times in the community, with some criticizing his conservative views and his desire to shape the community here as a distinctly “American Mandaean” society.
Dr. Breegi has also been outspoken on his views on sustained government assistance, which, he admits, has turned some people off.
“Personally, I consider it cheating the system,” he said of things like housing vouchers. “You can work – you can do better.”
Dr. Breegi believes if the smaller communities around the globe can grow, the faith can survive. He is committed to the Worcester settlement.
Dr. Nashi is hopeful, though, that people will eventually gravitate to several main areas. He encourages people in transitional phases of their lives – people who have just gotten married, for example – to move to places with larger populations, like Sydney, Australia.
Sydney has the most concentrated Mandaean population in the world, he said, and the priests and financial resources for a stable society.
Ms. Buckley said while Sydney may be a good place in theory, the government there is not amenable to accepting large swaths of refugees.
Mr. Haberl said a better route may be for young Mandaeans to make connections online.
Many in Worcester are already doing so. Iraqi Mandaeans in particular are quite modern; young women wearing flowing robes on Lake Quinsigamond often dab at iPhones as they wait for baptism.
Life in Worcester
For now, Mandaeans in Worcester are concentrated on building a mandi – a Mandaean house of worship that must be located near running water. If they do that, they reason, a priest will follow.
A group of Mandaeans has purchased a plot of land they hope to use, though Dr. Breegi believes it is not suitable because of wetland and other restrictions.
Dr. Breegi and Marianne Sarkis, a Clark professor, are working to establish a nonprofit to assist in the quest for a mandi. If a sustained Mandaean society in Worcester is to happen, Dr. Breegi said, the effort must succeed.
“I’m very optimistic about our community,” he said. Disagreements in the faith are signs of vitality, he argued; it’s when apathy abounds that he will worry.
“We have marriages. We have celebrations,” he said. “And that’s what is important.”
At a recent wedding at Lake Quinsigamond, a family sang and danced during a joyful, intricate ceremony.
“Our religion is probably the coolest,” said Sabaa Zaki, a spunky 14-year-old who is miffed that the Mandaeans get no mention in any of her history books. “It’s like a job we have.”
The confident Worcester East Middle School pupil, who has designs of becoming an undercover police officer, moved to Detroit for a time, but her parents moved back for the schools.
“Our mother wanted us to go to North High,” she said.
Sabaa is unfazed by her faith’s take on marriage (“There is no such thing as dating in our culture,” she said simply) or by the occasional razzing from classmates about its “weird” ceremonial robes.
“If they don’t like it, that’s their problem,” she said as Mandaeans on the beach below her raised their arms to the sky.
The priest leading the prayers on this day, Ganzibra Brikha H.S. Nasoraia, of Sydney, said he did not sleep the night before. He rarely sleeps more than an hour or two a night, he said, and is used to it – Mandaean men must go an entire week without sleep during the taxing ritual in which they are ordained.
The priest’s day began shortly after dawn, when he prayed for more than an hour to Lake Quinsigamond, asking the sacred water to allow the baptisms. Over the next eight hours, he baptized 153 people – including one baby – never once sitting, and rarely standing still.
He then conducted the several-hour wedding ceremony, continually reciting phrases from memory as he floated between the bride and groom. After that, he spoke to followers about the religion for hours.
After 13 hours on his feet, Ganzibra Nasoraia, 51, said he’d not slept or eaten in three times that long. But he insisted he was not tired – the energy of his people, he said, sustains him. He does this every Sunday, somewhere in the world.
The Mandaeans have never had political clout, nor have they sought it. They are the last surviving relics of what’s called the Gnostic religions, a group of faiths that believe salvation comes through special knowledge of a purer spiritual world.
For Mandaeans, the Ganzibra explained, to live well on Earth is to prepare oneself for the eternal world – the Lightworld – and to keep one’s soul as stainless as possible.
In a violent, ideologically charged world, the Mandaeans have always had the deck stacked against them. Yet they, who believe their prayers sustain life on earth, have managed to survive countless political upheavals, religious movements and, in 1831, a devastating cholera outbreak.
Though their current plight may be their most dire, Ganzibra Nasoraia said his people will never be swayed from their optimistic, pacifist nature.
“We seek to rectify injustice with knowledge, not iron,” he said, adding that many of today’s problems could be solved if people sought truth.
“The system we were raised in, we are taught to divide..,” he said. “In reality, everything is interconnected.”
Ganzibra Nasoraia said humanity must start looking at itself as one thought, one energy and one being.
“This is how we should overcome our divisions,” he said. “This is our hope for the future – to return to our nature – purity, love, peace, harmony, respect, knowledge.”