When Roya Hakakian set out to tell the story of eight assassinations ordered by the Iranian government 20 years ago in her book “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace,” she took the novel approach of focusing on the victims themselves.
Hakakian, a poet, author and human rights advocate born and raised in Tehran, spoke to a crowd of about 30 students and community members at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life on Tuesday night about writing the book, which was published in 2011. The assassinations and ensuing trial, she said, had all the intrigue of a suspense story and a political significance that has not received enough attention by world historians.
On Sept. 17, 1992, eight leaders of the Iranian opposition, four of whom were Kurdish, were having dinner together at Mykonos, a restaurant in Berlin, when two men walked in, opened fire at the table, and killed four of the eight men. Legal scholars have placed the April 1997 verdict of the German court — which implicated the entire Iranian leadership in the assassinations and caused diplomatic ruptures with Iran throughout Europe — as one of the most important verdicts in the history of Germany since Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leaders following World War II.
Although her editor wanted the book to center on the assassinations themselves, Hakakian said she chose to focus on the trial.
“As an Iranian exile, assassinations have been a dime a dozen — what was most intriguing was what followed, the trial. Against the wishes of my editor I told the story of the assassination right in the first two pages, and got it done with,” she said.
According to Hakakian, before these assassinations, Germany had been Iran’s closest ally, and although nearly 100 Iranians had been assassinated throughout the world, including singers, open homosexuals and sartorialists among political dissidents, no country had ever publicly called on Iran to take responsibility for these assassinations.
“In the United States, Geneva, Rome, Turkey, London, India, the Phillipines, everywhere in the world these assassinations had occurred, and in more cases than one when a proper investigation had been carried out, the killers footsteps led to Tehran’s embassy,” she said, noting that in 1988, Austria had arrested a perpetrator but upon realizing his ties to the Iranian embassy chose to deport the man to Iran rather than conduct a trial and upset its relationship with Iran.
Hakakian’s talk was sponsored by the Friedlaender Krohner Lecture series, which was founded by Gary and Linda Friedlaender with the goal of opening up conversations about Jewish identity. Gary Friedlaender, a member of the School of Medicine faculty, and Linda Friedlaender, the curator of education at the Yale Center for British Art, founded the lecture series over 20 years ago in honor of both their parents’ wedding anniverseries..
An Iranian Jew herself, Hakakian’s first book, “Journey From the Land of No: A Girl Hood Caught in Revolutionary Iran,” discussed her Jewish identity, a topic she spoke about more in a dinner with several students and community members before her talk. Although “Assassinations in a Turquoise Palace” does not mention Jews or the Holocaust, Hakakian said she felt that both were relevant to the story.
“The history of the Holocaust is never mentioned in the book, but its presence hugely affected the story” she said. The emotions and reactions among German people to the events of the book take place against the backdrop of the Holocaust, she said.
Justine Kolata ’12 said she was impressed by the powerful way in which Hakakian told the story.
“It was absolutely wonderful as an intersection of human rights and art, the way she told a story that was is in of itself artistic and has such important social implications,” Kolata said.
Nathaniel Meyer ’13 agreed, saying that the talk made him think more about the power of dialogue and the role of recording history.
“History for a large part is storytelling, and the talk struck me about the power of storytelling in conveying important political events.” he said.
Hakakian won a 2008 Guggenheim fellowship in nonfiction for “Assassinations of the Turquoise Palace.”