Author Roya Hakakian seeks to recast narrative about Iran, bear witness

As Roya Hakakian sat on a panel in Washington last month listening to another Iranian writer speak, she had a small epiphany.

The speaker was sounding a familiar theme among many Iranians in the West, who for three decades have felt responsible for showing the world that Iran is about more than just stern ayatollahs, political repression and international terrorism.

“It was a completely harmonious panel,” Hakakian recalled. “We were all in agreement about everything, and then this other writer started saying, ‘We are the people of Persia, the great people who built Persepolis,’ and rather than kind of feel the usual warm, fuzzy feeling, I just started getting really annoyed. . . . How many times do we need to march out these glorious things from 2,000 years ago, as if preserving the dignity of the past is more important than dealing with what’s immediately happening today?”

Hakakian is trying to do just that; this month, she will address the Democratic Caucus on the United States’ Iran strategy in the wake of charges last month that Tehran was plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador here. The alleged plot in some ways mirrors the events described in Hakakian’s new book, “Assassins of the Turquoise Palace,” about the 1992 killing of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant.

The killings occurred as Germany was improving political and financial ties with Iran, and German diplomats initially tried to blame the deaths on a Turkish faction. But the investigation, led by a determined Berlin prosecutor, eventually implicated Tehran’s Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard Corps that had a list of 500 political assassination targets abroad.


Writer Roya Hakakian in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Bret Hartman/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

In light of the 1997 verdict in the case, European Union governments suspended relations with Iran for nearly half a year, and Interpol put Iran’s then-minister of intelligence on its most-wanted list. Afterward, Tehran halted political hits in Western countries (though they continued elsewhere). But last month, the U.S. Justice Department accused an Iranian American used-car salesman of trying — on behalf of the Quds Force — to pay a Mexican gangster to kill the Saudi ambassador in a Washington restaurant.

The subject of Hakakian’s book is not typical fare for Iranian American writers of her generation. The former “60 Minutes” producer’s first book, “Journey from the Land of No,” published in 2004, was a memoir about her Jewish girlhood in the 1970s and ’80s in pre- and post-revolution Tehran. After its publication, she sat on panels with other Iranian American writers (a couple of which I joined her on), reminding audiences of the complexities of Jewish life in Iran, the blossoming of the Iranian film industry and the strong youth movement challenging the regime. We wrote books showing that Iranians are just like people anywhere — eccentric, annoying, endearing — and crossed our fingers that our writing wouldn’t enrage the regime or the relatives.

But since Iran’s violent 2009 crackdown on post-election demonstrators, something has snapped. Iranians are fed up with apologizing for their country. Hakakian, 44, thinks the change is long overdue.

“Let’s stop being ashamed of these tragedies that we kind of keep as little secrets within our own community and start doing the job of bearing witness,” she said. “If we are covering up for the regime, if we are trying to clean up, inadvertently of course, but nonetheless prettify it, then there is no way of really getting to this other future that we are hoping to get.”

Politics, creativity entwine

Since the arrest of the alleged Quds Force operative in the Saudi case, many experts have questioned whether the Iranian regime would really hire such bumblers as the men involved and what Tehran would gain from such an assassination. But if the allegations prove true, they will not surprise Hakakian, whose life has been shaped, in whimsical and sometimes brutal ways, by Iran’s theocracy.

The daughter of educators, she supported the shah’s overthrow and attended classes at a mosque that taught teenagers how to make Molotov cocktails. As the mullahs’ regime began restricting personal freedoms, Hakakian wrote poetry about friends being dragged out of the classroom by authorities.

“A lot of my earliest writings were deeply rooted in the sociological upheaval going on outside,” she said, “and so, for me, this political life under tyranny in Iran and creativity became entwined.”

Older Tehran writers took her under their wing and encouraged her adolescent scribblings. But when the teenage Hakakian arrived in New York in 1985 as a political asylee speaking no English, she did not think she would find a new writing community in America.

She majored in psychology at Brooklyn College, earned a master’s degree in social work at Hunter College and published two books of poetry in Farsi. It wasn’t until she took a poetry class with Allen Ginsberg, while in her mid-20s, that she began to imagine a life as a writer here.

“When I went to ask Allen to let me be in his class, the requirement for his course was 35 poems or 45 poems, a high number of poems that you had to show him.” Instead, she gave him her book of poems in Farsi. “He picked it up, he perused it, and then he said, ‘Groovy.’ ”

She was admitted into a circle of student writers who would gather at Ginsberg’s house and attend readings with him in Greenwich Village. Entering that world, she said, made her think for the first time that she might be able to construct a writing life in America.

‘I feel myself as a translator’

Wearing a fleece vest with an upturned collar, her long brown hair pulled back in a loose bun, Hakakian sat last week in the house in the Connecticut woods that she shares with her husband and 6-year-old sons. She became interested in the Berlin shooting when one of the survivors, whom she had once interviewed for a short article, visited their home.

“He kept on talking about it night after night” — in particular its trajectory from an obscure event that the German government apparently tried to sweep under the rug to a trial that indicted a top Iranian minister and helped shape subsequent Euro­pean-Iranian relations.

“I found it a mind-blowing story,” she said. “It’s full of small heroes who come together to do a hugely historic, heroic thing.”

But to New York publishers, it was not an easy sell: The years-old case did not involve American characters, and the action didn’t take place here. They urged her to write a sequel to her memoir, or at least to inject herself into the Berlin story. Instead, she flew to Germany, taking along her nursing toddlers, and immersed herself in German court documents and Iranian dissidents’ archives.

“I was amazed at how very few people knew about it, and the very few people who knew about it knew only the highlights — that four people had been killed and then five years later there was a big judgment.”

Although Hakakian says that judgment had a tempering effect on the regime’s behavior, she also says that Iran’s actions leading up to the Berlin assassination became a blueprint for future terrorism acts, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Iranian government agents “were going around in Europe for a decade and a half at least, killing Iranians, preparing the grounds for the cultivation of notorious groups and acts,” she said. “Europe basically knew that the assassination of these Iranian exiles was going on by Iran but turned a blind eye to them . . . and it’s very clear that once the smaller acts were allowed to take place, the bigger acts could be envisioned.”

On the Hill, Hakakian plans to urge policymakers to remember the Berlin affair when confronting the Iranian regime. “Nobody had to bomb Tehran in 1997, but the regime did suffer at the time the greatest blow that it had ever suffered at the hands of the international community,” she said. “Far more was achieved than anything that we have managed to do in all the years of these belligerent nonconfrontational confrontations. All it took was a serious prosecutor, a really good judge and a bunch of persistent people. . . . The whole E.U. stood together to speak with one voice, and Iran really did stop for a long time.”

Although she prevailed against the initial suggestions to write herself into the Berlin story, she accepts that she has taken on a role by bringing it to light.

“I feel myself as a translator,” she said, adding that as a Jew in Iran and now as an Iranian in America, she has always hovered on the periphery.

“My job is to tell what gets lost in the narrative about Iran — which is not the nuclear story, not the wiping-Israel-off-the-map story, not the ones that are in the headlines, but the stories that are sort of insider accounts, the stories that have deeply shaped us,” she said. “There are these overlapping spaces that I do inhabit, and I stand there, trying to pass information from one sphere to the other.”

Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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