If a Hollywood writer had scripted the Hanafi Muslim siege, you would have thought it outlandish. All those coincidences, connections, twists and turns. . . .
One of the injured was a D.C. Council member named Marion Barry, who was struck by a ricocheting shotgun pellet.
Four years earlier, the leader of the attack, a Muslim convert named Hamaas Abdul Khaalis who founded an Islamic group known as the Hanafi Movement, had experienced the slaughter of nearly his entire family by members of a rival religious sect in a house on 16th Street NW. The house had been bought for him by basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
After nearly 40 hours, the siege was ended with the help of diplomats from three Muslim countries, including the Iranian ambassador, whose romance with Elizabeth Taylor had landed him in the gossip columns.
And that ambassador, Ardeshir Zahedi, became friends with one of the hostages held at the B'nai B'rith headquarters on Rhode Island Avenue NW, Paul Green. Paul has visited Zahedi at his home in Switzerland.
“If you were to tell me that I would be exposed to this kind of individual and have a friendship with him, that he would be involved in negotiating for my life and the lives of my colleagues, I think that would be unreal,” said Paul, 66, who now splits his time between Montgomery Village, Md., and Boynton Beach, Fla. “But it did happen.”
On Thursday evening, some of those involved in the siege will mark its 40th anniversary at the former District Building, what we now call the Wilson Building. A panel discussion will include Arrington Dixon, then a council member from Ward 4; Maurice J. Cullinane, former chief of police; Earl Silbert, onetime U.S. attorney for the District; and Mark Tuohey, then assistant U.S. attorney.
Local TV reporter Pat Collins, who covered the siege for Channel 9, will moderate the discussion. (The free event is at 6 p.m. No reservation required. Enter via D Street NW.)
“It was incredibly violent,” said Paul of the scene at B’nai B’rith, where close to 125 hostages were held. (Another 11 were held at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW.) “I was injured in the first five minutes of the event. One of the terrorists hit me in the face with the barrel of a rifle and broke my cheekbone.”
In 1977, Dave Tevelin was a Justice Department lawyer working at Judiciary Square. He had no connection to the case, but it served as the inspiration for his 2014 novel, "Siege of the Capital." His lead character, a cop-turned-lawyer named Jake Katz, helps with the negotiations.
Dave, 68, of Arlington, pored over trial materials and interviewed participants to get a feel for how the crisis went down. Khaalis's demands included that the film "Mohammad, Messenger of God," starring Anthony Quinn, be pulled from theaters and that the men imprisoned for the slaying of his family be brought to him.
The former happened. The latter didn’t.
With the intervention of Iran’s Zahedi and the ambassadors from Egypt and Pakistan, the hostages were freed. The gunmen were convicted. Khaalis died in prison in 2003. Long before then, Washington had seemed to forget that the attacks ever happened.
“It had a really short shelf life,” Dave said of the siege. By that, he means that though it made the front pages at the time, it wasn’t obsessed about the way it surely would be today.
Paul agrees. The title he chose for his 2012 memoir of the event was "Forgotten Hostages: A Personal Account of Washington's First Major Terror Attack."
“It happened at a different time,” Paul said. “No cellphones, no Internet, no cable TV. It was a different world.”
And yet, the Hanafi siege foreshadowed violence to come.
“[Khaalis] did not pick out the building at 1640 Rhode Island Avenue because it was the prettiest building in D.C.,” Paul said. “He picked it because of the Jewish interest it represented at that particular time, and it matched the anti-Semitic feelings he had.”
Said Dave: “If it happened now, can you imagine? Three buildings taken over in downtown Washington?”
That’s something Paul ponders, too.
"If it happened today, I'm not sure I'd be talking to you," he said. "Really. Now there's not much negotiating in terrorism incidents. It's not like they're going in to take hostages to make a statement and make a point. In today's world, they're going in to kill people, and that's the point they make."
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.