On the evening of September 17, 1992, eight leading members of the Iranian and Kurdish opposition had gathered at a little-known restaurant in Berlin when two darkly-clad men burst through the entrance. Within moments, the roar of a machine gun filled the air. Two rounds of fire and four single shots later, four of the men were dead. One of the survivors of that shooting, along with the widow of one of the victims and a handful of reporters, attorneys, and fellow exiles, began a crusade that would not only pit them against Tehran but against some of the greatest powers in Germany. When an undeterred federal prosecutor, and an endlessly patient chief judge, took over the case, a historic verdict followed which shook both Europe and Iran, and achieved something few could have predictedjustice. Roya Hakakian’s The Assassins of the Turquoise Palace is an incredible book of history and reportage, and an unforgettable narrative of heroism and justice.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 19, 1966
Place of Birth:Tehran, Iran
Education:B.A., 1990; M.A., 1992
Read an Excerpt
Berlin, Germany, September 17, 1992. After nearly an hour prowling Prager Street, surveying the restaurant in its culde-sac, two hulking, bearded figures rolled their collars up to their eyes and burst inside. A third man stood guard at the entrance. It was 10:47 p.m.
They darted through the main dining hall, past a lonely customer nursing a last drink. Through an archway, they entered the back room, where a party of eight sat at a corner table. The taller of the two intruders stationed himself behind one of the diners, facing the eldest among them — a bald, bespectacled man in a gray suit who was addressing everyone. No one was yet aware of their arrival. The speaker, suddenly meeting the intruder's dark gaze, froze in midspeech. Another guest asked what was wrong with him. The answer came from the intruder.
"You sons of whores!"
He thrust his gloved hand into the sports bag that hung on his shoulder. Then, a click.
A shout came from the table. "Friends, it's an assassi —"
The trail of his call faded in the roaring sound that followed. In the dimly lit air, sparks of fire flashed at the intruder's hip. Bullets pierced the side of the bag, riddled the guests.
After two rounds — twenty-six bullets — the barrage ceased. The air was thick with the smell of gunpowder. Of the eight guests, everyone had stooped or fallen, except one. The eldest guest was still in his chair, head slumped, blood tinting his white shirt, blending with the busy pattern of his tie. Another victim was doubled over, breathing noisily, gasping for air. His face was smashed into a mug of beer. The golden liquid was slowly darkening.
The second shooter walked up to the table, tucked his bare hand under his belt, and drew out a gun. No one stirred. He aimed at the eldest man and fired three bullets into his head. Then he turned to one of the bodies on the floor, a young, slender man dressed in what, until moments before, had been a crisp white shirt. Pointing his gun at the back of the man's head, he fired a single shot. Then he turned to the next body and aimed once more. But before he pulled the trigger, his accomplice motioned him to leave.
They bolted out of the restaurant. The guard joined them at the door. They ran toward a sky-blue BMW that was idling at the intersection across the cul-de-sac. The lead shooter reached it first. He grabbed the handles and swung both front and back passenger doors open. As he jammed himself beside the driver, he threw the bag behind him. The other two shoved themselves in the backseat. The driver stomped on the accelerator, nearly running over a pedestrian as he took off. Across the intersection, the engine of a black Mercedes roared, and it, too, took off and swerved onto a side street.
In their wake, everything was once again as it had been on so many nights before. The breeze blew gently. A light drizzle fell softly. But lights had come on in the few windows overlooking the restaurant. A handful of neighbors had awakened. On the fourth floor balcony of the building next to the restaurant, a young woman clutched the railing, leaning downward. Her auburn hair flowed over her white uniform, her skin still warm from the bike ride home. She peered intently at the sidewalk below, looking for the source of the blast that had shaken the floor of her living room. She was a curious bystander then, soon a witness to detail her account of the tremor beneath her feet, the tremor that would ripple through the continent in the months to come.CHAPTER 2
Terrorists nowadays! It's not enough that they kill you; they must also insult you as they do it.
Hadi Khorsandi, exiled Iranian satirist
On a Sunday morning in June 1989, six-year-old Sara Dehkordi received the news she had been praying for.
The phone rang at six o'clock and Sara's mother, who answered it, was surprised to hear the voice of the neighbor's girl at the other end. She asked the girl the reason for calling so early. But the seven-year-old had assumed her most adult tone and insisted that the matter could only be discussed with Sara, and that "No, Mrs. Dehkordi! It absolutely can't wait."
Shohreh handed the receiver to her daughter and within moments squeals of glee filled the drowsy air of their apartment.
Sara climbed into her bunk bed, designed and built by her father, and reaching for a stash of crayons beneath the mattress she withdrew one and scrawled the word "hooray" on the ceiling.
Her parents appeared at the door, mystified. "What's going on, moosh mooshak?" her mother asked — "little mouse" in Persian.
Sara stuck her head between the wooden railings of the bed and cried out, "He's dead!"
Of all the images Shohreh and Noori Dehkordi kept in their minds, the child's head framed by the railings — dark curls filling the spaces her petite face left empty — was among the most endearing. Sara was their only child, the sole heir to all the youthful idealism they still held to as they approached their middle years. Cultivate boldness in her now, they thought, and she would learn to tackle ideas in adulthood. During their traditional Sunday family strolls through Berlin's Tiergarten Park, if Sara climbed a tree, their first reminder to her was not "Be careful!" It was, "Is this the highest you can go?"
Sara was at home in the outdoors and expressed her feelings, immensely joyous on that particular morning, more physically than verbally.
"Dead-o, dead!" she shouted a last time. Then she jumped onto her trampoline, her dark locks flying, took a bow, and announced, "Hooray, hooray, Khomeini is dead!"
It was June 4, 1989, and Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, the supreme leader, the ultimate authority for Shiite Muslims around the world, had died of old age a day earlier at his residence in Tehran. Sara's stunned parents turned and stared at each other, until Shohreh finally asked, "How do you know?"
"Turn on the radio! The neighbors just heard it on the radio!"
Noori switched on his shortwave radio and tuned in to the Persian-language BBC. The correspondent was excitedly narrating scenes of mourning on the streets. The couple stood facing each other in silence. A few moments passed, and once again it was Shohreh who spoke, in a daze. "Could it be?"
Noori was wholly focused on the broadcast, deaf to his wife.
"The bastard goes to sleep one night and doesn't wake up!" Shohreh went on talking to herself. "Can't be, after all that! Shouldn't be!"
All that was the couple's shorthand for everything they had lost since the Ayatollah's rise to power in 1979. Their home and homeland, parents, relatives, and friends — Shohreh and newborn Sara had fled from Iran in 1983, and Noori followed a year later — those were their most tangible losses. There were also the intangibles. They missed the melody of Persian in their ears, the scent of herbs wafting from their neighbors' kitchens. They missed the Thursday night gatherings at Naderi Café, even the bad poetry their friends recited feverishly. They missed the heat of the steaming beets peddlers wrapped in paper cones and dropped in their palms on cold autumn days. How could a year become new amid the winter's freeze? They missed their own sensible New Year, Nowrouz, ringing in the spring every March.
But they were no strangers to Germany. Shohreh and Noori met in Berlin in 1972, while they were studying abroad. She spotted him in the common hall of her dormitory a few days after she arrived. Her eyes had drifted indifferently over the many faces in the room till he came into view.
How fitting, she thought upon hearing others call his name, that this man, with eyes so deeply dark and radiant, should be called Noori, luminous.
She did her best to seem unaffected despite her flushed cheeks, trying to veil her excitement in the haze of smoke from her cigarette, until he stepped before her and asked her name.
"Shoh-reh!" She drew out the syllables, breathing the h's deeply for sensuous effect and boasted, "As in famous, your luminous!"
"As you clearly deserve to be!" he had said with admiration. Then matching her impishness with his own confidence, he added, "And will be, if you stick with me!"
In Berlin, they fell in love with each other, and with the single conviction that defined their youth. The phrase that crossed their lips as often as I love you in those days was Down with the Shah! They had each declared a major for the university records, but what consumed them most was the overthrow of Iran's last monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. If they were not in class attending a perfunctory lecture or making love, they were with friends plotting the next anti-Shah demonstration, drafting another anti-Shah flyer. It was in West Berlin, the seat of the free Europe, where politicians aired criticisms of their rivals, writers openly taunted their leaders, and comedians freely ridiculed all things venerable, that they realized they wanted the same things for their country. And in 1978, when a revolution swept through Iran, they left Berlin jubilantly. They joined thousands of chanting Iranians on the streets of Tehran on the January day the Shah flew out, when grown men and women celebrated by dancing in the streets, as passing traffic honked and turned on wipers. The Ayatollah returned from exile two weeks after that and, days later, on a sunny mid-February morning, the Royal Army caved in and 2,500 years of monarchy ended.
They had no reason to fear the Ayatollah. In his many speeches and interviews from exile in the suburbs of Paris, he insisted that he wanted nothing other than to see the Shah go and to return to the holy city of Qom, where he could resume his religious studies at a seminary. Why fear a man whose ways reminded them of Mahatma Gandhi, who pitted himself against the extravagance of the rulers by wearing a modest robe, sleeping on a cot, and eating a simple dinner of bread and yogurt?
Barely a year later, after he had strengthened his grip on power, the Ayatollah abandoned the moderate Iranians he had once tried to court. He broke all the promises that had helped win them over. Instead of Qom, he took up residence in Tehran. He banned all newspapers and political parties, shut down universities to "cleanse" them through a "cultural revolution," and began hounding the opposition, among them secular students of the previous era, the likes of Noori and Shohreh — executing, arresting, and imprisoning thousands, and forcing thousands more to flee, which caused an exodus unlike any other throughout the nation's ancient history.
"What will happen now?" Shohreh wondered.
The shock on Noori's face slowly lifted. At forty-six, he still felt young enough to hope. He cheerfully prophesied, "It'll be the end of them, little lady. You'll see."
There was a party at the Dehkordi home that Sunday. Friends, fellow Iranian exiles, came to visit, bearing sweets and flowers. For Sara, that Sunday marked a moment of personal triumph. All her life, she had believed that the Ayatollah and the men her parents described to her as his soldiers were the only threat to her family. For months, she had secretly prayed in the direction of Tehran, from the windows of her Berlin bedroom. With the Ayatollah's death, the fears that had always beset her life perished. At last, childhood, with its blithe abandon, was hers.
But only briefly. On September 17, 1992, a Thursday afternoon, Shohreh, who had a cold, picked Sara up from school and brought her home earlier than usual so they could all have dinner together before Noori left for a meeting. The mother rarely cooked but she had prepared her famous beans and potatoes. Eating as a family was a tradition they upheld with more fervor in those days. After many years of marriage, the couple were dreaming of another child, which was why Noori had built a bunk bed for Sara. The idea of a newborn had infused their home with unspoken mirth. Having only two children was a compromise for Noori who wanted several more.
After dinner, Noori and Sara went about the bedtime routine, though it was too early to turn the lights out. He helped her into her pajamas and fluffed her pillow, knowing full well that Sara's head never remained on it for long. Instead of reading to her, he improvised a lullaby, something she preferred to her tired books. Sara loved her father's creations. (God, she would not dispute, had made the world outside. But the lovely world within, bunk bed and all, was her father's invention.) Noori, the penniless bohemian, knew how to suffuse a child's senses with immeasurable wealth.
"For the sake of honey," he softly sang in the girl's ear, then paused.
Sara burst into song, "We must forgive the sting."
He nodded and hummed another line, borrowing from the poems of Rumi and Hafez, the poets he had known as a child and wanted his daughter to know, "For the sake of the rose —"
Sara chirped again, "We must forgive the thorn."
"For the sake of the moth —"
Sara, who always grew more alert with every verse, quickly added, "We must forgive the flame."
Noori kissed her forehead once again. "For the sake of your baba, who must leave this very minute to not keep his friends waiting, my moosh mooshak, we must forgive goodbyes. Be especially nice to your sick mom till I get back!"
With Sara settled in her room, Noori went into the kitchen and threw his arms around his wife, who was standing at the sink. He squeezed her, without turning her face to his, and whispered in her ear, "Don't bother with the dishes now. I'll get to them later."
Then kissing the side of her neck, he bid her farewell with the same unsuspecting words as always, "See you shortly, little lady!"CHAPTER 3
During an interrogation, a political activist in Iran was asked why he had the picture of Jesus on his dorm wall but not that of the Supreme Leader. The activist said, "If they drive nails through the Leader and post him alongside the road just like Jesus, I'll have his picture on the wall too."
Hadi Khorsandi, exiled Iranian satirist
Noori Dehkordi left his apartment that evening dressed in a pair of black pants and the silk sapphire shirt Shohreh had given him on his forty-sixth birthday, carrying a black leather satchel, and walked to the subway. It was nearly six o'clock. Noori did not drive. Why so dexterous a man felt uneasy behind the wheel was a question Noori, who could not afford a car, put to rest by declaring himself against all "lazyfying contraptions." To most places, he walked or biked.
Their building on the southwest intersection of Alt-Moabit and Rathenauer was the kind of plain cement and steel construction that had mushroomed throughout the country in the late 1940s to quickly house those made homeless by war. In a neighborhood of mostly well-established Arab and Turkish immigrants, the less well- off Dehkordis never expected their rental application for #120 to be accepted. Even after it was, they celebrated warily, worried that the landlord might reverse his decision. Sidewalks cluttered with peddlers and small shops, a bookstore specializing in legal texts, a Turkish eatery with a revolving skewer dripping with grease at the entrance, and boutiques with permanent "Final Sale of the Season" signs on display — all of this was enough reminiscent of Tehran to dull their pangs of homesickness. Sara's day care and favorite playground were within walking distance. So was the Tiergarten, where the family's favorite bike path stretched along its canal. Only the courthouse, the sprawling majestic edifice enclosed in wrought-iron gates, seemed to be out of place. Through their living room windows, the Dehkordis had a view of the courthouse's unsightly temporary prison webbed in razor wire, an eyesore for which their dislike would soon turn into hatred.
Noori had looked forward to this evening for days. His old friend Sadegh Sharafkandi, nicknamed "the Doctor," was in town and Noori was on his way to a small dinner in the visitor's honor. The nickname had originated in the early 1970s, after Sharafkandi received his PhD in analytical chemistry from a French university. But like most degrees that the students of his generation earned, it became useless at home, no more than a glorified line in his biography. After returning from France, he began to teach chemistry in a school in Iran's Kurdistan, only to find that his pupils, stricken with poverty and prejudice, could not contemplate atoms and molecules. They did not need a teacher. They needed an advocate. And so he shed the chemist and fashioned himself into an activist. For him, and most educated youth of his era, activism was not an ambition, a career, or even a choice. It was an inevitable detour along the way to a future good enough to afford the likes of chemists.
Twenty years since his days in France, the young scientist was now the chairman of Iran's Democratic Party of Kurdistan, founded at the end of World War II to attain equal rights for the Kurds. The party, beloved by the Kurds though banned in Iran, was recognized in Europe, and the Doctor had been invited to address the annual International Congress of the Social Democratic Party. The event was a rare occasion for the Doctor. It brought him to Europe from his clandestine underworld in the mountains of Kurdistan.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Assassins of the Turquoise Palace"
Copyright © 2011 Roya Hakakian.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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What People are Saying About This
"As the world contemplates the pressing predicament of Iran, Roya Hakakian offers one possible solution through a riveting tale that is most timely and profoundly urgent. This superb true story is much more than an international In Cold Blood— it is a stunning parable of the central struggle of our times between totalitarianism and the rule of law."--(R. James Woolsey, CIA Director 1992-1994)
"Even as they continue to breach every known international law, all the while protesting at interventions in their "internal affairs", the theocrats in Tehran stand convicted of mounting murderous interventions in the affairs of others. Roya Hakakian's beautiful book mercilessly exposes just one of these crimes, and stands as tribute to the courageous dissidents and lawyers who managed one of that rarest of human achievements; an authentic victory for truth and justice. May its publication speed the day when the mullahs stand in the dock, and when the civilized people of Persia gain control of their own destiny."--(Christopher Hitchens)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"Assassins" reads like a literary thriller stretching from Berlin to Tehran to Beirut, a true page-turner. It's a fantastic work of historical non-fiction written with a poet's hand. All too obvious that the author, nay detective, left no stone unturned when conducting her research. An absolute must read when looking to make sense of current events - be it the Green Movement of 2009 in Iran or the current Arab Spring.
A well written nonfiction book about an assassination of Iranian opposition party exiles in Germany. Uplifting that Europe finally served the killers justice rather than putting financial and economic interests above it. Still very pertinent as regards today's Iranian leaders.