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Books | Exploring the Mysteries of the Mykonos Killings


17 Jan 2012 19:57Comments
assassins_of_the_turquoise_palace.jpgAssassins of the Turquoise Palace by Roya Hakakian (Grove Press)

[ books ] During the first two decades of its existence, the Islamic Republic killed thousands of individuals, both inside and outside of the country, who had been identified as enemies of the state. During this homicidal campaign, the regime defined enemies not just as purported members of the political opposition; the regime sought to "surgically" remove all free thinkers, particularly those who were critical of the new narrative of the Shia faith: the guardianship of the jurist. The elimination of domestic enemies of the state peaked in 1998-99 when scores of Iranian writers, poets, and other intellectuals were systematically kidnapped and murdered. The killings at home stopped when the reformist President Mohammad Khatami conducted his first (and last) courageous act by overseeing the arrest and conviction of a few murderous agents from the Intelligence Ministry. The killings abroad, however, had peaked earlier, on September 17, 1992, with the assassination of several Kurdish leaders in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. That terrorist act eventually led to the conviction in absentia of top Iranian leaders and brought an end to the acts of terror on foreign soil sponsored by the Islamic Republic, acts that were routinely ignored by the host countries and were boasted of by notorious cleric Ali Fallahian, the minister of intelligence. The Mykonos affair also contributed to the rise of the reformists in the 1990s, who campaigned to bring back "the honor of the country" distorted by that heinous act of terror in Berlin.

Almost two decades after the Mykonos massacre, Iranian American poet and journalist Roya Hakakian has offered an insightful and detailed account of the incident. The book opens with a meticulous description of the gunning down of four Kurdish leaders and their friends at the dinner table. Though the assailants were professional killers, one of the guests, Parviz Dastmalchi, a non-Kurdish political activist, survived.

The German judiciary, shocked by the brazen act of terrorism in its country, began an investigation of the crime, which was apparently impeded by the reluctance and outright discouragement of the German intelligence service and government, which, like much of Europe, had been reportedly intimidated by the Islamic Republic's politics of hostage taking and cajoled by promises of trade awards and personal bribes. The interplay of German security and economic interests with the professional conscience of the prosecutor and the free media comprises the ethical crux of Hakakian's book. Vividly demonstrating the remarkable valor of prosecutor Bruno Jost, who doggedly pursued the culprits despite numerous threats, Hakakian adds another hero to the literature of upright lawmen. Though the Islamic Republic sought to subvert the trial by causing delays and obstructions, planting a fake reporter, and even threatening witnesses, it eventually lost.

The German judiciary's courage and respect for the rule of law stands in sharp contrast with a 1989 case before the Austrian courts, which were reportedly cowed by and eventually succumbed to pressure from the Islamic Republic to release terrorists who had committed a similar murder. In exchange, it seemed, Austria was awarded a lucrative arms deal. The German court, by contrast, was determined to find the truth and expose the role of the Iranian regime. Though it took four years, the German judiciary issued a final verdict that identified as criminals the high-ranking authorities of the Islamic Republic who had ordered the Mykonos killings.

dr-sadeq.gif Hakakian's book is not limited to a historical account of the Mykonos atrocity and the trial that followed. It is a rumination on the Islamic Republic's culture of terror, and as such it delves into the personal lives of the victims, their broken families, their children who desired only a normal existence, and, most importantly, the hopes and frustrations of individuals battling an enemy who had them displaced, forcing them to live out the miserable lives of refugees. Hakakian ably illustrates the victims' nonviolent bent and their interest in incremental changes advocated by the then Islamic Republic strongman, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Indeed, the ill-fated gathering at Mykonos was partially meant to discuss those promises.

Subnarratives in the book are as engaging as the main story. Details of the defection of Abolghasem Messbahi, the agent from the Ministry of Intelligence who turned into the trial's key witness, is fascinating. Through Messbahi, we learn much of the modus operandi of the ministry, which enforced strict rules of conduct, including imposed marriages, on its agents, who were perpetually embroiled in deadly personal rivalries and power plays. Messbahi's own marriage to another intelligence operative, he says, was arranged by the ministry; he learned too late that his wife was spying on him. There is a breathtaking moment when Messbahi is about to leave Pakistan on a fake passport. He is caught, but his prayer and supplication to Allah makes the arresting customs officer, who hears familiar Islamic terms close to his heart, sympathetic. He allows Messbahi to leave after drawing a hard bargain over the amount of the still-requisite bribe.

The case of Dastmalchi, whose story comprises almost one third of the book, is another captivating narrative. Dastmalchi miraculously escapes death while dining with his Kurdish friends at Mykonos. Later he becomes the voice of the victims, and almost singlehandedly pushes the German judiciary to take the case seriously by cleverly utilizing the country's free press. But the book leaves him to deal with other characters, and in a rather unbelievable turn we learn that he refrains from becoming a court witness. How could the court not subpoena the only survivor from the victims' clique? We learn that Dastmalchi did not testify because of his sick daughter who feared for his safety. But how come such an important witness drops out so easily? What could be his other considerations? Hakakian provides no other possible motives.

This book also offers an opportunity to debunk rumors. But the informer who arranged the fatal meeting at Mykonos and gave the green light to the murderers is given similarly short shrift. There are insinuations about the restaurant owner's alleged culpability, but Hakakian does not pay much attention to him either. Nor does the author address rumors among the Kurdish émigré community that claim a certain Iranian communist organization informed the killers of the Mykonos meeting. Hakakian leaves us with no clues as to the identity of the betrayers.

Occasionally the book feels disjointed. The first chapters focus on Dastmalchi, who then disappears until the final pages. Hamid, a major figure in the last few chapters, plays no role in the book's early part. The use of some Persian terms may not make sense to non-Persian speakers and, in some cases, even to those fluent in the language. For example, Hakakian identifies "mola" as a term of endearment in Kurdish circles. The term could certainly be used for that purpose, especially when less educated Iranians address more learned ones in rural areas. But on page 81, she writes, "Mola, the beloved in the love poems of the poet Rumi." Which love poems? Where in Rumi? The term does not seem to be among those employed by the great Sufi poet.

Sometimes Hakakian's love for detail gets the best of her. The announcement that she owns a rare copy of a banned book in Iran adds little to readers' understanding of the facts at issue. And it's hardly helpful when she informs us in the last paragraphs of the book that Dastmalchi visited Israel.

No consideration of the book would be complete without mentioning Hakakian's delightful use of the maxims of Hadi Khorsandi, the great Iranian satirist who now lives in exile, as chapter epigraphs. The choice of Khorsandi is far better than the one Hakakian made in her first book, Journey from the Land of No, where she similarly employed phrases from Samad Behrangi's Little Black Fish. In my opinion, Behrangi's work is a violent piece of leftist literature disguised as a children's book, and should have had no place in Hakakian's biography of a little Jewish girl displaced ruthlessly due to the atrocities of a heartless Islamic regime. In the case of Assassins of the Turquoise Palace, Khorsandi's satire weaves into each chapter, and eventually we learn in chapter 18 that he could have been the victim of assassination by Messbahi, who ultimately took pity on and saved him.

Rasool Nafisi is an academic and Iran expert who previously wrote for Tehran Bureau about the militarized death of the Islamic Republic. Any opinions expressed are the author's own.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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