item2 LogoModestoBee

Assyrian History on Display

Turlock event features author, documentary

TURLOCK — When the Queen of Iran told Rosie Malek-Yonan and her sister they would be the first women figure skaters to represent their country in the Olympics, they were thrilled.

Later, the sisters — Assyrian Christians — learned they would have to compete wearing long dresses and veils, perform without music and become Muslims.

"I stood up and said 'We don't need this,'" Malek-Yonan said, recalling the experience, which happened just before the 1980 Winter Olympics. "We walked out and never went back."

In Turlock this weekend for the 60th anniversary of the city's Assyrian American Civic Club, Malek-Yonan said she is glad she didn't pursue figure skating. Instead, she became an actor, writer, producer and sought-after speaker on the history of the Assyrian people.

As part of the club's anniversary celebration, Malek-Yonan will give a talk today, followed by a screening of the documentary "My Assyrian Nation on the Edge," made by her sister, Monica. The club's anniversary festivities included a gala dinner Saturday night honoring the organization's past presidents.

It was old-home week for Malek-Yonan, who was born into a political family in Iran but spent summers in Modesto and San Francisco with her mother's relatives.

"In the summer of 1973, I got a call from Dad saying, 'Don't come home,'" she said.

The teen's parents knew she wanted to study acting and writing, considered "vulgar" professions by the country's Muslim majority. They figured she would be better off attending college in the United States.

So, Malek-Yonan, who had been a classical piano student at the Tehran Conservatory of Music, enrolled at San Francisco State University, where she studied music and theater.

She also took a figure-skating class. Her first time on the ice, she was mistaken for the instructor.

Malek-Yonan got her sister hooked on the sport, and the two eventually wrote the queen and asked if they could have places on the Olympic team. The queen agreed.

Then, the shah's government fell, and the new regime told the women they must become Muslims and wear the religion's traditional garb in order to represent their country.

"I would never comprise who I am because a government is forcing me," Malek-Yonan said.

Malek-Yonan went on to study drama at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and eventually became an actor and producer.

Some 10 years ago, she pitched an idea for a movie based on her grandmother's story about leaving her child and ailing mother when she fled her home during the 1914-18 genocide of 750,000 Assyrians in the Middle East.

A studio liked the idea. There was an offer on the table.

"But they said Assyrians had to go; they suggested another nation," she said. "I said, 'No, thank you,' and I walked away from it."

Malek-Yonan went on to turn the story into a book, "The Crimson Field," published last year.

Since then, she has been in demand as a speaker, lecturing about Assyrians in the Middle East, past and present. She is scheduled to speak at the University of California at Merced on Monday.

She has spoken before Congress, focusing on Assyrians she says are being killed in Iraq today. Her sister's documentary, "My Assyrian Nation on the Edge," chronicles this testimony.

Among the accounts of violence she relays: the story of a priest who was kidnapped and killed, his blood drained into a bucket so it wouldn't "contaminate" the soil.

"Every night I sleep with the images of these people, my people," she said. "To me, they're not strangers."

Rosie Malek-Yonan will speak at the 1:30 p.m. luncheon today at the Assyrian American Civic Club of Turlock, 2816 N. Golden State Blvd. Her talk will be followed by her sister's documentary. Admission is free. The event is part of a weekend of festivities marking the club's 60th anniversary.

by Kerry McCray - Bee Staff Writer

Last Updated: October 30, 2006, 05:08:05 AM PST