A Mystery Decades in the Making
By Roberta Seret, PhD.

How a Career in Film, History, and Culture Led to My Most Daring Career Choice Yet

Throughout my career, I’ve spent decades of studying international films and how their cultures can enrich our lives and take us to places we may never be lucky enough to visit. But even while transporting my students and myself through the countryside of Europe, the hustle and bustle of New York City, or the sacred cities in the Middle East in these films, the most powerful experiences come when we live in these moments and cultures ourselves. Even later in my career as a professor at NYU, my students were able to teach me something about their cultures that a film never could. It was through these travels and true events that I created a world of historical intrigue, and I learned that we have to step outside our comfort zones, we can unlock the most mysterious—and unimaginable—adventures.

As I was writing Transylvanian Trilogy,  I realized that unconsciously I was putting a lot of myself in the books. And this made me think that I used my memory like a treasure chest where I had saved and cherished my dreams and hopes, the people I had met and loved, even hated, and stored them for the day I would wish them out. Unconsciously, as I was writing, I reached into my memory’s treasure chest and found scenes and people from afar that came to me without pattern or reason. I grabbed them, not to lose them, and without realizing how, each item turned into a life of its very own in my novels. Strangely, they all took different form on the paper until they hardly resembled the original at all. But it was too late. They were now alive and I marveled at it all. As a writer, in Transylvanian Trilogy, I have used memory as a brush for truth.

During the past 20 years, I have created “A Global Classroom” at the United Nations under the aegis of my NGO (Non-Governmental Organization, International Cinema Education, 2003-present) and recently also at New York University, where screening foreign films to students, have kept me up-to-date with global politics.

As Director of E.S.L. and Film for the Hospitality Committee at the United Nations, I have had diplomatic students from Iran and I have had the opportunity that my NYU students were invited to private hearings at the Mission of Iran. In preparation, my Iranian students shared books with me and their thoughts, and I did my own research about Iranian politics.

There has been a gold laundering scheme - Gas-for-Gold -  between Iran and Turkey since 2013, that is the largest in history. This piqued my interest because I remembered that the dictator of Romania, Ceausescu, had visited the president of Iran, Rafsanjani, on December 19, 1989, in Tehran, one week before he was executed in Romania. Ceausescu took suitcases of gold for secret safe keeping to President Rafsanjani and his private bank. Reports and newspaper articles claim that the value amounted to $1 Billion in gold bullion bars. The gold has never been found or identified. And I wondered if this gold was “recycled” years later by Rafsanjani, just before he died on January 8, 2017.

I also wondered if this gold “jump started” the Gas-for-Gold scheme of 2013 between Iran and Turkey? Researching the enigma, inspired me to write, Treasure Seekers.

The story of Treasure Seekers is based on the actual gold laundering scheme, Gas-for-Gold, between Iran and Turkey.

I begin my novel with the criminal investigation of Halkbank, a state-owned Turkish bank, accused of funneling billions in gold and cash to Iran while Iran is under international sanctions. The arrest of the facilitator for the scheme – Reza Zarrab - sets up the cause and effect of the novel’s structure. From a literary technique, the scandal and arrest allow me to mix fact with fiction – the facts of the multi-billion-dollar Gas-for-Gold laundering scheme, with my fictional characters, Marina and Cristina, who I maneuver to vacation in Istanbul, the site of the scheme. My fictional protagonists intermix with the real characters and get involved with the crime and story.

My goal is to reveal the facts of the political scandal by using poetic license in fiction - a deliberate ruse - and a new use of fiction. It is a hybrid approach that encourages readers to travel along with the story and follow the clues as if they were detectives.

The true, factual plot reveals how Reza Zarrab, Iranian-Turkish-Azerbaijani-Macedonian citizen along with Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy manager of Halkbank, and Babak Zanjani, Iranian billionaire, used their talents to represent their countries and fool the world. And yet, the American government had had their antennas fixed on these rogues even before 2013.

It was not until Reza Zarrab entered Miami’s international airport in March 2016 with his rock-star wife and five-year-old-daughter, seemingly headed for a family vacation in Disney World that our government took action. Zarrab was fully aware that he was wanted by the American government for a verdict in absentia from 2013 that accused him as the leader of the scheme, along with sons of Turkish officials and Halkbank. As soon as Zarrab entered Miami, he was handcuffed and sent to a Manhattan jail. The lawyers at the Southern District of New York were eager to learn why Zarrab had allowed himself to be arrested.

On October 24, 2019 the United States Senate accused Halkbank of fraud, money laundering and sanction evasion on Iran. This indictment also listed eight banks involved on behalf of Halkbank: Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, HSBC, Standard Chartered, UBS, and Wells Fargo.

In Treasure Seekers, I recreate the actual trial scene of January 2018 in Manhattan accusing Atilla of laundering billions of dollars of gold and cash for Turkey’s national bank. The key witness for the American government was Atilla’s partner in crime, Zarrab, who quickly testified as to how the largest racket scheme in history was maneuvered by the Turkish president, his ministers and his family. For his valuable testimony, Zarrab was awarded by becoming a privileged member of the U.S. Witness Protection Program.

In my narrative of Treasure Seekers, I mix fact with fiction in a hybrid style to expose the scandal. Treasure Seekers could not have been written if I didn’t have facts from my work at the United Nations, and if I, and my students, had not been invited to the Mission of Iran. Treasure Seekers is a novel, but that is my literary ruse.


Roberta Seret, Ph.D., is the director of Advanced English and Film at the United Nations for the Hospitality Committee and Founder of the NGO at the United Nations, International Cinema Education. The first two books in Transylvanian Trilogy, Gift of Diamonds and Love Odyssey, were released earlier this year. The final book in the trilogy, Treasure Seekers, will be released April 27. Visit her website for more information.


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