Chapter 1

Hide and Seek

Mashhad, Iran, December 30, 1978

My father’s hotel was deserted.

I led my baby brother Iman down the long polished marble corridor. No one was watching us. Along with the guests, the staff had vanished—the doorman in his brown jacket with the gold buttons; the maids in their crisp white uniforms. There was no one to shout at us: “Stop! You are not allowed in there . . .” What we wished for all the short years of our lives was suddenly granted: The hotel was ours, a private castle playground.

We could slide, run, climb balustrades, and peek into the empty chambers. To a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy, the ten-story building had become an infinite indoor labyrinth: guest rooms, public reception areas, secret service nooks—even a banquet hall. We shed our plastic slippers at the entry and, wearing only socks, gathered speed as we slipped and slid on the slick marble floor. Our giggles echoed through the deserted hotel, the single sound.

At the tea and reception room, we paused to filch refreshments. We found the pistachio nougat candies hidden in the pantry, intended as treats for guests. Then, we made the most magnificent discovery of all: The ice cream was still in the freezer. Spooning the stretchy rose water, cardamom, and pistachio Bastani-e Za’farāni from the container, we licked our lips like kittens. I made note, for future reference, of a still-wrapped supply of chocolate-covered wafers in the freezer: Kit Kats, my favorite.

High from the sweets, we zoomed down to the basement. In the kitchen freezer, sheep and lamb legs were stored for hotel feasts. Now empty, the cold steel chamber held vapors that smelled faintly of missing meat gone bad. I grabbed the keys dangling from hooks on the wall. There was more to explore upstairs.

We boarded the elevator. Iman’s fat little face was reflected in the brass panel, his bright eyes aglow with this new thrill. “Go ahead!” I encouraged. “Press 10.”

Soon, we were zooming up to the top floor of the hotel, which we had never seen. We entered a sacred silence: the vast, empty banquet room, sparkling with crystal chandeliers. Heart pounding, I helped Iman drag ten tables together. We placed silverware in lines, creating highways and streets to form a small town. Soon, we were pushing our toy cars in our make-believe city.

Sometimes, Iman felt as much like my baby as my baby brother. My mother had become pregnant with him in the hope of giving me a little sister, buying me and the unborn infant girl-to-be matching tiny golden earrings. I ended up with two sets.

After Iman’s birth, my mother had her tubes tied. In secret, I always gloated that he had not been another girl, but my own personal baby boy, sweet and peaceful as a little Buddha. He was always trailing after me, sucking candies and calling out: “Maman Rahimeh!”

We tiptoed past the prayer room, a bit chastened by the portrait of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. His stern visage, topped in a black headdress, stared at us as if he could see our misdeeds. He was an animate shadow in our lives, demanding obedience. If we were caught disobeying, what would he do to us? It was too terrible to consider.

Deep in my secret heart, I knew someone would put a stop to this mad ride through the hotel, that we would be apprehended. But no one came. I led the next charge: We rode the elevator up to the first floor and ran down the long main hallway, which seemed to extend forever to a vanishing point.

Not far away, men were yelling. From that other place—the great forbidden “Outside”—I heard a faint cacophony, the shrill sound of raised voices and honking car horns. I had no idea that my city, Mashhad—the second largest in Iran—was in the midst of revolt being waged just yards beyond the serene grounds of the hotel. All I knew was the safe cocoon of my family and the palace I inhabited.

As we ran down the hall, Iman and I sensed that something dark, something scary, was happening outside. We ducked behind the heavy tapestry hanging on the main lobby’s wall and hid. Just a few seconds later, men stormed past, taking the stairs—their steps pounding all the way to the third floor. Someone paused, stopped. I could feel him—a heaving presence on the other side of the wall hanging.

I held my breath. “Shhh . . .” I whispered to Iman. But it was too late. He let out a baby squeak of fear.

A big hand pushed open the tapestry.

I looked into dark, burning eyes, magnified by black-rimmed eyeglasses—Baba.

Our father scooped up Iman and grabbed my hand. There was no time to scold us for breaking the rules. Baba took us through the side door, set down Iman, and said, “Quick, run . . . into the house!”

And we did.

From the outside, we heard the sounds of chanting and breaking glass. Baba watched us cross the hotel lawn until I pushed open the heavy gate to our home and shooed Iman inside. It shut with a clang, dividing our lives into before and after.


Chapter 1  |  Chapter 2