The Last Morning
December 29, 1978 (one day earlier)
The Rose Hotel and I shared a rare destiny: I was born the day it opened, and our fates were forever linked. Each year, for our birthday celebrations, sheep were sacrificed and fed to the poor; the Qur’an was read, placed upon a mirror.
The hotel had been an immediate success. Its location had been selected for one reason: pilgrimage. Founded to serve visitors to the city of Mashhad, the place of martyrdom, it was built a few minutes from the city’s most celebrated holy landmark, the Haram. A great mosque with a complex of seven courtyards, 14 minarets and fountains, a museum, a library, and four seminaries under a dazzling golden dome, the Haram is second only to Mecca in the world, and is sacred to Shi’a Muslims. Even as a child, I felt its force field; it exerted a supernatural energy over Mashhad, and an even stronger pull over my family.
The shrine was named for the eighth descendent of the Prophet Mohammed, Imam Reza. Because of its holiness, Muslims from all over Iran and the four corners of the world made pilgrimages there. The most prosperous stayed at the Rose Hotel, known for its religious owner and his impeccable reputation.
As a child, I found the mosque a dazzling place; at almost 700,000 square feet, its crystalline ceiling seemed to soar as high as the sky. To enter, we removed our shoes, which were accepted by rows of men, known as “shoe collectors,” who performed this service without pay, as an honor, to serve Allah. Our shoes were stored in shelves with numbers, and we would reclaim them to step back outside into the blazing sun of the ordinary world.
Back then, I didn’t know the area was also the setting for an early violent resistance against Reza Shah Pahlavi and his regime’s increasing bias toward the West. I also didn’t know that my father, my Baba, had struggled to get approval from city officials and secure loans for this “religious tourist hotel.”
At four years old, all I knew was the cloistered world of the hotel and the garden of roses for which it was named. The borders of my life were defined by two buildings—home and hotel—edged by trim topiary hedges. A driveway rounded and connected the two, but the house was almost hidden, accessible only from the outside by a separate set of heavy keys.
How often I skipped for joy along that driveway from one pleasure dome to another. In summer, the hotel grounds were aromatic with roses and jasmine; in winter, they were filled with the sweet scent of snow. Our backyard held a small farm and garden. Chickens ran everywhere. In season, the hens lay brown eggs as gifts that we found as if on a treasure hunt. Vegetables—carrots and greens—grew in my mother’s—my Maman’s—garden. I was not allowed to venture alone beyond the border of the hotel property. But there was no need for me to explore beyond; life was complete within.
Our Rose Hotel stood ten stories high, with its proud sign on the top floor: “Without Music and Alcoholic Beverages.” Often, a nightingale would perch on the sign—a good omen, since it is the meaning of our last name. I can still inhale the perfume of cardamom rising from the samovar as Maman pours tea, the aroma of the fresh baked Barbari bread. Maman looks so beautiful. The steam makes her hair curl into wisps that cling to her smooth forehead; her rose-petal lips smile as she regards her children. At 32, she is still young and shapely for a mother of five; even her house chador, soft blue floral cotton, suggests her curves. In the house, she is not hidden under the great heavy black robe and head draping of the outdoor chador.
The steaming tea and baking Barbari bread warm the room. It is a winter breakfast; I remember that well. The corner heater glows with its orange filament fire. We have never been cold, never suffered “the Outside.”
The details come back to me in fragments, like pieces of a broken mirror. Gathered around the sofreh—the soft plastic tablecloth on which we ate our meals—our family reflected different mixtures of looks and personality: the combinations of Maman and Baba. Three of my four brothers were there: Hadi, ten, Zain, six, and Iman, two. The boys giggled and joked. We were all anticipating the imminent arrival of our brother, Abdollah. At 15, and the eldest, he was the acknowledged star of our family constellation.
We were all the genetic reflections of our parents. Zain and Iman inherited Maman’s beauty: her perfect dark eyebrows, those black almond eyes. Hadi and I were a combination that showed more of Baba: wilder dark eyebrows, bigger Iranian noses. Abdollah was the tallest and exuberated the best of both our parents: He had Baba’s thick hair and the fine beautiful lips and gentle gaze of Maman. From his brilliant black eyes shone both Baba’s authority and Maman’s gentleness: the two emotions that dominated our lives.
We were all so eager to see Abdollah that morning. When at last he entered the room, we squealed in delight:
Dadashi, the traditional nickname of big brothers, fit Abdollah so well; he gave off sparks of energy and charm like the name. He appeared in a great rush, and with a dazzle that seemed glamorous to us children. He was so handsome—fresh from the shower, his hair perfectly gelled. He wore Western clothes—a tight-fitting, shiny polyester shirt with a geometric design and large bell-bottom pants. Even though his clothes are modern, he was still within the boundaries of Muslim custom: Unlike the wilder boys who had gone too far, his top shirt button was closed. I will have reason to remember that detail later, afterward. It’s so strange, how a life can hinge on something so small: a button. But, as a little girl I could still enjoy Abdollah, rejoice in him.
He bent to kiss us.
The night before, after a pillow fight, Abdollah tucked the four of us into bed, pulling the sheet to our chins. To Iman and me, he whispered, “Jigar-a-meen”—“you are so dear to me”—before kissing our foreheads and cleaning up our toys so the maid would have less to do. This was Abdollah’s nightly routine after a long day that began before dawn to pray, attend school, then work at the hotel. His job was to greet guests, take orders, oversee the switchboard, act as concierge, do my father’s books, and manage our family’s car parts shop next door.
At 15, many Iranian boys are considered men, ready to work and to settle down with a family. Many join their fathers in the family business; their opinions and interests reflect this, since young children are often included in adult conversations. Fifteen is also the age when Muslim boys formally become adults in the eyes of Islamic tradition: They are responsible for praying, fasting, and abiding by Islamic rules.
Maman registered a sigh of pleasure at the sight of her children as she fed us bites of Babari bread, spread with sweet, creamery butter. Iman and I held hands as we sat cross-legged with our knees touching at the sofreh; Hadi and Zain played with their toy cars across from us. Hadi, being older, observed us in a paternal way. In the center of the sofreh was a vivid still life—a platter of fresh cut red watermelon, bowls of scarlet pomegranate kernels, ripe peaches, and yellow cherries. Maman rose from the sofreh, and accepted Abdollah’s kiss on her cheek.
When Baba returned from the hotel to share breakfast with us, he sat next to Maman on the floor. Baba’s presence was immense but kind; his voice deep and reverberating. He was immaculate in his pressed, gray business suit. I knew that even his undershirt was ironed. He smelled vaguely of the laundry starch and all that is clean, like sunshine. He gently kissed Maman’s neck.
“Bas-seh, not in front of the kids,” Maman whispered, tilting her head away and smiling. They were still young and happy. They fell in love when they married—Maman at 14 and Baba at 19—and felt blessed with us five children. While we all pretended to focus on our quince jam and orange slices, we watched and laughed as Baba snuck another kiss, tickling her side.
Baba is as handsome as Maman is lovely. He is a big man, a protector, a leader. He is the source of our wealth and safety; even as little girl, I sensed that Baba was the reason our life was good. We had two drivers, four maids, 25 chickens, a rooster, and daily deliveries of fresh fruit and bread. We led no ordinary life; we took vacations throughout the world, traveling through West Asia and the greater Middle East. We had been to places like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and the holiest of places, Mecca and Medina.
At the sofreh, Baba turned to Abdollah as they began to talk of the day’s business. He offered Abdollah the freshest bites of feta cheese and the crispiest sangak flatbread. Then, as he always did, he wrapped his arm around Abdollah’s neck and kissed his forehead.
We waved to Abdollah and Baba as they stopped at the front door to put on their shoes and walk, side by side, to the Rose Hotel. Abdollah carried Baba’s briefcase.
Then the phone rang. It was the Grand Ayatollah.
That night, I was awakened from a strange and uneasy sleep by the sound of voices on the other side of the bedroom wall. I sat up in bed, my heart hammering. First, Maman’s low murmur: “Not here, not in our hotel. We have a daughter! And the woman they took was older than I am!” Then Baba’s voice:
“Hush, woman! No more talk, the children might wake up.” More urgent whispering. The only other phrase I could make out were the words “Room 314.”
This book was born of my need to uncover the truth about my life. This new edition of The Rose Hotel has been updated since I self-published it as “a true life novel” in 2012. I chose that designation to protect the identities of family and friends in America and Iran -- but since then, overwhelming support from my parents, brothers and readers across the country spurred me to publish my story as a memoir.
In remembering and reliving my family’s history, I have sifted through old correspondence and photos, read contemporary news reports, and spent countless hours interviewing contacts and relatives here and in Iran. In order to protect the privacy of those who have shared their memories with me, I have changed some names and compressed certain events. In doing so, I’ve made sure not to compromise the essence of our story.