Upon his release, after two years in prison, my father resumed his business efforts to provide for the family. One of his friends was in the hotel business. Agha Aziz saw his friend’s high income, and it encouraged him to enter this arena as well. He sought and found a hotel in Tabriz, which he bought and renovated, with heavy loans. He hired a few workers and started operating it under the name “Palace Hotel.” I, as his eldest son, assisted him as much as I could.
One of our customers was a famous gang of smugglers that came from Hamedan to Tabriz and stayed at our hotel every two to three weeks. They would stay for a day or two and spend considerable sums of money. They were not the most decent people, but they were our most lucrative customers, and we had to think about our business, too.
One day their boss asked me: “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”
I said, “Three sisters and two brothers.”
In reply, he said: “You have more siblings than you know. Your father’s a playboy, and has brought some more bastards to this world with other women.”
I stood up to him! I was so furious, I said: “Oh, I remember, he used to tell me there was a pimp who brought him these prostitutes, that’s probably you!” My reply was hushed by his entourage, but he still held a grudge against me.
Now that I look back at this incident, I don’t understand how I had the guts to speak like that to a man with a gun on his belt!
In order to attract guests and entertain them, we used to hold nightly concerts in the hotel lobby. A famous singer would perform with a band, which was ﬁne, until the customers got drunk. One of them would ask the singer to sing a certain song, another bully would ask for another one, the ﬁrst drunk would play stubborn, and soon enough plates and chairs would ﬂy hither and thither breaking and damaging the doors and walls. The hotel kitchen was in the basement, and sometimes the kitchen workers would come upstairs to the lobby with knives and other kitchen utensils to join the ﬁght. We had a guard in the hotel, a two-meter-tall man named Hamid. He was extremely fond of these quarrels, because they allowed him to swing his club at people and things. The quarrel would end when the police arrived and forced the ﬁghting parties to kiss and make up, but never to compensate us for the damage or at least pay their bill…
Iranians are very polite. We have a custom called ta’arof, which is beyond politeness, maybe artiﬁcial politeness, and generally very hard to explain to foreigners. But maybe the following story can explain it:
Once a few guests came to the hotel restaurant. They ate, paid their bill and were about to leave. Then at the door, one of them said to the other: “After you.” That other guest said: “No, no, after you.” The ﬁrst one insisted: “No, I insist, after you!” “But I told you, you should go ﬁrst!” “No! After you!” “Who are you to tell me I should go ﬁrst? Son of a bitch!” The insulted person hit him, and so the ta’arof got out of hand, and we had another quarrel at the hotel.
It may seem odd or even unimaginable to the Western reader these days, but in all these stories, all the guests at the lobby and in the hotel restaurant were men. You wouldn’t see one single woman around except the poor, ugly singer. In those days, it was unfathomable for a decent woman to be seen in such venues. There were occasionally women among the hotel guests, but they were always with their husbands or fathers.
One night, someone knocked on the hotel door, and behind the glass I could see the smuggler I had insulted. He asked me to open the parking gate so they could enter. I did so and gave them their room keys. So far everything was as usual. But then one of the hotel workers told me he saw a woman among them, dressed in men’s clothing!
I was very troubled by this scheme. At that time in Iran, a woman in a room with men who are not her immediate family had only one meaning, which was my red line, even with lucrative guests in the hotel. I promptly opened the door and saw the lady.
Their boss said: “What is this? What happened?”
I said: “You should ask yourself! You are the one who brought a woman to our hotel without permission!”
He said: “Are you mad? What woman are you talking about? Go and check yourself, we are all men here!”
So I went in and checked, and there was no sign of the woman I had seen a minute ago. I started to think maybe I was imagining things, when suddenly the woman popped her head out from under the covers.
I gave them an ultimatum: either vacate the hotel or I call the police!
He said: “You are free to choose what you want to do. Do whatever you want!”
I left the room door half open, and entered my office. I picked up the phone and loudly said: “Police? This is the Palace Hotel. We have a problem. Please send in some officers!”
The trick worked, and they quickly left the hotel. But before they did, their boss turned to me and said: “I will show you!”
I returned to my room happy and content. Hamid the guard had already left and I was almost asleep when someone knocked twice on the hotel door. Behind the glass of the door, I could see the smuggler again. His head appeared there and he shouted: “Open and give us separate rooms! No one would let us in at this time of night. I promise I will do whatever you want!” I had to think fast. On one hand, he had just threatened me a few hours ago. On the other hand, I believed he wasn’t lying. What hotel would have a vacancy, or even an operating front desk, at this time of night? I let them in and sent the woman to one room, at one end of the hotel, and the men to other rooms, at the other end of the hotel. They promised me they would leave as early as possible in the morning, and ordered me to wake them up at 5 a.m.
I have a confession to make: my decision to let them stay was not purely business-like or benevolent. When I came back to my room, yetzer hara, the human evil inclination, came to say hello. “There’s a single, probably indecent woman, a few rooms from you,” it whispered in my ear. I tried to argue with it, struggled to control myself, but to no avail. Finally I got up and out of bed, and tiptoed to her room like a thief. I knocked on her door.
“What do you want?” her voice came from inside. “I have to wake you up!” I said, quite stupidly.
She didn’t buy it. “But it’s only 2 o’clock!” “Please, I only want to come in and say hello!” “Get out of here!”
But I didn’t. On the contrary, I entered her room like Don Juan, got down on my knees, and pleaded: “Please, O please, I want to be with you!” She shouted: “Shame on you! Haven’t you seen I’m not alone? I have come with the men whom you sent to the other end of the hotel! If they realize what you are up to, they will kill you!”
I asked her: “So give me a chance to know you.”
Finally, half-consenting, she gave me an address to meet her on the next day.
You can imagine how excited I was as I was getting ready!
After what seemed like decades, it was ﬁnally lunchtime. I went to the place of our rendezvous.
She wasn’t there.
I waited for a few hours, but no sign of her.
When I came back to the hotel, bereft and desolate, one of our employees, an old man who liked me very much, called me to the side: “Sasson, can I talk to you for a minute?”
“What’s the matter?”
“What was the story with this woman?” “What on earth do you mean?”
“I got a message from her to you: ‘You were lucky this time, and you owe your life to me. I had planned to send my friend and his gang to our rendezvous to take you in his jeep on a one-way trip, and do whatever they want with you. And somehow I felt sorry for you. I decided not to destroy the life of a young man, and kept silent with my friends. But my advice to you is this: never-ever do it again!”
I was amazed about the humanity of a woman for whom I previously had no respect. Needless to say, I took her advice!