Hotel Manager

Lynn turned the pages of Tehran Daily as she sat behind the counter at Hafiz Hotel. Day after day, for a year now, she had been waiting for the news about the arrest of the person who put the bomb in the station wagon her husband was driving. What had Babak done to be the target of such a crime, had he been mistaken for someone else, who was it who put the bomb in the car?  It seemed her life was on hold until she knew the answers, until punishment was inflicted on the guilty. The bomb had been very small, the kind that the police described to her as a “sticky bomb” because the bomber could just attach it to something, but it had been powerful enough to end her husband’s life.

She was engaged with those thoughts when a man came to the counter. “Do you have a room available?” He was wearing Iranian-made imitations of American clothes, a T-shirt with a fake LaCoste label, and jeans with fake Gap label. He kept shifting in his place.

“Yes, we have a single room available on the second floor,” she said after checking the reservation book. 

The man kept his gaze averted as he said, “That’s fine.” 

“On weekends we rent for two nights only.”

“I’ll take it for both nights then.”

“It’s 2000 toomans for both nights.”

“No problem. I’ll pay by cash.” He took out his wallet, counted the toomans and put them on the counter. 

She gave him a form to fill out. He did that quickly and gave it back to her. 

“You have an address in Tehran, what brings you to the hotel?”

“I had some problems in the apartment. There was no water and I couldn’t get anyone to come and fix the pipes at this time of the night.”

“Couldn’t you have found a relative to put you up?” She was aware that her questioning was making the man uncomfortable, but she couldn’t stop herself.

“I have no family and no real friends in Tehran,” he said. “I’m from Tabriz, I came to Tehran to attend university.”

“I see. The porter will be here any minute and will help you with your luggage.”

 “I don’t need help. I only have this.” He pointed to the fake Gap knapsack slung over his shoulder.

 “Go ahead.” She took a key out of one of the little boxes lining the wall behind her and gave it to him. “The stairway is that way.” She pointed to the corridor stretching behind her.

As a part of coping with her grief she had made many improvements in the hotel. Instead of artificial flowers, she had fresh bouquets delivered regularly for the lobby. She put in motion repairs of whatever was old and seedy. The faded and chipped marble floors were repaired, the canopy replaced, the doors painted. She aimed to keep the hotel’s old charm along with modernizing it. She went to shops in the labyrinthine grand bazaar and found bronze and copper items with intricate designs on them, and miniature paintings with ornate frames, and had them hung on one of the walls in the lobby. Then just a few days ago in an antique shop she had found a poem by Hafiz, the 14th Century Sufi Persian poet in English translation and had it framed. Now it was hanging on the wall behind her. Many of the people staying in the hotel knew English.

Leave the familiar for a while.

Let your senses and bodies stretch out

Change rooms in your mind for a day.

All the hemispheres in existence

Lie beside an equator in your heart

That is what she had done, having left the familiarity of her home in Iowa and coming to this country. The night receptionist, a burly young man with a twisted mustache, came back, interrupting her thoughts. “Lynn Khanoom, you’re so kind to have covered for me,” he said.

In a moment she left for her apartment, just a few blocks from the hotel. Now past midnight, the streets were freer from the maddening Tehran traffic. In the relative quiet she could hear the gurgle of water in the wide joob that ran along the street and the rustling of sycamore tree leaves as a breeze blew through them. The heavy pollution that hung in the air like a dark cloud during the day had lifted and some stars were visible in the sky, a crescent moon dangling among them. 

Close to her apartment building, teenage boys stood under streetlights or doorways, talking and laughing. One of them began to whistle softly: 

I’m only fourteen, full of dreams. Bright dreams like stars against a black sky. 

In the lobby of her building a few male tenants were sitting on the sofa, talking heatedly about the inflation, blaming America’s sanctions for it. Lynn didn’t always approve of the policies of her native country and a rush of guilt swept over her, hearing the men. 

As she entered her apartment she was struck by loneliness. Photographs of Babak and herself were everywhere, making her keenly aware of his absence. One, taken at their wedding three years ago stood on her dresser. They had their arms around each other and were looking into each other’s eyes.

After taking a shower she went to bed, pulling up the patchwork quilt that Babak’s mother had made for them. But sleep wouldn’t come to her too easily. 

Her mind floated in a hazy area between the present and the past. For close to two years she and Babak had shared this bed, lain under the colorful quilt, and talked about their future dreams. They would have children; she would go to America to give birth, so that the children would be citizens of both countries. 

On the wall across from the bed was a miniature painting that Babak gave her as a present when they just started dating. It had the picture of a man and a woman in an embrace sitting by a stream in the shade of a cypress tree, holding goblets of wine. Babak had said to her, “That was the Iran that celebrated life.” He recited poems by ancient Iranian poets who approved of drinking wine and dancing, who believed in pleasure on this earth, rather than waiting for paradise to fulfill their desires. 

Finally she fell into a dark sleep. 

As she went about her work at the hotel more scenes of the past paraded before her eyes. She had come to Tehran on a six month appointment to work on an exhibition in a gallery that had just opened up and its aim was to introduce modern European and American painters. She had seen the ad for the job on the bulletin board of the college from which she had just graduated with an art degree and then started working in its art shop. The job advertised was arranged through an Iranian cultural organization collaborating with an American one. The organizations were promoting Iran’s then-president Khatami’s dialogue among civilizations, and president Clinton was going along with it, in an effort to mend the strained relationship between the two countries. 

Her college in Pella, Iowa emphasized exposure of students to other cultures. Writers, scholars, historians from different countries were invited to the college to give talks. International literature and art were emphasized. The exposure had filled her with a travel thirst. This was her chance to see another part of the world and at this particular time she really needed to get away. Her boyfriend, Eric, had left her. She had other, more immense losses and tragedies too. Sally, her only sibling, a-year-and-a-half younger than herself, had gone into deep depression during her junior year. She had been drinking and was promiscuous during that period. Then she had jumped off a rock ledge into a lake; whether she had done that in sobriety or drunkenness had never been established.  Her parents were sinking into alcoholism after her sister’s suicide and then moved to an assistant-living community. They weren’t welcoming of Lynn as if she reminded them too much of the daughter they had lost. They had always been difficult parents and now they had become worse. 

Leaving her own country for another one seemed like a road to freedom and happiness. On one of the first days of her arrival, when she was working in her office in the gallery, a man came in and asked her questions about the upcoming exhibition she was working on. She liked his friendly and sensitive aura. She told him about some of the art that the gallery was borrowing from American and European museums for a short period: a Matisse, a Picasso, a Van Gogh, a Winslow Homer. She showed him a catalogue of Homer’s work. He said he particularly liked the one that depicted a group of boys, seemingly on a school break, playing together in a prairie.

They drifted to a more personal conversation. He worked in a Food Bank, he said. She told him her appointment at the gallery was for six months. They exchanged names and phone numbers. That was how it started between them.

“You have such pretty hair, like a gold waterfall. I love your eyes too,” he said the first time she went to his apartment. “They’re like the blue sea.” He was talking like men in soap operas but nothing could make him ordinary for her.

After work she usually went to his apartment. One evening, three months after they met, he proposed. “Oh Lynn, the moment I saw you I was stung.”

“Babak, that’s how I feel about you.” 

He didn’t mind that she had previous boy friends, that his future bride wasn’t a virgin. “Everything about you is good,” he said earnestly.

 She didn’t say they had known each other only for three months. 

“The only marriage that’s accepted here legally is one performed by a Muslim priest. I’m sorry about it Lynn.”

She was a little hesitant to commit to that. Not that she had anything against Islam; she wouldn’t like to marry in her own Dutch Orthodox religion either. Why did love have to be sanctioned by religion, was her main objection.

“It’s just for practical purposes,” he said.

His parents were observant Muslims but they welcomed her, expressed gratitude that she was willing to go along with the Muslim ceremony. It was clear they would approve of almost anything Babak decided on. Their house was in an old section of Tehran with mosques and public baths and rose gardens visible on almost every block, creating a mystical atmosphere that she found soothing. A Muslim priest and a notary came in to perform the legal ceremony. They had a reception in a garden restaurant where Babak’s friends and numerous relatives and the friends she had made, came to celebrate. His family brought generous gifts — jewelry, silver filigree tea glass holders, a tray engraved with trellis design, hand-made quilts, a tablecloth and napkins with embroidery at their edges. 

Living with Babak and all the companionship she had with his family members and friends, and friends she made with women, some of whom had married Iranian men too, gradually helped heal her feelings of loss back home.

But then one evening Babak came home, looking preoccupied.  “I have to deliver something tomorrow, will you come with me?”

“What is it?”

“Canned food from Food Relief. I have to deliver it to some people; they will send it to the families most in need. There’s so much poverty.” He said Food Bank had lent him a large station wagon for the purpose. 

In the morning they drove on roads outside of the city for two hours and then he stopped the car in front of a house on an empty, quiet street. He got out and rang the bell. A few men came to the door; Babak said something to them and the men helped him carry the large package out of the car and into the house. He came back shortly but he looked flushed, shaken. 

“Babak, what happened, what’s wrong?”

“I just wonder if these people really deliver the food to the needy. There’s so much corruption.” He put his arm around her.  “Lynn, what you and I have together is more important than anything else.”

A few nights later he was late coming home.Hours went by and he didn’t return. She called his phone but he didn’t pick up. She left a message. She turned on the TV to a news channel and watched with trepidation for reports of any accidents. 

Finally she called one of Babak’s friends, Fereydoon, he spent most time with. She reached Fereydoon’s answering machine and left an urgent message for him to call her back. Then she called Masood, another of Babak’s close friends. A message on his answering machine said he was out of town for a week. She decided not to call Babak’s parents since they would be really upset; anyway he rarely visited them late at night. 

She was about to call one of the couples she and Babak socialized with but just then the phone rang. It was Fereydoon. “I’m sorry, Lynn… terrible news…” His voice cracked.

Her heart skipped a few beats. There was silence, then sounds of weeping. 

“What’s wrong, you’re frightening me.”

“Babak… explosives went off in the station wagon he was using to deliver food.”“Explosives?” The world began to swim around her.

She heard him sob. “Is he injured,” he said brining out the words with difficulty. 

“I hate to be the one…. Lynn, he didn’t make it alive to the hospital. I had a call from the police. They found my phone number in his address book, in his pocket…”

“Where is he now?’ she asked, hoping she hadn’t heard him correctely. 

He sobbed again. Finally he said, “They’re on the way to the morgue near Rey.”

She started to sob too.

“We can’t go to the morgue right now. The policeman said we have to wait until we hear from him. I’ll come to your apartment.”

 She was frozen in her spot; she had a strange, painful sensation that she was looking at her life in a blurry mirror. Fereydoon lived only a few blocks away and arrived quickly. They kept talking, speculating, crying. 

Near dawn the phone ringing interrupted them. She dragged herself to the side table and picked it up. It was the police station. They wanted her to identify Babak’s body in the morgue. In a few moments a policeman arrived to take her there. He allowed Fereydoon to come along. She and Fereydoon sat in the back of the police car as they raced through the sparse dawn traffic.

At the morgue the policeman took both of them inside. Seeing Babak lying in the ice cold room, his face shattered, made his death all too real. “Yes, that’s him,” she said. Fereydoon repeated the same thing. The policeman took them to the station. Another policeman joined them and began to question them.

“Do you know if he was involved in any political groups or organizations?” the second policeman asked. 

She shook her head no, so did Fereydoon. After asking a few more questions the police let them go. No details were told to them, no arrests were made yet. It was already nine in the morning and the offices were open. She and Fereydoon went to an office to file a death certificate.

The hardest part then was her calling Babak’s parents and telling them what happened. She had waited this long because she couldn’t bring herself to. But now with the finality of his death sunk into her, she had to make the phone call. In the midst of crying, his father said, “I’ll offer an award for anyone who’d lead us to the murderer, who put the explosives in my son’s car.” At the funeral she, along with his parents and all the relatives and friends, cried hysterically, the sounds of their weeping mingling, creating a dark chorus. She was aware of how this communal mourning lightened the weight of grief somewhat. When her sister died, she had few people to share the grief with. 

For the days to come Babak’s parents, relatives, and friends all tried through their connections in the mosques, the bazaar shops, different offices, to find a lead to who and why the bomb had been put in the station wagon. 

Finally, coming out of her stunned state, Lynn wondered if there were things about Babak she hadn’t known. Had he been acting strange, not himself lately? Were there things he was hiding from her? But no, he was always so straightforward, rarely late, rarely opaque. 

One morning, arriving at the hotel, the beggar, Hadaghe, a middle aged, scrawny looking woman, wearing a soot-covered coat, was sitting across the street with her bronze bowl on the ground in front of her. She often came into the lobby and asked Lynn for charity. Lynn always gave her some money.

“Lynn khanoom, a man was prowling around the hotel’s basement. He ran away as soon as he saw me. He looked very suspicious.”

Lynn did not know if she could believe the half-crazed woman who often talked to herself, who was often incoherent. Then she felt a dread in her heart as she thought of the strange, suspicious looking man who had checked into the hotel. Could he be the man who had put the explosives in Babak’s car and now was perhaps going to put some in the hotel, for reasons she couldn’t comprehend? 

She went into the lobby and looked at the reservation book and saw that the man had checked out after the two nights and hadn’t returned. Still she had to contact the police, in case. She asked the policeman who answered the phone if someone would come and inspect the basement. 

Within the hour three policemen arrived and went to search the basement. They came out and said, “We searched every corner, there’s nothing suspicious there.”

Later that day, on the way home, Lynn felt a rush of homesickness for the sights and sounds of Pella, for the time before things became difficult and painful for her there. She had thought by now Iran was her home. Sights of Pella went before her eyes. The town had main-tained the architecture from the time of the original Dutch settlers — bold curving forms and rich ornamentation, yellow sandstone and red brick buildings. There were windmills at almost every corner, their blades going round and round. In May as tulips burst into bloom in public gardens and parks, a festival was held there with parades, stage performances. Dutch street organ music, dancing, were a part of the festival. The Dutch bakery served coffee to visitors. The fall was the harvest season with a flower and quilt show. I should return home, she thought with urgency. 

Then her mind revisited the day when she and Babak sat in the shade of the wide sycamore tree hanging over the café, discussing their future together. 

“I feel you saved my life,” she had said to him. 

Alas, she hadn’t been able to save his. 

Nahid Rachlin
Nahid Rachlin went to Columbia University Writing Program on a Doubleday-Columbia Fellowship and then to Stanford University writing program on a Stegner Fellowship. Her publications include a memoir, Persian Girls (Penguin), four novels, among them, Jumping Over Fire (City Lights), Foreigner (W.W. Norton), Married to a Stranger (E.P.Dutton hardcover, City Lights, paperback). Her short stories have appeared in many magazines. One of her stories was adopted by Symphony Space, “Selected Shorts,” and was aired on NPR’s around the country and three of her stories were nominated for Pushcart Prize. Her work has been translated into Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Dutch, German, Arabic, and Persian. She has been interviewed on NPR stations such as All Things Considered (Terry Gross), and in magazines including, P&W, Writers Chronicle. She has written reviews and essays for New York Times, Newsday, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. She gives talks and readings at libraries, bookstores, universities, high schools, museums.