The Rose Hotel—a Memoir of Secrets, Loss, and Love from Iran to America

By Rahimeh Andalibian

National Geographic, Washington DC | 2015

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Long has been my interest in all the countries of the Middle East, and slim now is my chance to visit; but nothing short of going blind can keep me from reading about them. Among them Iran holds a special place—the land of the ancient Persians, Cyrus the Great, kings with exotic names—Cambyses, Darius, Artaxerxes.

In the 4th Century BC, Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great. The religion that held sway in Persia was Zoroastrianism, until it was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th Century AD and became Islamic. Most Persians today are Shiite Muslims. The Persians are known to be a people of delicate artistic ability, as shown in their miniatures and rugs, a great love of foods like pomegranates, honeyed pastries, nuts and spices, and a regal bearing, reminiscent of their heritage.

In recent times, in 1979, the Shah was deposed and the exiled Khomeini returned and set up a conservative Islamic government, ruled mostly by the mullahs. In the 1980s, provoked by Saddam Hussein, Iran went to war against Iraq, a war that cost Iran thousands of its young men. Americans will recall the American hostage situation in 1980, which dragged out for over 300 days before our people were finally rescued. The relationship between Iran and the United States has since been, at best, tenuous.

I live in Los Angeles, and so I’m aware that there’s a large community of Iranians living here. Most of stores in the fabric district are owned and operated by Jewish Iranians. This elicits my curiosity. Why have so many Iranians immigrated here in recent years?

For this reason, I checked out from the magnificent, downtown Los Angeles public library and read The Rose Hotel by Rahimeh Andalibian.

Reading it was an eye opener. For one, Ms. Andalibian was born into such a well-to-do family that during the time when the Shah still ruled. Her family owned the Rose Hotel in Mashhad, a hotel where the strict Islamic laws were observed by her devoted father, Baba, and his guests.

When the Revolution of 1979 occurred, the Shah was deposed and the exiled Khomeini came to power, one would think things would be better for devout Iranians who had come to despise the Shah’s extravagant excesses and his brutal secret police, the Savak.

But, such was not the case, as the Andalibian family was soon to find.
Rahimeh was the only girl among the five children, the oldest of whom was Abdollah. The entire family loved, even idolized, this young man, yet for reasons not made entirely clear he was abducted by Khomeini’s police and executed—at the tender age of 15!

The sorrow from this nearly rent the family apart; it affected their lives for the next 30 years! This was by far the worst thing that happened, but was not the only thing, as the government also usurped the family’s fortune. They lost the hotel and were forced to flee from Iran, first to London and then to America.

Here’s what Baba has to say about what has happened to Iran:

“Tehran is not home anymore, azizam. Iran is not our home either. I don’t know where home will be—maybe somewhere in between these two world. But Iran is not an option.” Baba’s voice softened as he walked a step closer to Maman. “The government is still terrorizing people. Any good ayatollah, professor, or filmmaker is either dead, in prison, or under house arrest. Look what they did to Ayatollah Shariatmadari. He stopped the Shah from killing Khomeini in 1963; a man of peace, a visionary who believed in keeping clerics away from government positions, is under house arrest until he dies. There’s no way to tell a good ayatollah from an evil one anymore. All the women wear chadors so you can’t tell a call girl from a good woman. The pretense, the backing stabbing. People there have changed. Everything is different, zan.”

I loved reading this book because it gave me insight into their Persian psyche—Baba’s love of and commitment to Islam, the strength and resilience of the family, their business acumen and expansiveness, their love of family, their willingness to learn the ways of their new country, even though they were vastly different from those in Iran.

The family is made up Baba, Maman, Abdollah, Hadi, Zain, Rahimeh and Iman.

After Abdollah death, Baba and Maman kept the truth of what happened to him from the children, telling them he had gone to study in America. Not knowing the truth kept them from proper grieving for their lost brother and affected them in drastic ways: All of them underwent divorces, Zain became an alcoholic and addict; Hadi overspent and underwent bankruptcies. Even Rahimeh, the sole member of the family to receive a college education and established herself in business as a therapist, divorced a man she married in defiance of her father.

When she and Maman returned to Iran some 20 years later, here is what they found:

“Tehran now made London and the United States seem like distant dreams. But everything seemed odd and out of kilter, diminished in every way. The cars were old, covered with dents and scratches; they had broken taillights, and fenders were held on with duct tape. The city was much smaller than I remembered, and posters of Khomeini and Khamemei were plastered on every wall next to pictures of dead men ‘martyred’ in the Iran-Iraq war. On the streets, the people looked tired and worn by decades of despair, loss, heartbreak, and economic paralysis. I had returned but to a dirtied, wilted Iran. It was as if a heavy layer of dust had buried everything I remembered.”

Eventually Rahimeh is able to get her entire family into therapy and finally the parents acknowledge the truth of what happened to Abdollah. “One of the result of not talking about things is the powerlessness we feel, literally being left in the dark, the helplessness of not being able to put the past behind us, the guilt we experienced…” After 30 years, they were finally able to speak openly about him.

Rahimah says of her father.

“Had he been born in another era, before the cultural and religious revolution took hold of Iran, perhaps he would not have been caught on the wrong side of a regime that turned out to be brutal and corrupt. In the chaos of a punishing war and changing times, his devout Muslim faith failed to save his son and led him to make grievous errors. He had alienated the very children he tried to protect, but there was never any doubt about the love between Baba and his children.”

I was moved by this memoir. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has interest in the Middle East. The Rose Hotel is a universal story of healing and rebirth. I was sorry when it ended because I got used to hearing about the family and wanted to keep hearing about them.

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