The Waldorf-Astoria Gets ‘Served’ by Muslim Banquet Waiter

Things briefly improved in 2005, after Mr. Kotbi’s first complaint to the EEOC. For a time, he and his antagonists were assigned to different areas of the hotel. But then it started again. Mr. Kotbi called the harassment “little kid stuff,” but it got to him. He’d spend the drive home to Montclair talking to himself, rehashing the day’s events. “My whole life became occupied with this,” he said. His marriage fell apart. He gradually learned it was better to call in sick on days when there had been a terrorist attack somewhere. And he avoided work during the most lavish parties–which were also the most lucrative for the wait staff–because the harassment tended to get worse. “When it was something big, like music awards, you’d know the waiters and captains are going to get drunk.” Mr. Kotbi, who despite his faith used to drink when he was younger–”I grew up in Indiana”–believes alcohol played a large role in his harassment. “Some of these gentlemen get so intoxicated,” he said, noting that one of his chief tormentors is often sent home in a cab still wearing his uniform. “They make a joke of him,” he noted, “saying, ‘Tell someone your locker combination before you’re too far gone.’ Once he collapsed on a table during a Nascar party, and this Texas guy, [a party guest], wanted to punch him!”

Mr. Kotbi’s troubles came to a head during a dinner in 2009. After being jeered all night, Mr. Kotbi confronted one persecutor, Victor Sala, in the kitchen. “I said, ‘Back off me. We’re grown up. This isn’t preschool.’”

“This individual went up to security and said Mohamed threatened him,” Mr. Kotbi’s lawyer, Mr. Bell, said, pointing out that “strangely, this time, the hotel took immediate action.”

“They removed me before the dessert course!” Mr. Kotbi said. (Mr. Sala declined to speak with The Observer about the incident.)

Mr. Kotbi was taken to meet with an HR executive, who he said told him, “You’re off the floor.” He added that when he protested, she said, “You don’t hear me too good. We don’t need your kind here.”

On advice from his union, Mr. Kotbi accepted a three-week suspension and anger management training. “I needed to work, so I took the deal,” he said. “But it was shameful. I felt so small.”

Over the years, Mr. Kotbi has sometimes been permitted to use his real name. But recently, the issue came up again. The occasion was a fund-raiser for the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. “We do it annually, three times a year,” Mr. Kotbi said. “It’s good business, a beautiful party.” Secret Service agents were in attendance due to the presence of Defense Minister Ehud Barak. When Mr. Kotbi realized he’d misplaced his name tag, the assistant director of banquet services gave him a new one, reading “Edgar.”

“I said, ‘That’s not my name,’” Mr. Kotbi recalled, “and he said, ‘Oh, I’m saving your life. The Israeli Secret Service, they’ll take you out on the spot.’ And then he made his hand like a gun.”

In fact, Mr. Kotbi pointed out, Israel and Morocco have long had warm relations. He added that he had made numerous Jewish friends at the hotel over the years. “The rabbis, the sales ladies–we’re really good friends.” Despite comments from some coworkers to the effect that they “should be throwing rocks” at one another, he added, “Some of them have been to my home, and I’ve been to theirs.”

Mr. Kotbi recalled that he’d once waited on Mr. Barak when he was prime minister, and he was “wonderful.” Among the other famous diners Mr. Kotbi has served during his decades at the Waldorf are Pope John Paul II, Barack Obama, Mother Teresa and George W. Bush.

“We have a lot of VIP clients,” he said. “Everyone is VIP for me.”

agell@observer.com