On Monday morning, Mohamed Kotbi was in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, preparing for the annual fund-raiser luncheon for the UJA-Federation Lawyers Division (Bankruptcy and Reorganization Group). One of his colleagues, another banquet waiter, had some news for him.
“Oh, I heard they got your brother,” the man told him.
Mr. Kotbi’s brother was a New York City police officer. Had something happened?
“Your boss,” the colleague continued. “Bin Laden!”
Mr. Kotbi had been at the hotel since 5:30 a.m. He hadn’t seen the papers.
Another waiter overhearing the joke “let this big laugh out,” Mr. Kotbi recalled, speaking on the phone from his apartment on the Upper East Side. “It got to me. But I didn’t say a word. I just went outside and had a cigarette.”
Nearly a decade after the attack on the World Trade Center, its impact is still felt in ways large and small. While the decade-long harassment campaign to which Mr. Kotbi alleges he has been subjected at the Waldorf-Astoria is one of the smaller ripples of 9/11, it has nonetheless upended his life and raised questions about the management of the hotel’s estimated $8 million banquet business.
Mr. Kotbi told The Observer he had repeatedly brought his grievances to the human resources department at the Waldorf-Astoria, which is owned by Hilton Hotels, and made two formal complaints to the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the harassment has continued. Last week, Mr. Kotbi’s attorney, Jonathan Bell of Bell & Kilada, in Garden City, filed a civil suit with the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that management fostered a hostile work environment. (Hilton Worldwide emailed a statement noting the company’s commitment to diversity, and declined to discuss Mr. Kotbi’s suit.)
Mr. Kotbi, 45, began his career at the Waldorf at age 18. “I was one of the shining stars for years,” he said, noting that he “grew up there,” working his way up first to room service captain before joining the 300-person banquet staff, for whom salaries can top six figures.
Mr. Kotbi had worked for the Waldorf for 16 years when the trouble started on Sept. 13, 2001. At the time, the hotel industry in New York was in dire trouble; lavish events were unthinkable. But on that Thursday, the hotel hosted a memorial service for 1,500 employees and family members of Bear Stearns. “It was sad,” he recalled. “Everyone was crying.”
At one point during the event, a supervisor waved him over. He removed the “Mohamed” name tag from Mr. Kotbi’s uniform and replaced it with one that said “John.”
“He was like, ‘You don’t understand,’” Mr. Kotbi recalled. “‘We’re trying to get the business that’s left. We don’t want to scare them.’ I was shocked. At first I thought it was only for that event, but later he said, ‘We want that name gone for a long time.’”
The name tag caused some awkward moments. “Every table, I always say, ‘Welcome to the Waldorf. My name is Mohamed. I’ll be serving you tonight.’ People would look and see the wrong name. It was embarrassing and unprofessional.” When he explained the situation, his supervisor insisted he simply identify himself as John. “I was hurt, because to me it meant that I was guilty of this terror attack.” Mr. Kotbi noted that he had friends–wait staff at Windows on the World–who had lost their lives in the attack. “He said, ‘We know you do–your friends, the hijackers!’”
Mr. Kotbi was born in Morocco to an elite family. For a time, his father was the governor of Casablanca. After his mother was killed in a car accident when Mohamed was 5, Americans Bob and Sally Turner, a State Department diplomat and an English teacher, offered to adopt Mr. Kotbi and his older brother, and their father agreed. “He knew it would be a better opportunity for us.”
The Turners brought Mr. Kotbi to live with them in Indianapolis. “They were Catholic,” he said, “but they promised our father they would keep our faith, and they kept their promise.” Every week, they drove the boys to a mosque in Bloomington. “They raised us Muslim,” he said. “They kept our names.”
Shortly after the name-tag incident at the Waldorf, Mr. Kotbi said, a group of colleagues began harassing him. They taped photos of Bin Laden to his locker. They undid his painstakingly arranged table settings. They called him Taliban, “Al Qaeda boy” and “Moroccan faggot,” and they joked he might explode whenever his cell phone rang.
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.”