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.