Highway to Heaven

The Atlas Hotel and the death of an Iranian wrestler

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Photo by Sohrab Mohebbi, montage by Babak Radboy

“You think I killed him, don’t you? A travel article. A likely story.”
—owner and manager of the Atlas Hotel (formerly the Atlantic Hotel), Tehran

On central Tehran’s broad, boulevard-like Taleghani Street, only steps away from the defunct and degenerate American Embassy compound, sits an unlikely pilgrimage site. Unspectacular, squat, medium-charming, the Atlas Hotel is situated in a neighborhood that is all but deserted by the time the afternoon traffic of this sprawling concrete city has passed. The once habitually overfull nightclub at the nearby Sahra Hotel has long been closed, its gilded exterior now covered in a pall of gray dust. The celebrated French chef from the rooftop restaurant of the Masshad Hotel around the corner (which once hosted some of the hostage-takers who took the Embassy in 1979, though the staff denies it) left the country for the Dordogne long ago.

Not too far from the Masshad, there’s an Indian restaurant with a singing parrot in a dingy cage in the basement of the Safir Hotel. It should be said that the cuisine there is more chelo kabab than benghan bharta. The former embassy itself is a macabre presence, its brick walls wrapped in murals marked by “Death to America” mantras, skulls, and shooting missiles. Across the street is the Madame Tussaud-like Martyrs’ Museum, with its creepy guided tours by one-legged men and hundreds of crowded glass cases devoted to the memories of those who lost their lives in the Revolution, or later, in a grueling war with Iraq that extended through the 1980s.

But still, there’s good reason to come here. It was on this very street, thirty-nine years ago at the Atlas Hotel, that a wrestling champion and national icon — some would say the great­est Iranian athlete ever — spent his last hours. Gholamreza Takhti — simply “Takhti” to his adoring fans — was a figure who transcended the fractious politics of pre- and post-Revolution, Islamic or not, us and them. A simple man, a chivalrous giant with a neck the size of a water buffalo, Takhti was born in 1930 into a Tehran family of modest means. He quickly rose to athletic eminence; he was one of only two Iranians to have qualified for the Olympics, winning silver medals in 1962 and 1966. His visage adorned postage stamps, commemorative cups, and trays; his star value was unsurpassed. Whether he took his own life with a handful of sleeping pills in his hotel room on the night of January 7, 1968, or was forever silenced by the SAVAK (the Shah’s secret police) for his alleged political activities against the regime, remains a mystery to this day. Naturally, urban myths tend toward the latter version.

One stark, windy, grimy, very Tehran day, we went to the Atlas to inquire about the fate of our fallen hero, for we had long collected his kitsch likeness on posters from the stalls of the Friday market, pondered his muscles, and watched endless documentaries on his life in sport. We were, however, turned away upon entering the hotel lobby. “We have no information for you,” a steely cold receptionist told us. She wore a pale blue pillbox hat over her veil, a hint of Jackie O. The lobby, likewise, was painted pale blue.

On our second visit, we had more luck, reluctantly ushered into the office of the hotel’s owner, a frowny, beady-eyed, balding man. We then did what travel writers do (for that is how we introduced ourselves, representatives of a sort of Conde Nast Traveler for art aficionados with hyphenated identities): we complimented him on the hotel décor (fancy glasswork arranged in a palm tree motif in the lobby, trademark Islamic Republic) and the garden (modest but immaculately kept). We announced that we would like to feature his hotel in the pages of the next issue of Bidoun. The owner, naturally, was suspicious, asking for our cards (which we don’t have), a copy of our magazine (which we didn’t have), and our credentials (none to speak of).

What travel magazine, he asked, would want to document Tehran hotels in this day and age — and those in drab midtown, no less? “Tourism? What tourism? If you don’t come to Tehran because of work [but] just for fun these days, I will take you to a psychiatrist!” he cried.

But we insisted, complimenting him again on the glasswork and insisting that we thought the world needed to know his story and, more importantly, that of his hotel. Eventually he opened up, even telling us more than we cared to know. He told us of a drunken Brit who once put a cigarette out on his neck when asked to leave the bar. (He still has the scar; “Foreigners!”) He explained the byzantine star system of the hotel industry in Tehran in painful detail (the Atlas boasts two). And by the second cup of tea, he finally meandered toward the subject of Takhti.

“Takhti and I were old friends; we come from the same part of Tehran. He used to come here a lot, have a drink at the bar. One night, he tried to check in with a shotgun. I turned him away at the door.”

“So why did he kill himself? Was it really the Shah’s secret police, as everyone says?”

“No, no, no. He was having trouble with his wife. You know, athletes sometimes have trouble… I am a tennis man myself.”

“What?”

“Performing. It is common.”

A certain twinkle in his eye gave us each a shudder. We’d heard enough. Political intrigue and fantastic machinations on our part had been reduced to a simple (but significant) physiolo­gical impediment. We resolved to forget his pat, uncouth analysis.

We thanked our host, sucked on the last of his budget candies (for he was insistent), and even took a tour of the hotel’s rooms, each equipped with a tennis court-size bathroom.

Promising that our cards, credentials, and copies of the magazine would soon be in the mail, we told him that we would recommend the Atlas Hotel to our vast network of readers around the world. As for Takhti, his memory — and the enigma — will live on.