As with many of the postings in this blog, the idea for this posting came from a rumour in wide circulation in Iran of Frank Sinatra owning a stake in a casino in Tehran, and performing regularly. The rumour goes on that Frank, a friend of the Shah’s brother and his wife, Queen Farah, and possibly a one-time lover of the Shah’s second wife, Soraya, was not the only superstar regular to perform here, but also the likes of Tom Jones and Dean Martin.
Well, that is clearly a rumour that demands a little digging, right?
This particular Persian journey starts in an out-of-the-way town called Ab-ali (hereafter Abali for ease of typing) about 60 or so kilometres to the northwest of northern Tehran. The town, nestled (although that word has more romantic overtones than the town perhaps demands) at a height of about 2500 metres above sea level, has a population of around 2500.
Unassuming would be a massive overstatement for this particular hamlet. It is, to put it diplomatically, something of a nothing. With what look to be abandoned houses, a few trading but numerous closed-up shops, a handful of uninviting restaurants, ramshackle machinery rusting by the road, a ski resort that has probably not seen great skiing for some decades, and stray and mangy dogs roaming the highway verges, Abali is a town going nowhere. It might, it turns out, have been something entirely different in its heyday.
Visiting Abali now, during winter, however, you find rather simple slopes and really very run-down equipment and almost no facilities.
The road through Abali takes you to a high mountain-top, Mt Damarvand, as well as the Lar Dam, the latter being a major source of much of Tehran’s waters both bottled and tap. But passing through Abali you would be forgiven for wanting to increase your speed just to get past it. Or you would not even realise you were in a town.
Apologies to those residents of Abali, but if you take a step back you would see what I mean.
In the midst of this ‘dead town’ decay, stands a grand, but also somewhat run-down building. It is very much out of place. It is particular for its size. And it is particular for its obvious former prestige. Driving past it, on the Abali Road, you can only ask “what the hell is that glamourous old wreck of a building…. and why is it here??”
The Abali Road
The answer is the Abali Hotel, also called the Abali Casino at a certain time in recent history. The actual building dates back some time, although records are scarce. It is likely only talking to some village elders will tell us more about the building’s origins.
Abali Hotel, c.1963
What we can tell, however, as far back as World War II, the building was the property of the family of the then Shah of Iran, Reza Shah. This Shah, it should be noted, is the father of the Shah most of us now know as THE Shah of Iran; the Shah at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.
The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi
On Reza Shah’s abdication, the property at Abali. along with billions of dollars of other properties around the country, were forfeited to his son, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi (pictured abOve). From 1958, the property was outwardly owned by a charitable foundation worth many billions of dollars set up by Reza Shah, called the Pahlavi Foundation (the Pahlavi coming from the family name adopted by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi).
At some point during this long period, the Abali Hotel was a major going-concern for, for example, Tehrani skiers looking for winter breaks on the nearby ski slopes. While advertised as a ski resort still, it is, to be honest, underwhelming. It was also a casino from 1970 onwards, as far as can be ascertained.
There is a literary reference to the Abali Hotel, in Tokens of God, by Iraj Azimzadeh, ,2007, p.189, his characters Colonel Ghassemi and Kaveh are around the hotel. It gives you a sense of the hotel’s trajectory:
“Hotel Abali was nestled in the southern slopes of Alborz Mountain. The village of the same name was a popular summer-weekend getaway for Tehranies seeking cool mountain air, mineral baths and, until the Islamic government, gambling in the hotel’s casino. In the winter, they packed its ski slopes.”
The Abali Hotel Today
To be sure, the Abali Hotel does seem to have once had a grand life as a world-class casino from at east 1970, until its closure. The rumours had it that Frank Sinatra played here every Christmas, and even owned a part. The same rumours also speak of Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jnr and other brat-packers such as Dean Martin, frequenting the joint.
In any event, by 1978, the casino was shutdown, as were all gambling houses in Iran, by a Parliament of a country in turmoil. In 1979, shortly after the revolution, the revolutionary authorities took over the chattels of the Pahlavi Foundation, renamed the Alavi Foundation. And within what seems to have been just a matter of days, this was then also terminated, and the properties, including the Abali Hotel, were transferred to another foundation, the Foundation for the Oppressed, which – with its more than 200,000 employees and USD3 billion in assets – to this day still owns and operates the hotel as a guesthouse. This foundation is closely associated with, and usually headed by, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
If you think there might be something more to this story, you are dad right. A whole lot more. And while this blog entry will stop at this point, the research continues and will – he says with a dash of trepidation, a modicum of anxiety, and some ill-at-ease – become a book. Yes, a book!
And it is already a heady and winding narrative, that only starts with Frank Sinatra and goes on to include La Cosa Nostra, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, The Shah of Iran and his three wives, Grace Kelly, Fidel Castro, both the FBI and the CIA (and a little State Department), the McGuire Sisters, and oh, so much more! Tom Jones I cannot yet promise, but who knows where the story will go.
So, keep watching this blog space for word on the book. But don’t sit in front of the screen eating popcorn – or holding your breath – awaiting its arrival. It has to be first written (argh!!!) and then a publisher found.
I will keep you informed on this spot, so please check back.