Media: Please, Sam, we'll pay you not to play it again: War-zone hotels are a far cry from Rick's cafe, however much hacks romanticise them, says Robert Fisk

THE SARAJEVO Holiday Inn has joined the mythology of media camping sites. With snipers in its upper floors and shell holes through its walls, it has become another of those fantasy press castles in which we eat, drink and make merry - and hide - while the world around us goes mad. Remember Baghdad's al-Rashid Hotel? The Commodore in Beirut? The Intercontinental in Kabul, as the Soviet army drove up to the door? The claustrophobic Intercontinental in Tehran - renamed the Tulip after the revolution - from which we would foray to observe the destruction of the Shah's empire? The Vietnam generation had their favourites in Saigon. In the Second World War, foreign correspondents in Cairo lived in apartments but gathered at dusk at the Gezira Club, the safest of all the colonial watering holes.

There is something odd, even unpleasant, about our desire to romanticise these over- expensive and uncomfortable institutions. Why, for example, have so many of us written so many words about these often grubby hotels when epic tragedies outside their doors should have made such reports both tasteless and inappropriate? Why must we recreate Casablanca every time we cover wars? Rick's Cafe has a lot to answer for.

Humphrey Bogart was soft-hearted, his pianist a romantic, his barman gentle, the local police chief a rogue but honest at heart, the wartime occupying power villainous. Rick's was the place to go to forget your troubles.

But the proprietors of our gloomy wartime homes have little of Bogart's charm. In the Commodore, we would sometimes buy off the pianist to stop him playing. In the Tehran Intercontinental, the bar was turned into an Islamically correct coffee shop with separate seating areas for men and women; in the Kabul Intercontinental, we discovered that all the bedroom security peep-holes had been inserted the wrong way round to enable the staff to spy on the guests. The last time I visited Baghdad's al-Rashid, my room phone was so heavy with listening devices that I could hardly lift it off the table.

Then there are the prices. If you obey the law and change money at the official rate, a modest dinner for two at al-Rashid will come to pounds 300. At the height of the civil war in Beirut, an American television reporter kept open the telex line to his office in Manhattan for 36 hours; he was charged more than the cost of a first-class return air fare from Lebanon to New York. True, there were perks. The Commodore would mark your bar bill as 'miscellaneous' on the final account so that gullible newspaper editors would pay for their reporters' alcoholism. The Tehran Intercontinental would use the same code-word if reporters wanted to put the hotel's gift-shop watches on their bill. At Sarajevo, the Holiday Inn rewards its guests each Friday night with a free glass of dreadful Bosnian brandy.

The Sarajevo Holiday Inn was always an eyesore, a hulk of post-Tito modernism with strange colours down the outside walls, whose supply of fresh water and wine ran out in six months and whose resident journalists usually settled down for dinner in small national groups (the French being the largest and most friendly, the temporarily accommodated Red Cross delegation the best fed). Those suffering in Sarajevo - the Bosnian residents - could eat in the Holiday Inn, but in a smaller dining room with more watery soup and less bread. A special suite was reserved for militiamen and local thugs who fancied fine wines and fresh meat.

I suppose there is a sense of protection. Only in the Amman Intercontinental, in Jordan, where a Soviet journalist was shot by a sniper in 1970, has a reporter died in his hotel. Avoid the lobby, stay in the bar, lock your bedroom door at night and no shell or bullet can harm you. For, outside the foyer, skulks the real world. In a diary discovered after his murder in Beirut, Sean Toolan, of the Observer, wrote: 'The Commodore Hotel bar is like the recreation area of the mental institution in One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.' Toolan walked home from that same bar in 1981, to be stabbed to death with an ice- pick. Clark Todd, of Canadian Television, left the same hotel in 1983 to meet his death in the Chouf mountains. Most of the reporters who died in Sarajevo spent their last moments walking through the glass-shattered lobby of the Holiday Inn, tugging on flak jackets for what they thought would be just another day's reporting.

John Simpson of the BBC - no romantic when it comes to hotels - caught the sinister nature of our hotel environment in Baghdad before the Gulf war. 'Al-Rashid, being more than a hotel, had the atmosphere of an institution,' he wrote. 'There was a high wall around it, set with watchtowers. A solitary gate was protected by men half-hidden behind the tinted, bullet-proof glass of a guard-room. The high entrance was set with stained glass, like a crematorium or a Mormon temple . . . Inside it was cool and rather dark . . . And there were the young men who sat in the same place for hours at a time and read the same newspaper over and over, fingering their Saddam moustaches and looking away when your eyes met theirs.'

Not so in Beirut or Sarajevo. The junior staff at the Commodore, the barmen in Kabul, the head receptionist in Sarajevo were good, kind souls, caring for us when we were frightened, encouraging us when we were depressed, advising us when we were unsure of the safest route out of town. I remember, in the invasion winter of 1980, collapsing exhausted into a warm, soft chair of the Kabul Intercontinental bar to find the blizzard outside had piled snow three-quarters of the way up the window. With a glass of Irish whiskey beside me, the place felt like a womb.

But the barmen and laundry maids and venal proprietors were also, in their way, a substitute for the people on the other side of the walls. Journalists like to talk round a bar - but chiefly to each other. Swapping stories is easier than writing them, and there were reporters in the summer of 1982 who rarely left the Beirut Commodore, whose 'well-informed sources' and contacts gathered like lizards in the shabby lobby, a proxy for the victims of the war outside. When at last the hotel was looted by militiamen in 1987, two of its former reporter-guests, by then ensconced in the safety of Cyprus, saw fit to offer a reward for the return of the hotel's missing parrot - while ignoring the plight of their old friends among the staff, most of whom were dismissed by the management within a week. So much for friendship.

The Commodore later became a barracks for Syrian troops but is being rebuilt by a Syrian developer, to be reopened once again - heaven spare us - as a hotel for journalists. The Tehran Intercontinental remains as gaunt as ever - guests have to walk on a painted US flag to enter the lobby - while that cosy bar in Kabul now serves only fruit juice. In Sarajevo, the Holiday Inn survives with bullet holes around the bar, its guests secreted like beetles in rooms around the atrium. And we, of course, will go on writing about these wretched places because, by doing so, we help to romanticise ourselves.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
REX/Eye Candy
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Management Accountant

£30-35k + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Management Accoun...

UI Designer / UX Designer

£40 - 60k + Amazing Benefits: Guru Careers: A UI Designer / UX Designer is nee...

SEO Manager / SEO Expert / Head of Search

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: An SEO Manager / SEO Expert is needed to join an inno...

Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

£30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?