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
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.
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