Amid the anarchy, plus a change

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The Independent Online
Algiers - The old Hotel Saint George really should no longer exist. Its bourgeois charm should have faded in the long years of corrupt socialism, when the rooms were wired for the merest hint of disloyalty among the FLN apparatchiks who stayed there, or among the armies of fraternal delegations whom Messrs Ben Bella, Boumdienne and Bendjedid welcomed to the Popular Democratic Republic of Algeria. And now, as explosions nightly rattle the windows, there should be even less reason to believe in the old colonial haunt, built on the ruins of a Moorish palace in 1889, when Algiers was "Alger la Blanche'', capital of la France d'outre-mer.

Yet there it still stands, behind the police barricade, impervious to the growing insurrection in the city below its garden walls. The finest Algerian wine is still provided on the terrace, the pastry-and-egg brique l'oeuf served by waitresses dressed like chambermaids, an ascetic, friendly young man from the long-closed Algiers Conservatoire playing Mozart and Haydn in the dining-room. Even the notepaper of the Hotel El-Djazair (Hotel Algiers) bears the legend "Ex-Hotel Saint George Maison Fonde en 1889", as if the French had only just left.

It once ranked among the most famous institutions of the Maghreb, with a guest-list that included Rudyard Kipling and Andr Gide, Baron Rothschild and Simone de Beauvoir, General Mark Clark, Admiral Darlan, King George VI and Churchill and de Gaulle. A first-floor bedroom still boasts a brass plaque upon which is written: "General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander- in- Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force in North Africa, maintained his headquarters in this room from November 1942 to December 1943." And it still comes as a shock to remember that for well over a year Algiers was the capital of Free France and the symbol of Allied determination to reconquer Europe.

Today, however, guests at the Saint George are on the defensive: government officials and industrialists, Algerian journalists, off-duty policemen and foreign businessmen who believe - with such trust that it beggars the imagination - that the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) and its cohorts cannot climb over the garden wall or slip past the lonely gendarme on the gate while the violin plays and the pretty Francophone girls in the bar flirt with their boyfriends. If they played "The Blue Danube'' when the Titanic went down, they most assuredly still play "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'' in the Saint George as the city outside sinks into anarchy.

The sound of gunfire mutters throughout the night, audible through the rustle of palm-trees by the black pool, a reminder to guests of a world going mad. But, like Algeria, the hotel survives on the fevered optimism of its bureaucrats, its concierges and reception clerks and waiters, with average salaries of £97 a month. And, like Algeria, the hotel lift seems to travel in three directions at once: to reach your room on the second floor you have to press the button for the third floor, at which point the light informs you you have arrived on the first floor.

"Don't ask me how it survives," one of the reception staff says when you ask him for the secret of the Saint George. "We all know each other; we all rely on each other. For some of us, it's not safe to go home at night or to go back to our villages more than once a week. So we have our own rooms here. The hotel was nationalised under Chadli Bendjedid in 1982, so we are officially government employees and that could be enough to get our throats cut."

No one at the Saint George wants his name published, except for its ebullient manager, Said Kocheida, but it is no secret that more than half the staff are Berbers. The nearest hotel management school was built in the Kabyle district, so most of the waiters and waitresses are Kabyles, who have no qualms about serving alcohol nor exchanging gossip about which roads are dangerous.

But some things never change. In the last days of colonial France, General Massu and his paratroop officers entertained French ladies to cocktails at the Saint George, impervious to the rapidly approaching end of 132 years of imperial rule. And today, the nomenklatura and businessmen are sometimes visited in their rooms by young ladies in short skirts who slip down for whiskies in the bar at dusk, talking in whispers as the barman locks the door to the darkening gardens.

t PARIS - The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, has called for a European Union initiative to try to end the conflict between Algeria's army-backed government and Muslim fundamentalists, Reuter reports.

Leading article, page16