Hotel Baghdad

Fear and lodging in Iraq

My current home in Baghdad is the fifth in a year, and a fragile refuge from kidnappings and murder. It is a small hotel, and one of the few establishments in town still willing to accept the risk of sheltering Westerners. It has twenty-five suites and six single rooms on six floors, and stands two blocks off a ruined boulevard, on a street that is partially blocked by concrete blast walls. The blast walls form an imperfect compound that contains my hotel and another, larger one also willing to accept foreigners, along with a few houses and several apartment buildings where ordinary Iraqis reside. Though pedestrians walk freely through gates and gaps in the walls, there is only one way in for cars, and it is guarded by men carrying Kalashnikovs, who open trunks and hoods, and use a mirror on a pole to check the undersides for bombs. The guards come under fire from traffic on the boulevard, but this is considered to be minor stuff, which they answer by enthusiastically firing back. I can mention such details without concern for the consequences, because nearly everyone in Baghdad knows about this place already. Mortar rounds fly overhead destined for the fortified Green Zone, about a half mile away across the Tigris River, and several car bombs have exploded nearby (one recently with the force to blow out windows here), but so far no building in the compound has suffered a direct rocket attack. The immunity may be intentional, since the compound serves the insurgency as a useful collection point from which Westerners emerge to brave the streets in their cars; certainly the exits are watched, cars have been followed and chased, and residents have been kidnapped. But the more likely explanation is that richer targets still exist elsewhere in the city, and the insurgents simply haven't gotten around to this one yet.

My hotel has an awning that stretches forward to the street over an unused entrance path bounded by chains as if to control crowds at a gala celebration. The entrance path leads up a few steps to a small glass-fronted restaurant with a locked door. The restaurant is usually empty. In the mornings, a few guests take breakfast there, of instant coffee, stale bread, and imitation honey. Most of the guests are Iraqi men employed by Western companies. They rarely talk. I have been told that this is because they are tense. The hotel's working entrance stands beside the restaurant, and is also glass-fronted. Inside is a miniature lobby, with a high reception desk and a bald clerk who sits low behind it, handing out and retrieving room keys. There is an elevator big enough for three people in a pinch. It is rarely used, because the national power frequently fails, and when it does, the standby generator often won't start. Across from the reception desk is a benchlike sofa against the wall, where sometimes two or three Iraqi men sit smoking silently. I figure they are not quite unemployed, because simply by proximity to Westerners they expose themselves to considerable risk, but I do not know who they are. They are reliably polite. In the cold months they wear leather jackets. At least one provides security, which means that in case of trouble he might fire a pistol or otherwise make noise. Late at night he locks and unlocks the glass front door. If you ask, he will also unlock a little glass case in the lobby, displaying a jumble of tarnished jewelry and other trinkets that no one buys. There is a painting nearby, apparently for sale, of a woman in a red dress lying alluringly on her back, while a white horse hovers strangely in the air above her. It has bothered me vaguely that the horse can fly but does not have wings.

The hotel is called Arth Al-Zuhoor. The name is written in Arabic on a small sign hanging outside, on which it is translated into English as "the Flowers Land," and further defined as a "tourist hotel." The sign is the original. It dates from the hotel's opening, in October of 2001, in the era of Saddam Hussein. Just what kind of tourists the owners had in mind is unclear. The manager then is the manager now. He is a well-fed middle-aged man. His name is Mr. Haider. He has a grand office in the back with an upholstered desk, a television tuned to an Egyptian channel, and a set of soft creamy sofas and chairs. He is friendly but dignified. He serves Turkish coffee to people who stop by. He once went out of his way to assure me that the Flowers Land is the safest establishment in all of Baghdad. He was talking about the war, not the food. He claimed that the neighborhood is inhabited by peaceful retirees, and that it enjoys the city's best weather, too—warmer in the winter, and a bit cooler for the rest of the year. From this I concluded that he has not given up on the tourist idea. He is pragmatic, however, and has no objection to his current clientele—the occasional mercenary, a few second-string reporters, maybe a French photographer or two, and larger numbers of Iraqi drivers and guards. When they are all added together, the hotel is rarely full. The suites cost about $100 a night. Residents walk in and out carrying weapons, and sit in their rooms discussing the available angles of fire and the usefulness of tossing grenades down the stairwells to slow a determined assault.

Guns are tools that beg to be used. The Flowers Land is a latent battlefield. It is a six-floor, twenty-five-suite, six-single-room arsenal with a dangerous restaurant serving greasy kabobs. Mr. Haider originally wanted to call it Arth Al-Mahabba, or "the Lovely Land," but names in Iraq were regulated by the Baathist regime, and when he went to an agency for a "scientific search," he discovered that this one was not on the approved list. Prudently he decided that Lovely Land was a better name for a garden than a hotel. He had experienced a similar disappointment before. He had wanted to call his daughter Rose, but had been told that he could not. This irritated him for years, because he loved his daughter, and had a special affection for flowers. Indeed, his second choice for naming the hotel was the Gardenia—but after another scientific search this, too, was disallowed. It seemed that gardenias were meant to be flowers only, and not to be confused with any business or building. Mr. Haider swerved adroitly, and came up with the name Qasr Al-Zuhoor, or "the Flowers Palace." This time the denial was tinged with a warning: Flowers Palace was a former name for the grand British-built edifice now called the Republican Palace, where Saddam Hussein held forth. Did Mr. Haider really believe that his hotel merited the comparison? No, emphatically not, and the thought hadn't even crossed his mind. Swerving again, he came upon the idea of the Flowers Land, another name for a garden, obviously, but one that for mysterious reasons sailed through the scientific search and emerged as the name of a hotel. Publicly, Mr. Haider was satisfied. Privately, he held a grudge. He did not exactly wave the Stars and Stripes when the United States invaded, eighteen months after he hung up the sign, but immediately afterward he renamed his daughter Rose.

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William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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