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.

Those were golden times for people like him. After the first few unsettled weeks the streets were relatively safe, room rates were high, and thousands of foreigners came flocking in, spilling their bundles of cash. Along with all the journalists in town, there were gamblers and schemers of every sort, most of them jockeying for imagined contracts with the American occupation government, many of them living hard. They hired cars, and wandered the country far and wide, and when they returned to Baghdad, they sat around in the hotel bars swapping lies, and in some cases getting extraordinarily drunk. I remember one night in a large hotel across town watching a Russian fall right off his stool. It was late, and I was astonished that he could get so drunk yet stay awake to do it. Mortar rounds were dropping into the neighborhood just then, some close enough to send shock waves through our chests. The Russian's companion, dispassionately observing his friend on the floor, assured me that the idiot knew damned well there was no need yet to take cover. Those people were brave, I guess. They were certainly enterprising. But over the months that followed, as the war intensified, it gradually became clear that the deals were being made in Washington and not here, and one by one the business people disappeared. Other foreigners departed too, out of frustration or fear. Some managed to burrow into the Green Zone, where they continue to hustle for scraps among the American officials in that world of near total isolation. But enduring the culture of the Green Zone is a high price to pay for professional success, and most foreigners opted to go home instead. Their exodus has left the hotels almost exclusively to the press. Though the ranks have thinned, the number of reporters who remain is sufficient to allow for the survival of the few places defensible enough to let them in. Location is everything in Baghdad hotels. That is the real reason for Mr. Haider's continuing success. Of course he is enterprising and brave. But he is also simply lucky. When he promotes the Flowers Land for its tourist appeal, it is inconceivable that anyone is fooled. The Flowers Land endures because it is safely withdrawn from the boulevards, and happens to stand directly across the street from an establishment that for similar reasons has become the most popular in town—a hotel called the Hamra.

The Hamra was named after the family that owns it, without any need, therefore, for a scientific search. It is twice as large as the Flowers Land. It is vulnerable to rocket attack, but difficult to bomb with a car. Its entrance door remains locked at all times. The door is protected by a steel grille, and is assiduously guarded by men armed with Kalashnikovs. People entering are sometimes searched. They are expected to leave their weapons at a desk, and some do. This makes for an artificially civilized atmosphere inside. There are two buildings, each of which has a small reception desk. They are known as Buildings One and Two. They contain suites, all with stoves and sinks, some with one bedroom, some with two. Building One has a coffee shop, with a long menu of Iraqi and Chinese food. Building Two has a bakery. In between them, and protected by high concrete walls, is a split-level deck containing a swimming pool. The pool is the cleanest in Baghdad, and has much to do with the Hamra's fame. Back in the golden times, especially during the first summer and fall following the invasion, it was the center of an evening social scene that had all the makings of a beach party. Think barbecues, bikinis, and beer. This was a war in which a large number of women were involved, both as correspondents and as aid workers. The men and women tended to be unattached, unafraid, and young. As a result, at the Hamra there was a lot of shacking-up going on. There was a lot of casual sex. This is no longer so true. The casual types have gone away, leaving reduced crews of serious and hard-pressed people behind. More important, as the value of the entire adventure has come increasingly into question, the romance of being in Baghdad has simply worn thin. At the Hamra the swimming pool is now left largely alone, and the other public spaces seem strangely empty; the residents have withdrawn to work in their rooms, and one would hardly suspect that most of the time both buildings are full.

The hotel has inner defenses that cannot safely be described. Suffice it to say that the Hamra would be hard to take even for a large group of mujahideen with suicidal intent. Some of the most visible guests are those who would make it so: they are the Western security men—British, American, typically tattooed, muscular, and short-haired—who at exorbitant cost have been hired by the big news organizations to protect their staffs. They sit around in the coffee shop drinking tea and chuckling over the antics of the reporters. As is well known, a few of those reporters spend their entire tours inside. This is not necessarily their fault: some of those who work for the large television networks, for instance, live under a house arrest so strict that they would violate it at the cost of their jobs. "Live from Baghdad" for them means live from the roof.

At the other extreme are the handful of freelancers still in town. They are photographers and writers, looking to break through to steadier jobs, and compelled to take risks that others do not—seeking out the insurgents, for instance, or getting themselves caught on the receiving end of American fire. They may be smart or not. They appear in the coffee shop, nod to their friends, and perhaps down a beer before disappearing to their rooms to shower and sleep. They are young. I know one who until coming to Baghdad had never been abroad. He told me that he had to struggle now against imagining that the entire world is like this. He had stopped by Europe recently, and had been struck by its similarity to the United States.

But the core reporters are different again. They work for newspapers and weekly magazines, pounding away on laptop computers against deadlines set by North American clocks, and trying to accommodate the requests of distant editors who have little sense of the realities here. The old hands among them got their starts in the Balkan wars a decade ago, but most of these people owe their careers to the attacks of September 11, 2001. They were city-desk reporters or the like, some quite junior, but they seized this opportunity to head to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and they became experienced fast. Some positioned themselves in Iraq before the war, and in at least one case suffered the consequences: a charming and quick-witted reporter for Newsday named Matthew McAllester, who remains in Baghdad today, was arrested for being a spy, and thrown into the Abu Ghraib prison; he was released just prior to the city's fall. Others came in with the American troops, bearing witness to the soldiers' success, however superficial they suspected it to be. Still others arrived later, and found themselves even more deeply at war. All of them have struggled ever since, within the confines of journalistic convention, at balancing official assertions of progress against the reality so obvious here: the systematic failure of America's policy in Iraq. They are at once earnest and cynical about their role. If they do not give weight to official interpretations of the news, or if they appear too bluntly to contradict them, they are quickly accused of bias—an assertion that from a distance people find all too easy to believe. Could things really be so bad in Iraq? The reporters are left with little choice but to scatter their observations and bury the counterpoints deep within their columns, trusting readers to move beyond the headlines and pick up the hints. The collective mood as a result has shifted from enthusiasm for the subject to quiet frustration and fatigue. Every reporter I know seems to have grown ambivalent about staying on in Iraq. Related to this are the practical limitations, which compared with those of any other assignment in memory have become severe: given the insecurity of the roads, the reporters can hardly leave the city unless they "embed" themselves within the military (and write the corresponding stories), and even in Baghdad they can move only at great risk, and almost never on foot. This leads to another accusation—that they are engaged in "hotel journalism," and might as well be writing from the comforts of the Four Seasons in Amman. They themselves agonize over the restraints they face. But the truth is that they are by no means prisoners of this place, and they rarely stay inside the Hamra for even one full day; despite the risks, most of them continue to explore and to learn, to cultivate good sources, and to maintain a close view of Iraq. If one can generalize about such a disparate group, they are ethical, energetic, and extraordinarily brave. Some are cultivated and obviously quite brilliant as well. Their readers are spoiled. The Hamra houses an impressive crowd.

The suites aren't bad either. They are furnished brightly in a spare urban style reminiscent of that promoted by Ikea—a welcome relief from the heavy Arab furnishings and decorations of other establishments. The large news organizations occupy sets of suites, or entire floors, and their rotating crews tend to run roughshod over the interiors, strewing their computers and flak vests about, and not so much residing in their rooms as camping out. Individual reporters, however, have established real homes, complete with iPod stereos, small libraries, and well-supplied kitchens. Groups of reporters sometimes gather in these places for small dinner parties over mediocre wine but otherwise exquisite meals. They leave their cell phones on, and come and go as required by work, but during the lulls outside, when there is no noise of helicopters or fighting to be heard, they might almost be sitting in New York's Upper West Side. Their conversations range wide, but return predictably to the subject of Iraq. It is here that one can see the depth of their expertise and get a sense of the frustration they feel that so little of what they know finally emerges in print. Though they are friends, and some are lovers, they do not talk much in these groups about their personal lives. They do talk about security, hashing over the ever changing threats in specific detail, and discussing shifts in their tactics of self-defense. Some admit to being superstitious—to carrying lucky stones in their pockets, or refusing ever to light their cigarettes from candles. But the emotion they express is concern rather than fear. Only once have I seen the conversation falter—over a certain on-camera decapitation. The sound of explosions and firefights, on the other hand, scarcely merits their attention; recently at a dinner when a series of mortar rounds fell nearby, the conversation, which happened to be about coverage by The New York Times, did not miss a beat. Matthew McAllester may have noticed that I was amused. He smiled and said, "Quite a jaded bunch." With irony and not the slightest trace of bluster, he admitted to his own disappointment with explosions less resonant than those of the biggest car bombs. This is the sort of statement that the superstitious should not make. But after a year of visits to Iraq, I knew what he meant. If you're going to do it, at least do it right.

Over at the Flowers Land the war feels closer to home, and even the small explosions may merit comment. My suite is on the second floor, on the back side of the building, which is poorly protected. The sitting room is narrow. It is overfurnished with two threadbare easy chairs, a matching threadbare sofa, and a coffee table that seems to have been dragged in from the streets. It has a small desk with a chair. It has a TV. I sit here among Iraqi friends, with weapons scattered about. At the far end of the room is a sliding glass door, taped with an X to mitigate shattering. The framing is flimsy, and rattles from mortar rounds even a half mile away. For larger explosions we go outside to check for smoke, and to watch the helicopters swarming around. The door gives onto a small balcony overlooking a large dirt lot heavily strewn with garbage. A pack of feral dogs lives below the balcony, among the weeds. They are large and yellow, and include a litter of yelping puppies who play and tumble around. When people approach, the adult dogs raise their hackles and snarl threateningly. They retreat when rocks are thrown, but their presence comforts me anyway, because of the chance they might alert us to intruders. Beyond the lot and to one side stands a windowless bunker said to have been built by the French to withstand a nuclear attack. The bunker has a concrete mushroom top, and extends several levels below ground. Currently it houses the minister of the interior, whose family is believed to be safely abroad. It is protected by machine gunners in booths attached high on walls, and by loose groups of ill-disciplined Iraqi police, who mill around on the dirt out beyond the dogs. Their presence does not reassure me, because they are as likely as not to fire on us if we ever have to jump from the balcony, and they get especially edgy once the sun goes down. Recently after curfew they opened fire furiously at something real or imagined across the lot—I never found out what. This was the second time in three nights, and they did not let up. We extinguished our lights and hit the floor. An Iraqi friend went squirming out onto the balcony with his Kalashnikov, though no rounds were coming through the glass, and it seemed obvious that we ourselves were not (yet) under attack. I pulled on his ankle, and got him to come back inside. It was a diverting few minutes. But the nights at the Flowers Land are usually slow. We keep the curtains drawn, and eat takeout chicken, hummus, and flatbread. Sometimes we watch movies on TV. My friend calls himself Van Damme, after the action hero. He wears wraparound sunglasses. He is good with a gun. He performs a pistol trick, cycling the fifteen rounds through the chamber of a Beretta and catching each ejected bullet in midair. He times himself and tries to beat his record. When he tires of that, he plays a shooting game on his cell phone. I work on notes and read. Sometimes we watch Lebanese music videos to see the women dance. On the wall above my desk hangs a painting of a reclining maiden gazing into a hand mirror that she holds overhead. I gaze at her too, but do not find her as attractive as she seems to find herself. This may change. The hotels of Baghdad are not prisons, but they do provide time to ponder such things.