The War Hotels: Iraq's Palestine Hotel


BOSTON — The Palestine was the Baghdad war hotel during the last days of Saddam Hussein's rule, but after his fall, the Al-Hamra became the hotel of choice for most journalists. When I stayed there in 2005 it was almost entirely filled with journalists and private security employees. There were elaborate security precautions, sand bags around the front door, and a huge blast wall around the compound to keep out car bombers.

The correspondents made the best of it, cooking in their suites and giving parties for one another, but life after work was restricted to the hotel. It was too dangerous to go out, so no one had the restaurants and bars of Saigon or Beirut, or Chicote's bar to go to as a change of scene, as in wartime Madrid.

A scene in Ernest Hemingway's "Fifth Column" has Dorothy cooking stew in her room. In the play, the results are inedible, but it brought back the memory of another hotel, in Kuwait soon after it had been liberated by American forces in 1991.

The lobby had been blown up by the retreating Iraqis, and fur coats from Paris as well as Gucci bags from expensive shops were spread around the lobby amidst the broken glass and fallen plaster. There was no electricity in the hotel, a modern high-rise, and thus no elevator service. But if you were willing to climb the back stairs you could have any room you wanted. The higher you got the more expensive were the rooms, not that anyone was paying. There was no staff to check you in or out. You just took any room you liked, and if you thought it was time for the sheets to be changed, you found another room. All the hotel staff had long since fled. Sometimes, when the wind was blowing from the wrong direction, the hotel, and the entire city, was smothered in black smoke form the burning oil wells that the Iraqis has set alight.

I had a splendid, candle-lit meal one evening cooked in a helmet on a Bunsen burner by a gallant correspondent named Elizabeth Neuffer who was to be killed during the next war in Iraq.

The second Iraq war would prove to be the most dangerous of all — certainly the most dangerous I have ever seen. Losing a colleague is as painful for war correspondents today as it was back in the Spanish Civil War. That never changes. It still feels like losing a brother or sister.

But today, this "family" of correspondents is more fractured than it has been in the past. There is less of a chance for intimacy or camaraderie, and that is in large part due to the curse of technology.

With instant communications correspondents could not be as languid about filing as Martha Gellhorn, a journalist who later married Hemingway, was. In the 21st century wars the cell phone had come to dominate a reporter's life. During one small dinner party for six at Al-Hamra, I counted nine "incoming" or "outgoing" calls to interrupt the occasion. There were even more "incoming" text messages and emails that splintered the group after deadline, which in previous wars was a coveted quiet moment to gather for a drink or to talk.

Foreign correspondents are never too far away to be reached in the home office, anymore. And although they don't have to find a cable office, they have to file for their publications and the internet, as well as shooting videos. The culture of foreign correspondents that Hemingway knew in the Florida Hotel lasted until the computer and the cell phone took possession of men and women covering wars.

My first night in the Al-Hamra we heard the explosion of a truck bomb trying to destroy the Palestine, and soon after we saw the chilling sight on television of the truck getting caught in the rubble of the blast wall it had managed to breach. The truck's radiator was blown high into the sky, and when it came down it was covered with feathers. It was dangerous even to be a bird in Baghdad.

It was clear that the Al-Hamra would be next, and I spent evenings on the balcony as the dusty days turned into what seemed like a thousand and one Baghdad nights thinking about where the weak point in the blast walls might be, and from whence the attack would come.

When the attack did come I had left Iraq, but my Iraqi colleague, Sa'ad al Izzi, described the scene: "Thick dust covered the room, making it hard to breathe ... As I got up a few seconds after the blast, I heard a second, even louder explosion ... I took cover in the narrow interior corridor since we have no windows there."

Sa'ad's dispatch was not unlike the stage direction in Hemingway's Act One, Scene Two of the play, when "at the crashing burst, the room fills with smoke and brick dust."

Editor's note: From the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s to today's conflict in Iraq, it seems that in most wars a hotel provides a stage set for a cast of characters trying to cope with the tragedy outside. You can read about some of them in this series:

The War Hotels: Introduction

Vietnam: the Continental Palace

Cambodia: Le Phnom

Bangladesh: The Intercontinental in Dacca

Lebanon: Beirut's Commodore

Iraq: The Palestine Hotel in Baghdad

Afghanistan: Kabul's Gandamack Lodge