KatalystProductions

Welcome to the Hotel California

In Libya on August 21, 2012 at 22:55

It was like a scene from out of The Shining, you know the bit where the kid pedals down the hallway – the tracking shot above his shoulder as he ominously makes his way down the corridor in his toy four-wheeled motorbike.  It was the hallway of the Hotel that time forgot.  In fact it was a Hotel that hadn’t had any guests for some time.  The carpets were faded, the decor reminiscent of the 70s, the seats sat empty and the lanterns hung, well they just hung “ominously.”  It was like the Mary Celeste.   Oddly, there was an abandoned, anaemic Christmas tree that had been left on one of the landings.  It had closed down during the civil war, and now after the fall of Gaddafi it was slowly welcoming us as new guests.  Not many mind, just a motley crew of 5 or so freelance Western journalists.   It was November 2011, and we had discovered the Hotel through a fellow Ukrainian journo who had stumbled upon it during his many excursions on the way to the Corinthia Hotel – a swanky 5 star hotel that anyone on a freelance budget could ill-afford.  We often joked it was like the Hotel California, where you could check out at any time you liked, but you could never leave.   The Hotel was near the “crazy market” of Rashid St, an area oft-described by local Libyans as very “downmarket.”   The many friends who drove me home via Rashid St often remarked how dirty and horrible it was.  It was certainly a seedy area, but conversely, it had a police station right next to it, and we were told that there was in fact little petty crime as the stall owners took care of things – any crime would deter customers, so they made sure there wasn’t any.  Plus the location was handy, close to Martyr’s Square and near enough to the Radisson where other media on more generous expenses would stay.

The Shining awaits!

Hotel California

The Mary Celeste

The Hotel itself was nice enough.  In fact it was clean and quite modern, barring the odd decor faux pas or three.  It was our little haven from the mad, swirling chaos that lay just outside the automatic double doors.  I would often seek refuge inside the lobby before hurtling myself camera bag aloft and tripod swung across my shoulders for a dash through the “Tunis Garage” otherwise known as a mad melange of broken down rickety old mini buses plying their trade to take passengers to Tunisia, amongst impromptu “stalls” scattering their wares all over the pavement, and negotiating my way around the fumes of the cars, the traffic and dodging broken slabs of pavement.  This was my almost daily dash to the sanctity and refuge of the Corinthia Hotel, for a decent cappuccino, and a better internet connection.  The one main drawback of our Hotel was that the Wi-Fi was only available in the lobby, which was okay, except going down there for a quick email check meant you ended up gossiping for two hours with whatever other passing journo happened to be there.  Many an evening my fellow journos and I would sit on the sofas, with Libyan TV playing in the background (quite loudly as the Hotel staff appeared to be permanently deaf), hunched over our laptops, tapping away, twittering, reading emails and talking about the news – what security breach had happened that day, which militia was causing trouble this time, was the border closed, who had attacked the airport again?

The “crazy market” with Corinthia Hotel

Negotiating the “crazy market”

As there were only 5 of us staying back in November, the Hotel wasn’t running a full service.  The restaurant wasn’t open but they would bring us coffee in the morning and a kind of breakfast consisting of bread and cheese that we would eat in the lobby, amongst the smoke fumes.  It seemed it was still “legal” to smoke anywhere you fancied in Libya.  This was another reason why I preferred to go to the Corinthia for email – at least there they policed the “No Smoking” policy.   We got to know the staff at our Hotel pretty well as although they only spoke broken English some of us (not me) spoke fluent Arabic.   They told us about what it was like in the Hotel during the fall of Tripoli.  “Terrifying,” was about the one word to sum it up.  They said gunshots were zinging about all over the place; they had to take refuge in the basement for about two days.  Nejat, one of the maids, showed us the hotel “security” – a rusty old Kalashnikov which she wielded somewhat un-reassuringly.

Hotel security

My room on the fifth floor overlooked the Mediterranean – and the iconic Tripoli Tower. Next door, a new building was in the throes of construction, but had stopped mid-way.  Its site now lay derelict.    Like most things in Libya everything had stopped mid-way, mid-repair or mid-air during the civil war.  And even now, three or so months later, things still weren’t really getting back under way.  It wasn’t until the end of my trip that I accidentally went a floor further up and landed on the sixth floor restaurant. I discovered a pleasant open-plan dining area with a large cafe-style terrace – if only I had found this earlier, I thought to myself – I could have sat outside and looked at the beautiful view over-looking the Medina and the sea!  But like most things in the hotel, it wasn’t open yet.

Construction ghost-site

Hassan was a short older moustachioed Moroccan man who curiously reminded us of “Manuel” from Fawlty Towers.  Every morning he would bring us cappuccino, with a smile and a nod.  One of our comrades, an English reporter would shout out every morning one of the few Libyan Arabic words we knew: “shijow” he would say to our hotel staff – meaning “how are you?” –  or literally “how’s the weather?”  The staff were always friendly and eager to please, despite there only ever being one extension lead for all of our laptops, and nobody ever thinking of bringing us another.   But everyone made do in a kind of “Blitz” war-time mentality.  Technically it was no longer war, but Libya was certainly in a state of limbo.

Hotel view of Tripoli Tower

There had been a lot of talk of late about getting the big guns – the anti-aircraft weapons and smaller arms off the streets of Tripoli.  There had been a number of skirmishes involving fire-arms and Tripoli International Airport was still being controlled by the Zintan militia.  Random attacks and personal vendettas were happening, and people including innocent by-standers were getting killed.  Celebratory gun-fire was still prevalent, particularly around Martyr Square and people were dying from being hit by stray bullets.   A friend had told me the story of a bride who had just finished being made up at the beauty salon, had her hair done, her make up done and was in her dress, being driven along in a car in the street.  Next thing she was dead, having been hit by a single stray “celebratory” bullet.   That day there was talk of the interim government imposing a deadline for 31 December – for all out-of-town militias to leave Tripoli and for all militias to either join the Libyan National Army or give up their weapons.

Upon arriving back to the Hotel at night, we could see a whole new series of checkpoints had been set up.  No one was on the streets.  We asked what was happening.  The Hotel staff told us that all the local residents had decided to shut down all the streets around central Tripoli – so as to stop anyone driving in with the technicals – the anti-aircraft guns on the back, and to stop other weapons from coming in.  They had set up road blocks and checkpoints.  The mood had changed.  They had had enough.  There was to be a big “No Weapons” demonstration in Martyr Square the next day.   But we hadn’t eaten that night, and the Hotel wasn’t doing food.  Omar, one of the hotel receptionists, offered to take us out to nearest kebab shop.  We thought it would be a good chance to check out what was happening, and so I took my camera.  Out on the streets it was eerily quiet.  Nobody was about.  We drove down to the nearest checkpoint.  They let us though, and then we drove to the next one.  The locals had grabbed whatever they could and dragged it out into the street – a tree stump, a bollard, barbed wire, whatever to serve as a roadblock.   We stopped to chat and film.  I asked them what that were doing and Gazi, one of the residents told me.  “Everything is okay, it’s fine but we just want to send a message to the militias – we don’t want any more weapons in Tripoli.  We’ve had enough bloodshed, the revolution is over, we just want to get back to normal now.”  Local drivers seemed to be complying and turning around, finding another route to drive.

Things seemed under control, but clearly this co-ordinated yet spontaneous action was telling.  Tripoli had had enough of the fighting.

 

“No Weapons” protest

  1. Wow, fantastic blog layout! How long have you ever been blogging for? you made blogging glance easy. The whole look of your website is fantastic, let alone the content!

  2. […] was back in my Hotel, which we had affectionately dubbed “Hotel California” and was back in the same room that I had stayed on my first filming trip.  It was like I […]

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