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Always a welcome

How hotels become homes when conflict threatens?

Written by Alia Allana | Published: December 11, 2010 2:57 am

It’s just a room with a key. Just a concrete building,always open to the paying guest. But,for now,the doors of the Golf Hotel in Abidjan are firmly shut. Inside,President Alassane Ouattara has appointed his cabinet,far from the glass-walled presidential palace. Ouattara has spoken out against the other president of the Ivory Coast — “he’s a king” — and demands his abdication. Ivory Coast finds itself in a daunting situation. The November 28 election resulted in two presidents,two prime ministers and confusion. The incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo alleges that Ouattara’s majority was bought through power and coercion,and that militia from the north threatened voters to ensure his opponent’s victory. Venom between the north and south has thrown the country into civil war in the past,and threatens the shining star of West Africa again. Sides have been chosen. Calls that Gbagbo hand over power have come from the United Nations and former colonial power France; yet talks of a power-sharing agreement are gaining momentum. The angry north,marginalised and armed,awaits word in the Golf Hotel.It’s a curious thing,the hotel as headquarters. Yet one that seems natural. Structured and contained,free of clutter and constraints,it provides both space and a clean state. And sometimes in our histories,these concrete blocks of convenience have metamorphosed into emotional pieces of architecture. Take Hotel Rwanda for instance. The Rwandan genocide,in which Hutus slaughtered Tutsis,brought out the worst in humanity. With the UN hesitant to classify it as genocide,and its blue berets turned their backs during the 100 days of terror,it was a hotel manager,Paul Rusesabagina,and his hotel that kept hope alive. The Mille Collines Hotel was and is a luxury establishment,the only hotel in Rwanda with a near-Olympic-size swimming pool. During the 11-week siege the embattled hotel surrounded by militia forces provided refuge to 1,268 tenants. Supplies dwindled as Tutsis poured in and not one could venture out. As water ran out,Rusesabagina writes in his memoirs,“every morning at 8:30 and every afternoon at 5:00 everyone was told to come down with the small plastic wastepaper bin from their room. They were allowed to dip it once into the pool water,which was already turning yellow.” In those days,if the hotel was the refuge,its swimming pool was their well.It’s very human to,in times of chaos and uncertainty,seek refuge in the comfortable,the familiar. The siege of Sarajevo transformed the political landscape — and the city remodelled itself in turn. Alleys were renamed. The most commonly heard from foreign correspondent dispatches was Sniper’s Alley. And the bird’s-eye view of the chaos of Snipers Alley was almost always from the Holiday Inn.Kim Willsher,the award-winning journalist,recalls in her autobiography,“it doesn’t matter if your colleague is your newspaper’s biggest rival. At the Holiday Inn we share cars,satellite phones,computers,hotel rooms… There is always a certain professional rivalry but there is generally fantastic camaraderie.” Joe Sacco immortalised the siege in his graphic novel,Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. His first contact was the concierge,suited and ready to serve: “This is the hotel. This is the front line. Don’t ever walk here.” Always,always,the concierge knows the city well.More recently,the Hotel Palestine housed most of the foreign correspondents and security contractors during the invasion of Iraq. Located a stone’s throw from the Green Zone,across the river from Saddam’s former palace,the hotel was one of the most prominent features of the Baghdad skyline. But it wasn’t immune to conflict. As the fall of Baghdad neared,the Palestine found itself under fire from American tanks. Hanging bedsheets out of the windows,journalists made the news as unfortunate victims. Sometimes a great hotel’s location and pre-eminence are dangerous. The British,during their mandate in Palestine,saw their military centre attacked and a hundred staffers perish. The Zionist paramilitary group Irgun devised and carried out the terror attack on the King David Hotel. The Palestinian Question hasn’t found closure yet; but its then leader,and later Israel’s PM,Menachem Begin,said of the terrorists’ motivations that “history and our observation persuaded us that if we could succeed in destroying the government’s prestige in Israel,the removal of its rule would follow automatically.” Hotels are not just lock and key. Nor are they mere shelter. For a tourist coming to the city,the hotel is a monument to visit,a prominent structure. For those calling a particular city home,a hotel is a space where moments in relationships are marked. They find a place in our collective unconscious. But we truly pay attention to them only in need.

alia.allana@expressindia.com

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