In the midst of last winter’s revolts across the Middle East and North Africa, I kept getting e-mails and text messages from friends and colleagues in Tripoli, Cairo, Sanaa, and Benghazi. It made me homesick for the days when I spent more than half the year on the road, living in some of the world’s best and worst hotels. The bad ones were truly bad, with little or no food, and no water, electricity, showers, or toilets. The best were not about the rooms themselves, but the memories of reporting historic events alongside legendary journalists.
The romantic in me had been influenced by the greats who had covered the war in Indochina and lived out of the Caravelle Hotel, in Saigon: David Halberstam, Walter Cronkite, Jon Swain. Or Ernest Hemingway, Jon Dos Passos, and Martha Gellhorn reporting the Spanish Civil War while at the Hotel Florida, in Madrid.
I was a teenager when I saw Under Fire, the Nick Nolte film about the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and thought, This is going to be my life. Nolte plays a photojournalist who sacrifices his life to alert the world to horrific human rights violations. Gene Hackman portrays an aging writer who loses his beloved girlfriend, an intrepid reporter, to Nolte’s character. I had no idea that, in the years to come, situations in my own life would imitate those shown in the film.
But even back then I knew that while the movie looked glamorous, the reality of living as a foreign correspondent was not going to be how Hollywood portrayed it. Angelina Jolie always had clean, freshly pressed shirts when she played a humanitarian worker in war zones in Beyond Borders. I can tell you that if I had a white shirt, it didn’t remain clean for long.
The first hotel I stayed in as a foreign correspondent was the American Colony, in Jerusalem. It was 1990, during the first Palestinian intifada. My friend Ahmed brought me to the hotel for tea. I was a broke freelancer, young and green. I had planned to stay at a small, charmless, and cheap hotel in West Jerusalem.
“Why don’t you stay at the Colony?” Ahmed asked as he led me, in the hazy, solid heat of summer, through the winding streets of East Jerusalem. The first thing I saw when we entered the lobby—cooled by the white stone and enormous fans—was a photographer with long, curly hair and a red T-shirt that said time magazine. She was shouting at someone about shipping her film. There were some Palestinian politicians in shiny, badly cut suits and some United Nations types whispering in a corner.
Ahmed took me to the inner sanctum of the Colony, a leafy courtyard that opened onto various rooms, like a Turkish pasha’s palace, which in fact it had once been. There were lemon trees and Armenian tiles and the sound of water flowing from a fountain. The waiter brought us mint tea, heavily sugared, and tiny butter biscuits in the shape of stars. I got a room for $40 a night, the journalists’ rate, and moved in that afternoon. And suddenly, I was part of the pack that gathered at breakfast in the courtyard and sat in the sun wearing dark glasses. It was like something out of a Graham Greene novel.
We were obsessed with breaking news. In one of the rooms off the lobby there was an Associated Press wire machine spewing out copy, so everyone could keep up to date on the intifada. If there was a clash in the West Bank, someone would enter the courtyard, shout “Ramallah!” and all of us, in a flash, would disappear into taxis.
It was at the American Colony that I learned to do the work I would end up doing for two decades (and still do, though in a more careful way now that I have a small child). The intifada taught me how to report human rights violations, how to record people’s lives in my notebooks and attempt to give a voice to the voiceless. I was fortunate enough—perhaps because I was young and unthreatening—to watch other great reporters at work and learn from them. Richard Beeston, the London Times man (now the paper’s foreign editor), let me jump in his car and catch a ride to the West Bank. The late Juan Carlos Gumucio of El País taught me how to file a proper news story. A reporter from Le Monde explained how to get a press pass from the Israelis. The BBC constantly let me use their phone.
After Palestine, I went to Bosnia, in the summer of 1992. I lived with most of the other journalists in the ugly, Soviet-style Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, which had the misfortune of being located on Sniper’s Alley. To get out of the hotel was an exercise in survival: with our helmets and flak jackets, we had to run out the back door at breakneck speed to avoid getting shot. The food was disgusting and I didn’t bathe for weeks, but the comradeship of the journalists reporting the war was fierce. I met some of my closest friends there, as well as my future husband. We were bonded together forever because of the siege and the sorrow of watching this beautiful and brave city get pummeled.
I go back often to Sarajevo now, but I have only stayed in the Holiday Inn one time since the war ended. I was too tormented by ghosts—and it was strange to turn on a switch and have electricity, strange not to see half the hotel open to the air because it had been blown apart by a bomb. However, I did search for all the waiters that I had known during the war—the ones who used to play soccer at night in the cavernous dining room because the shelling and sniping made it too dangerous to go outside. How I loved their courage, their dignity, and the fact that they wore freshly cleaned white shirts and bow ties while they served us rice and rock-hard bread for dinner. (Sadly, I managed to find only one of them.)
During the war, the entire hotel was run on black-market supplies—the heating oil one freezing winter was negotiated by one of the journalists (another one who, sadly, is now dead), and the food probably came from humanitarian aid packages. We drank the wine cellar dry that first summer. And I will never forget the first Christmas of the war, in 1992, when a bunch of us went to midnight mass (held at a secret time because the Serbs would have bombed a church full of people at midnight) and then raced back to the hotel in our cars, and someone pulled out a bottle of champagne they’d been hoarding.
After that came hotels in the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast. In Sierra Leone, a particularly interesting hotel called the Mammy Yoko had a swimming pool full of frogs. There was the place in Somalia that served spaghetti with lobster every night and where I had my own private militia. There was the hotel in Kosovo where, after I came back from a bombing raid, my husband-to-be, who thought I had been killed, organized something unheard-of and utterly luxurious: a warm shower. There was the convent in East Timor where my bed was a door frame with a sleeping bag thrown over it.
Baghdad was my last assignment before I became a mother and entered a new phase of my life. I spent nearly three months at the Al-Rashid Hotel there in 2003, during the last days of Saddam Hussein, waiting for his fall. One night, Sean Penn came to my room to talk. He was in the city as a “private protester” against the bombing that was certainly on its way. Because everything was bugged in those days—the Iraqi secret police were everywhere and followed journalists; I dressed in the bathroom with the light out—we turned the TV up full blast on some cheesy Egyptian dance channel, smoked cigarettes, and talked politics. Penn was dying for a drink and so was I, but there was no alcohol in the Al-Rashid unless you somehow smuggled it in.
For breakfast the hotel served pomegranate juice and bread with honey. We worked hard, but because we were away from home for so long, we tried to carve out normal lives. Some mornings, in the misty haze of pollution that is Baghdad, I would look out my window at the gardens and see Lorenzo, an Italian journalist, jogging. An Austrian reporter once offered to paint my hair when I said I wanted to dye it blond. Another Italian writer used to practice piano daily.
In March 2003, right before the bombs started falling in Baghdad, we were forced to move to the Palestine Hotel. I thought I would come back to the Al-Rashid, so I left two suitcases of my good winter clothes—coats, sweaters, boots—and just took the necessities with me. I never got them back. The American military moved in, and the Al-Rashid became part of the Green Zone.
In 2001 in Kabul, after the fall of the Taliban, Peter Jouvenal, a BBC cameraman who knew Afghanistan like the back of his hand, opened a hotel in a house on Passport Street that had allegedly been the home of one of Osama bin Laden’s wives. He called it the Gandamack Lodge, which is also the fictional address of Flashman, the main character in the George Fraser MacDonald books that foreign correspondents love to read. Four years later, Jouvenal moved to another location near the UNHCR building, restored the rooms, and opened a restaurant with English comfort food (shepherd’s pie; lamb chops; fry-ups for breakfast) called the Hare & Hound Watering Hole. It’s dark and seedy and fantastic. It comes close to the American Colony’s famous bar (which someone once nicknamed the Chamber of Horrors because of the amount of alcohol consumed there).
I don’t miss the endless wandering I used to do, or how lonely I got for months on end. I don’t miss the stress of spending all day trying to find a bottle of water to drink or brush my teeth with, or the hell of filing a story on a satellite telephone for 50 dollars a minute. But I do miss being part of history being written—or, as Christiane Amanpour once said, “shining a light on the darkest corners of the world.” Those messages from Benghazi, Tripoli, and beyond did stir something in me, and for a moment, I wanted desperately to be part of the pack again.
Janine di Giovanni’s memoir, Ghosts by Daylight, is due out from Knopf in September.
The pomegranate juice at the Hotel InterContinental Kabul is one of Afghanistan’s great secrets. I discovered it when I was staying there in 1989–90, right after the Soviet withdrawal. I arranged with one of the waiters to have an unending supply in exchange for a Raleigh bicycle, which was like buying him a Rolls-Royce. The trouble was that then all the waiters wanted to supply me with pomegranates. —John Burns, London bureau chief, the New York Times
While covering Vietnam for CBS, I stayed at the Caravelle Hotel, in Saigon. It was elegant but a little tatty around the edges: the faintest smell of nuoc mam wafted through the corridors, and the night watchman was known as Mr. Cat, because he had two long threads on either side of his face, like whiskers. Mr. Cat specialized in doing anything you needed. Another guest had a lady friend who wanted a Ford Mustang. Somehow Mr. Cat got it shipped all the way up the Saigon River, amid the fighting, intact. —Dan Rather, Anchor, HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports
The Mamba Point Hotel, in Monrovia, Liberia, was a classic colonial hotel with big overhead fans and verandas overlooking the Atlantic. But in 2003, as the situation got worse, it became a refugee center, the usual businessmen stuffed in with families sleeping in the halls and on the roof. These people had nothing: I remember one family in particular who had made soup and were using the handle of an old rotary phone for a ladle. —Sebastian Junger, Journalist, filmmaker, and author of War
In 2006, in Lebanon’s Bekáa Valley—a Hezbollah stronghold—I found the most divine hotel, the Grand Hotel Kadri, in Zahlé. We’d run up and down all day dodging Israeli missiles, and each night we’d retreat to this gorgeous hotel whose existence had absolutely no logical explanation: French-style architecture; high ceilings; huge rooms; 300-thread-count sheets. Hotel heaven on a stick, in the middle of the Bekáa Valley. —Michael Ware, Veteran war correspondent, CNN and Time
After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I’d grab some food and go to the rooftop of Le Plaza Hotel, in Port-au-Prince. One side overlooks a park outside the National Palace, which essentially became a camp for displaced people. On another side is this beautiful port, with the mountains in the distance. From that vantage point, I could see what Haiti is and what it could potentially become. —Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief medical correspondent, CNN
As told to Nate Storey and Gabriella Fuller