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.