Luxury hotels in crisis areas are peculiar places. They aren’t places at all. They’re metaphors. They’re hubs of alienation, with their clientele of businesspeople, aid workers and journalists from all over the world. Outside you may be confronted with the blatant ubiquity of third world-squalor, but inside, there is nothing to disturb you. There is absence of squalor. There’s luxury and comfort and so on, and that’s, well, comforting. You are nowhere. You are an astronaut on your own planet. You are in a spaceship, paradoxically anchored to the ground. Through bulletproof windows you catch a glimpse of the place you’ve travelled to, a place that seems terrible in many respects, a place that has radically nothing to do with you, and in your more mournful, dispirited moments, after a day of unanswered calls and cancelled appointments, you fantasise about the spaceship taking off and bringing you back to a world that you can comprehend and trust.
In fact, these hotels can be the most dangerous places in town. The Marriott in Islamabad, for instance, was blown up twice. Scores of people died. I’ve been there several times, it feels strange that I could have died there too. The hotel was reconstructed and now has, according to its website, ‘bomb-proof and shock-proof double security walls and pass-through gates’; but if death and destruction wish to get in again, they will.
Third world luxury hotels – you will find them in the most unlikely places, like the Serena Hotel in Quetta (Pakistan, province of Baluchistan). The dusty town of Quetta effectively lies in rebel territory. I was not allowed to leave the hotel compound without military escort. Of course I objected. I thought it would interfere with my work as a reporter – but as it turned out, it hardly did. I sat with a man who claimed to be a nephew of Taliban-leader Mullah Omar. The man had a pointed, crimson beard. He talked about overthrowing the Pakistani government of unbelievers. The Pakistani soldier that was assigned to me for my protection sat next to him, AK-47 in his lap, and nodded in agreement.
My armed escort gave me a feeling of importance – and of danger, which, I must say, was rather gratifying. This was all a few weeks after 9/11, and we journalists thought that history, after having seemingly ended, had resumed, and that we were going to play an adventurous part in it. I didn’t think about my own private life. It was exhilarating to think about all kinds of things, except my own private life.
Not thinking about your own private life makes you feel more important, as every politician will tell you.
But look what happened. Look what happened after 9/11. We of the world that was targeted by those attacks, we of the free world as we call it ourselves, have stopped thinking about anything else but our own private lives. We of the free world have cut ourselves off from history. We are all in private spaceships now, behind bulletproof windows, catching glimpses of places that seem terrible to us. And next to us sit our governments, our would-be protectors, not unlike that Pakistani soldier sat next to Mullah Omar’s nephew, nodding in eager agreement, nodding with what almost seems to be sardonic encouragement, at our ever growing fears and delusions.