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the lobby
From: Marcela Gaviria · Re: Mosul · Date: Nov. 19, 2003

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Introduction: A Long Road

Pvt. Chamberlain asks if we have seen any Saudis or Syrians. 'Maybe you've seen a lot of Mercedes-Benzes parked outside?'

The Nineveh Palace Hotel sits on Al Jame'a road in the outskirts of Mosul. The welcome sign, inexplicably, has a large portrait of Eddie Murphy. Not the one in Beverly Hills Cop, but the overweight one in The Nutty Professor. It's a depressing hotel, with striped burgundy wallpaper and plastic ivy leaves strung here and there as decoration. There is a bar to the far right of the front desk, but the only drinks offered are Seven Up, Coca Cola, and an orange fizz drink called Mirinda.

The lobby is full of ordinary Iraqi businessmen smoking Al Rasheed cigarettes and watching soap operas. I watch, too, for a while, without understanding what is being said. In one scene, a woman clings to a dishdash, the long pajama-like robe worn by Iraqi men, as the man slams the door behind him. The camera zooms in on a tear as it streaks down the woman's face.

Since Saddam was toppled, Moslawis, as the citizens of Mosul call themselves, have been glued to their television sets. This lobby is no exception. The channel-surfing selection includes Al Jazeera News, the Iranian Al Alam news network, soccer games, Kuwaiti and Jordanian soap operas, and a few cartoons like Tom & Jerry and Road Runner translated into Arabic. I don't know how many Iraqis watch television in the evenings, but there seems little else to do in Mosul. There are no bars, no malls, a couple of gyms, one cinema that shows old Schwarzenegger and Bronson movies, a few coffee houses, and a couple of restaurants.

The lobby of the Nineveh Palace has a small restaurant, with a full menu that includes brain salad, tongue salad, "chicken gordon blue," "tomato soop," and "beef stragnaff." But in truth, those items are never available. The choices are always the same: chicken kebab or lamb kebab. And if you are in luck, you can get chicken tikka, which is just another kebab, but it tastes a bit more like cumin.

Martin reads me a paragraph of the Brandt Travel Guide on Iraq. It says, "Mosul is famous for its rich culinary tradition. It is a city for walking, with a fascinating maze of narrow and wide alleyways, interesting streets and roads along the banks of the river." Though the guide was updated in 2002, it doesn't exactly describe the city we've spent the last few days exploring.

There is one tourist at the hotel -- Robert, an enthusiastic and spry man in his fifties from Amsterdam. I shake his hand in the smoky lobby and ask him who he is with.

"Alone," he answers.

"I meant what news organization?" I explain.

He seems perplexed and answers, "I am just here visiting."

"You are here as a tourist?" I ask in astonishment.

"I just wanted to see it for myself," he tells me.

I'm intrigued by this man who would spend his personal vacation time and money to come see a country gripped by war.

Robert invites us to sit down next to the hotel bar, where we order cans of Seven Ups and cups of sweet Nescafe. He tells us he works at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and might be posted here in January. "I was interested in seeing it before I took the post. I've got a cat, wife, and kids waiting for me back in Holland."

He asks if it is safe to travel. "Safe enough," we tell him. "Just keep a low profile, don't travel after curfew, keep money hidden in several places, and expect to be robbed on the road."

He is not the only foreigner in the hotel. On Sunday several news crews arrived to cover the Black Hawk helicopter crash. Matthew Chance from CNN struts around the lobby with his flak jacket, satellite phone, and a red kaffiyeh draped over his neck. He tells us he almost didn't make it to Mosul. "Got fired at by some soldiers at a roadblock in Ramadi," he says. "Guess we shouldn't have been traveling at night."

Also here is Terry Moran, who covers President Bush for ABC News. He has left the Rose Garden to see firsthand the country he reports on from a distance. "I got tired of talking about a place I hadn't been to," he tells me. I respect that.

All of the TV crews leave after a night, packing into their bullet-proof 4x4 convoys early the next morning.

The next afternoon, as we are leaving Mosul, a troop of American soldiers walks into the lobby. Scott and I strike up a conversation with a kid from Kansas. Private Chamberlain is impressed with the hotel. "Geez, this is really fancy." I'm surprised by his comment, because the Nineveh Palace is such a dive, and I ask him about his living arrangements. "Oh, it's pretty basic over there," he says. "Still in a tent without heating. This place is great in comparison."

He is on a foot patrol with a handful of others from his unit. His buddies stand outside guarding the place, but Chamberlain stays inside and chats with us in the lobby. He tells us about his hometown, about marrying a girl from the city, about enlisting. Just as we are paying the bill, Chamberlain asks if we have seen any Saudis or Syrians. "Maybe you've seen a lot of Mercedes-Benzes parked outside? Convoys? License plates that aren't from here?" We learn that Private Chamberlain is at the Nineveh Palace looking for terrorists in the lobby.


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posted february 12, 2004

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