Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Hotel That Ran A Country

Veteran ABC foreign correspondent Mark Corcoren delves into the "secret life" of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad (excerpts) :

For me all roads once led to the Marriott, in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan. For six years the hotel was like a second home - as I worked on assignments in Pakistan or stopped off in transit on my way back to Australia from the madness of neighbouring Afghanistan.

Architecturally, the hotel building was unremarkable, 1970s vintage. But location is everything, and the Marriott was minutes away from the National Assembly, the Prime Minister's residence, Government bureaucracy and the headquarters of Pakistan's all-powerful spy agency, the ISI.

What made this hotel special for the privileged few was the commodity being traded day and night in the foyer, cafes and restaurant: information.

Information, as they say, is power, and in Pakistan, power is a life and death struggle.

The Marriott, as American diplomats and spies were fond of saying, was "the real deal".

Hollywood may have created "Rick's Café" of Casablanca fame - a fictional world of intrigue - but the characters who inhabited the Marriott were playing out a real life drama, a latter day version of the "Great Game" to control Southwest Asia.

It often seemed that Pakistan was run from this hotel to the strains of the incessant hotel muzak.

This was a neutral ground for competing politicians, diplomats, warlords, drug lords, peddlers of nuclear weapons technology, and perhaps a few who fell into all those categories.

Alcohol was a tool of the trade even in an Islamic state such as Pakistan. At first it was brought to my room in a brown paper bag - after I filled out a government form declaring myself to be an unstable foreign alcoholic.

Later, hotel management discretely opened a windowless basement bar - one of the few venues in the capital to serve alcohol. Occasionally I'd disappear into this gloom for a quiet drink with the army officers-turned spies who were running Pakistan's secret wars in Afghanistan and Indian-occupied Kashmir. Many had embraced the extremist zeal of the militants they sought to control and exploit - yet they still enjoyed a scotch or a beer when I was paying.

Change for the Marriott came after 9/11. As the Americans gathered their forces to invade Afghanistan, the hotel became media headquarters of the world.

Hundreds of foreign media established a surreal Tower of Babel in the hotel. TV networks fought for space on the roof to erect plywood studios, guests slept on stretchers three to a room. The function centre became a paying dormitory - and the room rate, like the punditry, seemed to escalate on a daily basis.

As CNN anchors shared their insight with the world from their rooftop plywood stage, South American journalists down in the foyer, watching the broadcasts on TV, transcribed every word before relaying back to anxious readers back home.

The foyer transformed into the theatre of the absurd. There was the chic French TV crew kitted out in the flowing robes of traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez; and the American reporter complaining that he couldn't bring his gun into the hotel.

With the fall of Kabul the circus moved on, but the Marriott had changed.

After 9/11 the security barriers went up outside the hotel, but no one seriously believed it would stop a determined teenager on a one-way ticket to martyrdom.

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