Lattakia has been in the news of late. Something about bombings and revolutionaries and government crackdowns. A veritable viper-pit of anti-Assad sentiment, so they say. Not so, when I was there.
Travel is often interesting in that the things you remember about a place are rarely what you read about in the news or glean from the pages of a Lonely Planet. When I think of Lattakia I don’t think of the ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit or the majestic outcrop of Qala’at Salah-Al-Deen (Saladin’s Castle).
I remember only the minutiae. The toothless old man selling sea shells he’d picked up by the shore; sipping thick Arab coffee over backgammon; the pros and cons of competing shawerma stands; Al-Jazeera-televised images of self-immolating Tunisian revolutionaries as seen from inside the local ice cream shop. Fleeting flashes of many things forgotten.
But one memory of Lattakia stands out above all. A guesthouse.
In Aleppo, my friend Hamud, a former mukhabarat agent-turned-hairdresser-and-hotel-bellboy, had suggested I stay at the “Funduq Salah Ad-Deen” (The Saladin Hotel).
Tucked away in a side-alley to the west of Lattakia’s main mosque, the Saladin Hotel backed onto the city square. Nearby, a statue of Hafez Al-Assad stood with arms outstretched over the street. A haze of shisha smoke curtained the entrance. From the outside, the Saladin looked acceptable. A typical beyt, lost in the medina. According to reports, a bed also went for the equivalent of $2.50 per night. Definitely affordable.
The lobby was a construction site. It’s all part of a grand design, said the owner, showing me his plans for a new Arc de Triomphe in the entrance hall. In its present form, his grand archway was a crumbling brick behemoth, pasted together with odd-job chunks of cement. Elsewhere, the leftover cement clung to walls in obsequious white bulges – clag on a child’s collage. Rubble and concrete debris littered the rest of the lobby. Free-flapping electrical wires dangled from the ceiling like a school of eels scouring the sea-bed for bottom-feeders.
The owner – “Ahmed. Please call me Ahmed” – showed me upstairs to the guest bedroom – “the luxury twin share”. US$5 per night.
The only light in the room was a neon light on the floor and the only other occupant was an obese (and possibly-naked) Turk lying in bed with the sheets up to his pubis – half-swathed in a sickly blue light.
I asked to see the dorm. The dorm wasn’t so much a room as it was a space where eight beds, touching end-to-end, side-to-side were crammed. With no space between each bed and no overhead storage for bags or clothing it seemed the Arab equivalent of a swingers salon. Here though, instead of incense and attractive houri, all I had to look forward to was the smell of unfiltered cigarettes and the digestive gases of my belching room-mates.
The other seven men sharing the room seemed to be enjoying themselves. An evening of chain-smoking and B-grade Turkish detective shows was ahead of them. Rather idyllic really.
I put my head down, feigning sleep. At first, the smoke was bearable. After all, smoking indoors is a fact of life in the Middle East. But as I lay in bed for a few hours staring up at the toxic grey mist slowly filling the room, I realised that my cherished air pocket was running out. The smog descended.
I reached for the curtains.
Why that Mediterranean sea-breeze would be pretty welcome right now – if only I could open a window.
The window was a dud. The dorm windowless. A brick wall stared back at me through the glass. On the inside sill, a musty bowl of rotten hummus – mould blossoming at the edges. I slid the curtain shut, rolled onto my side and pretended to be somewhere else.
$2.50 per night, I reminded myself.
“Lonely Planet won’t come and review my hotel,” the owner said to me as I departed the next morning. “But please, write good things about us on TripAdvisor.”
“Of course,” I lied.