Lattakia has been in the news lately. Something about bombings and revolutionaries and government oppression is what you’ll garner from wading your way through the various news dispatches emanating from the region. A veritable viper-pit of anti-Assad sentiment, so they say, these days. 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 rip from the pages of 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).
What I remember is the minutiae – the little things. The toothless old man selling sea shells he’d picked up by the shore; sipping qawhet (coffee) over backgammon and thinking about where I’d source my next shawerma; watching Tunisian revolutionaries immolate themselves on Al-Jazeera before wandering down the street in search of ice cream.
But one memory of Lattakia stands out above all the others. A guesthouse.
In Aleppo, my friend Hamud, a former Mukhabarat agent-turned-hairdresser-and-bellboy, had suggested I stay at the Funduq Salah Ad-Deen (The Saladin Hotel). When I returned, he’d ask me how I’d found it. “I loved it,” I remember lying.
Tucked away in a side-alley to the west of Lattakia’s main mosque, the Saladin Hotel backs onto the city square. Nearby, a statue of Hafez Al-Assad stood with arms outstretched over the street. The hotel was located in the statue’s blindspot – a few streets back. A haze of shisha smoke curtained the entrance alley. From the outside, the place looked OK. A typical beit – lost in the medina.
But aside from the alluring privacy, the Saladin was also the equivalent of $2.50 per night. I would soon learn why.
The lobby was a construction site. It was all part of a greater grander 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 batholith, pasted together with odd-job chunks of cement. Elsewhere, the 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, habibi. Please call me Ahmed” – showed me the upstairs guest bedroom – “the luxury twin share”. US$5 per night.
The only light in the room was a neon light on the floor and only the 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 had been crammed. With no space between each bed and no overhead storage for bags or clothing it looked like the Arab equivalent of a swingers lounge. Here though, instead of incense and attractive houri, all I had to look forward to was the smell of unfiltered cigarettes and belching Turkish room-mates.
The other seven men sharing the room seemed like they were enjoying themselves. An evening of chain-smoking and watching B-grade Turkish detective shows was ahead of them – it was all rather idyllic really.
I put my head down, feigning sleep. At first the smoke was bearable – it was just a fact of life for a non-smoker in the Middle East. But as I lay in bed for a few hours staring up at the smog slowly filling the room, I realised that my cherished air pocket was soon to run 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 was windowless. There was a brick wall staring back at me through the glass. On the inside sill there was a musty looking bowl of rotten hummus – mould flourishing at the edges. I slid the curtain shut, rolled onto my side and pretended I was 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 walked out the door early the next morning. “But please, write good things about us on TripAdvisor.”
I never did get around to writing that review…
(And now for a collection of pictures of Bashar Al-Assad taken from signs and car windows around Syria)