War weary

My Holiday Hell: After six months in a war zone I could not understand relaxation, could not understand safety

I needed a holiday from hell. I had been in Baghdad for six months straight working as a war correspondent. The violence had crept incrementally: car bomb once a month, once a week, every day; gunfire ratta-tatta so commonplace that it was nothing to turn your head about.

I did not realise I was going mad; I only noticed that I could not concentrate long enough to read a sentence in a book. My friend Dan said I looked terrible and needed to take a break. The road to Jordan was cut off by insurgents in Fallujah, the only way out now was by air, and so Dan arranged for me to get on a subsidised NGO flight. My Iraqi boyfriend drove me to the airport. We got stuck in a traffic jam behind an American convoy and were advised to ‘stay back 100 feet or you will be shot’.

I landed in Dubai. I had arranged through a friend for a room in one of the new swanky hotels. I was picked up from the airport in a Bentley courtesy car. The hems of my trousers dripped little rivulets of Iraqi dust on to the white leather interior. A concierge showed me to my room on the 64th floor. It was an oasis of fantasy luxury after all those months of grim and grit; dark with gold highlights, a king-size bed, black marble bathroom, Jacuzzi tub…

‘It’s $550 a night,’ I was told. My heart stopped and fell 64 floors to the ground. I had thought that the friend had arranged a discount rate. I hesitated. It was so tempting. I said: ‘I’m sorry, there’s been some confusion. I just can’t afford it.’

The concierge arranged for me to be transferred to a sister hotel with a more reasonable rate of $250 a night, which seemed like a merciful bargain even though it was still more than I could really pay. This one was in the downtown area, a four-storey brickish, blockish building on a highway. Worn carpets, lights dimmed to hide the scuff marks. Never mind.

I was so tired that I fell asleep immediately. When I woke I had no idea where I was. Discombobulated for a full five minutes I tried to recall how I had got there. I tried to look out of the windows but they were tinted against the sun. I felt a mild rising panic of confusion and claustrophobia. Then it came to me: I was on holiday!

It turned out to be mid-morning. I got dressed. I had missed an uncomplimentary breakfast. The swimming pool was in the car park and surrounded by tatty green AstroTurf. The hotel had a complimentary arrangement with a nearby beach resort and so I took a minibus there.

I felt rather wobbly and alien. I was not sure if my lesser hotel status really allowed me access. I changed into my bikini in a toilet stall. Come on, I told myself, in the same way I steeled myself to drive down dangerous roads in Iraq; you can do this, keep going, just walk out to the beach and sit on a lounger like everyone else.

I bought a copy of Hello! magazine at the resort shop for $12 and ordered a gin and tonic from a beach boy waiter. I opened the magazine and saw that there was a big scandal about claims that David Beckham had had an affair. Normally this would have amused me but I had been so long cut off in a warzone that giggling at gossip seemed somehow obscene.

I looked out at the nearly naked bodies on the beach and the children playing in the waves. People were walking along the surf with a slow vacation gait. I simply could not understand what they were doing. I could not understand peacefulness or relaxation. I could not understand safety.

I got up, agitated, half way through a panic attack and took a taxi back to the crummy hotel. On the way I rang my Iraqi boyfriend in Baghdad. I was unhinged. ‘What shall I do? What shall I do?’

He was a photographer. He was out on the street after an explosion. ‘I can’t talk now,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to take a picture of a severed leg.’

Eventually I calmed down. I found a swish hotel with a decent pool and I gingerly took myself outside to swim in it. There was a group of handsome young American men and one of them said hello to me. We got chatting and it began to feel almost like a normal holiday. Except it turned out they were FI6 pilots on R&R from flying recon missions over Baghdad. Most expensive holiday I ever had; and no escape.


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