Libya Dispatch: The Cage (2)

The lobby of the Rixos.Our intrepid correspondent Abu Ray, once covering Libya's East, is now covering the West. This week he makes it to Tripoli's Rixos hotel. (See past dispatches.) 

The billboard in the lobby shows a smiling child waving pictures of other cute smiling children, topped by the slogan, "Stop the Bleeding!" Bleeding? What bleeding? What now?

Welcome to the Rixos Hotel, Tripoli's finest and a gleaming, inlaid marble cage for Western journalists.

I'd heard a lot about this place over the last five months, about being trapped inside, about the mind games and the midnight summons, the hallways prowled by semi-feral minders and the press conferences by the smooth-tongued Moussa Ibrahim.

I wasn't prepared for the opulence. In my mind's eye, as I traveled along the coastal road from the border with a BBC reporter who'd stayed here before, I saw a tacky hotel built during the mad oil rush of the late 70s, now gone to seed, all flaking plastic and chipped gilt Barberella finery.

The first thing you notice is that it's well outside of town, the scattering of high rises of Tripoli's port and downtown were distance structures on the horizon as we cruised towards the hotel on the 1st Ring Road (there's like three). "There she is," muttered the BBC reporter, mostly to himself, with a palpable sense of dread as we swung into the parking lot.

The hotel looks brand new and has a soaring lobby with marble floors and in the back, a beautiful garden of undulating grassy swells scattered with comfortable wicker furniture and a bit of a forest. Apparently there's an unfinished zoo somewhere at the back with more forest.

And that for me is the most annoying thing about the Rixos. It's nice — no it's downright luxurious — so we don't even have our accommodation to complain about. The thrice daily buffet is sumptuous, the rooms are vast, the flat screen TVs with international channels are expansive.

The rooms, all shiny brass and marble, have shower stalls and large bath tubs, with bathrobes and slippers provided. My balcony overlooks the roof of the two-storey building, which has been planted with grass, so it's a pleasant field where the TV crews set up their equipment for live shots.

Before it got too hot, I could watch the pasty skinned British TV technicians sunbathing next to their gear.

The rooms are also equipped with loudspeakers in the bathroom so that you can listen to CNN while brushing your teeth. This doubles as an intercom system so sometimes, early afternoon or in the middle of the night, it sounds two tones, like something from a high school PA system and a voice says "calling all journalists, press conference in the lobby in five minutes." From the bedroom it's like an eerie summons is being issued from the toilet.

There's a sauna, a gym with machines I can't even begin to fathom (where do my legs go?) massages and even a Turkish bath. My favorite is the dimly lit swimming pool, a shallow 15 meter long rectangle lit from underwater and surrounded by Islamic arches opening into pillowed niches decorated by Orientalist-style harem paintings. Apparently Berlusconi and Gadhafi used to have little parties here along with companions--an image that doesn't bear contemplating.

You can't really swim normal laps in it, but can get a work out by swimming around the edges, sort of getting that pacing-in-a-cage-wild-animal feeling, which seems appropriate.

Of course this luxury comes at a price, together with the $60 dinner buffet and lunch the bill runs upwards $450 a night. With 40 to 50 journalists staying here, I sometimes feel we are single handedly funding Gadhafi's war effort.

Even though everyone's on expense accounts, it becomes part of the game to avoid giving them more money. People load up with snacks at the complimentary breakfast in hopes of skipping lunch, do their laundry in the bath tub and make periodic visits to the little corner shop across the street for water, drinks and snacks. Sometimes security doesn't let us cross the street -- sometimes the hotel doesn't let us bring in food. All part of the game.

There's a Facebook group for people here called the Rixos Lobby Correspondents, it exchanges information and warnings, usually about the latest attempts to hack into our computers.

Apparently a lot of people who used to stay here have returned home and then had their facebook and paypall accounts hacked from IPs in Libya and there are constant connection problems because, our machines tell us, somebody is using our IP addresses.

Of course as much as we complain about the vagaries of the wi-fi connection and the inevitable snooping on our work, the Rixos is also one of the only places in Tripoli with any kind of internet connection, certainly high speed. I used to wonder why the Facebook group was called Rixos Lobby, until I found out how much time we spent just hanging out in the lobby trying to figure out what's going on. Aside from the rare summons from our bathroom loudspeakers, it is difficult to know what's coming next.

After breakfast, there is a mandatory doing the rounds of the lobby as everyone compares the latest rumor about what comes next. "I hear we're going to Zawiya" ... "I hear it's a press conference with the ex-prime minister." "Why would we want the ex-prime minister?" "I heard it has something to do with the Great Man Made River... or agriculture... or the Green Book."

Inevitably, after hours of waiting around for tidbits of information, or even a brief glimpse of the font of all knowledge, Moussa Ibrahim the spokesman, we're suddenly rushed into the bus for a five minute departure into the unknown.

Independent trips out are strongly discouraged. In the early days, a number of intrepid journalists made it out, grabbed taxis and wandered the city unaccompanied, inevitably finding pockets of anti-Qadhafi resistance and writing intriguing articles about the unknown and seldom seen parts of the capital.

Then they get kicked out.

In the case of a Guardian correspondent, it was a midnight thumping on the door and the news he was out that morning. They were more polite to the Reuters correspondent, letting him know at breakfast that he had an hour to pack his stuff.

The new CNN guy was summoned out of his room within days of his arrival, taken to a conference room and harangued by five guys for hinting that participants at a recent demonstration had been bused in and suggesting there were substantially less than the one million declared by the brother leader.

Rather frustratingly, I feel I've said all these things and more and have been utterly left alone by the minders, including one universally reviled and known alternately as the Enforcer or Scarface.

The result is that a sense of learned helplessness descends on the journalists, effort his punished, best to just sit back, wallow in cynicism and sip $5 espressos while keeping an eye on the others slumped in the lobby.

My predecessor gave me the following advice. Don't stand out. Don't speak up, don't try to do any stories. Just get on with it. Be the gray man.

For foreign correspondents over the last 10 years or so, the gray man is an important image. It's what were told to do on our hostile environment courses if kidnapped. The gray man blends in, doesn't say much, is easily forgotten and always left alone. The gray man bides his time and endures.

Steve Farrell, formely of the Times of London and now the New York Times, told me years ago in Iraq, back when he had only been taken hostage once, said it was a load of bollocks.

The gray man routine is what they tell soldiers. We are journalists he said, act like one or they'll think you're a spy, so when he was kidnapped in Faluja in 2004, he waved his arms about and talked a lot and tried to convince his captors that as journalist he should be released so that he could explain their side of the story. Apparently that time it worked, though when he was kidnapped in Afghanistan, it was the SAS who got him out.

Meanwhile at the Rixos, it's not that were all gray men, it's more a matter of chasing after the crumbs they dole out. Did Sky get the Seif al-Islam interview? They always get everything, they're favorites. I hear the Chinese were taken out again, why do the Chinese get so much, they're not bombing anyone?

Most of Tripoli's hotels are near the bustling port and the old city, but by keeping everyone in the Rixos, journalists are far from potential demonstrations and flash points. What we are close to is Qadhafi's compound of Bab al-Aziziyah, so perhaps the thought was this might give NATO bombers a pause. Apparently it hasn't, giving Rixos residents front row seats to the airstrikes.

There are large numbers of Libyans, along with their families, staying in the hotel. At night the children play in the garden and there are thick clusters of families sipping coffee in the wicker chairs. It gives the place a bit of a homey feel, though it turns out they are the families of high ranking officials staying in the hotel and using us as human shields.

There's a talk show host who every night broadcasts hate against Libya's enemies, which often include the journalist spies living in the hotel. For a while he helped incite daily demonstrations outside the gates and once they actually invaded the hotel lobby, which was a bit awkward.

Turns out, he lives and broadcast from the hotel basement.