I first stayed at the Marriott in Islamabad in 1980. I was 24 at the time. In those days, the hotel was called the Holiday Inn. Islamabad was a quiet sleepy town and the Holiday Inn, though comfortable, wasn’t the glittering and sprawling establishment it later became. But it was the first time I was staying in a five star hotel and I was thrilled to bits.
Islamabad was a stop-over for a couple of nights on my way to Kabul. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan three months earlier and this was my first assignment as a journalist. The Spectator had commissioned me and, to be honest, it made me feel very important. But I was inexperienced, gullible, and not well informed.
So I chose to spend my first evening chatting to the bartender in the hotel’s deserted bar. Like taxi drivers, bartenders, I thought, were a source of reliable information. This one proved to be uncannily wise.
“Tell me about General Zia,” I asked. It was a year after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging and the dictator was at his zenith. The Soviet occupation of Kabul had transformed him into a front-rank American ally.
“It’s best not to know about him,” the bartender replied, smiling knowingly. “He says he’s god-fearing but he’s lying and he thinks Allah can’t see that! One day he will pay for this. Of that I’m sure. Mark my words.”
Eight years later that’s exactly what happened. But by then the bar at the Holiday Inn had been closed. Zia robbed the hotel of a much-loved watering hole but, as the bartender had predicted, someone had his revenge.
I was a frequent visitor to the hotel in the ‘90s. Pakistan seemed to change prime ministers every second year and this became an opportunity to return and interview the new one. On one occasion, after spending the morning traipsing around town, the crew and I were sitting in the hotel’s open plan coffee shop having lunch. Suddenly we noticed three men keeping an eye on us. Their lack of finesse was a clear give away.
“Look at those guys,” said the cameraman. “They’ve been following us all morning. I bet they're from Pakistani intelligence.”
Intrigued I got up and walked to the hotel reception. The manager on duty was a young chatty pathan. When I explained we were being followed he started to chuckle.
“Oh, don’t worry Sir,” he said re-assuringly. “They’re just like you and me. They’re good guys and they won’t harm you.” And then, spontaneously, he summoned one of them and introduced us.
It was a clever move because we became friends. From minders they became helpers. That evening they took us shopping in Pindi, carefully guiding us away from tourist traps and ensuring the best bargains. The next day, when we were late for the airport, they arranged a police escort to beat the morning rush hour traffic.
Over the next decade I got to know the Marriott extremely well. I stayed there almost every time I visited. This March I discovered to my delight that Bateel, the famous Dubai chocolate and date shop, had opened a branch in the hotel’s shopping arcade. Although I was only there for two days to interview Asif Zardari I must have stepped-in to buy something at least a dozen times. Whenever I walked past I would collect a couple of chocolate-coated dates.
“You clearly like them,” said the man at the next door travel desk. I smiled guiltily. There was no denying the fact. I had kept a running taxi tab and on every trip to hire one he had seen me nip into Bateel.
Early on the third day, when I was checking out, the receptionist opened a drawer under the counter and handed me a deep maroon and gold carrier bag. Inside was a gift-wrapped package.
“This is from the manager of the car-hire company,” he said. It was a box of Bateel chocolates. A card attached to the ribbon read “Memories of the Marriott: come back soon.”
I will — but without my favourite hotel, Islamabad won’t feel the same.