What makes a Commodore?

By David Flin

Martyr's Square, Beirut. Photo taken by James Case and shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence.

I mentioned in an earlier article how each warzone acquires one, and generally only one, recognised neutral spot, usually but not invariably a hotel. I’ve been asked what factors go to deciding which hotel is the one that emerges.

I’ve never been around when the consensus arose. When I arrived in Beirut, the Commodore was already “the place”. This article is more speculation and extrapolating backwards than it is cold, hard observation.

In the case of the Commodore in Beirut, one big advantage that it had was location. Estate agents always tell you that location is a critical factor for any piece of real estate. Firstly, the Commodore wasn’t in the hotel district of the city. In 1975, early on in the Lebanese Civil War, the hotel district became disputed territory. Many of the hotels – completed or still under construction – overlooked key parts of the city and the territories of various factions. As a result, the hotels themselves became key strategic sites. There was constant fighting around them and even within them. For example, the Holiday Inn was taken by PLO militiamen in March 1976, the guests murdered, and the rooms used to fire rockets into nearby phalangist positions. Over the course of the next 24 hours, ownership of the hotel changed hands six or seven times.

The Commodore itself was well located. It was close to the port; it was close to the business district; it was close to the Government district, for what that was worth. It had good access routes to the heartlands of many of the significant militia groups, but it wasn’t so close as to become a strategic site.

There was also the issue of local support. I’ve no idea whether the skilled locals congregated around the Commodore because it was the acknowledged place for foreigners, or if the Commodore became the acknowledged place for foreigners because there was a concentration of skilled locals there. Cause and effect can be difficult to determine.

The most important locals are the guides. These are literally your life-line. I’ll be discussing them in a future article. For now, it is enough to say that your life depends on your guide. It’s not just because of the things they know, although that’s important. They indicate that you have a connection with the city. This isn’t some local honour thing. It’s simply that without a local with you, it would take much longer for information about your disappearance to spread. With a local, news travels much faster.

It was often the case that travelling without a local resulted in one either disappearing or, if it was felt a worthwhile ransom could be obtained, kidnapped and held hostage. You weren’t safe with a local, just safer.

Another aspect that made the Commodore the focal point for foreigners was its ability to cater to needs. All the professions represented had their own specific needs. Journalists needed access to a working fax machine or telephone; gun runners needed good access to ports of entry; forgers needed access to paper; doctors need medical supplies – typically morphine was in constant demand; and so on.

Whatever else might be said about the Commodore, the staff were innovative in acquiring whatever needed to be acquired. Not merely acquired, but kept.

There are two anecdotes I can give. The first regards telephone communications with the outside world. For the journalists, this was even more vital than a healthy supply of alcohol. Providing a reliable service wasn’t easy, but somehow, the Commodore managed.

Once, the telephone service came to a grinding halt because a certain piece of equipment at the nearby exchange stopped working. There were no replacement parts in the city, and no-one knew how to do a work-around.

Then, an hour later, things were back to normal. No-one knew where the part had come from, or how it had been acquired. The closest anyone came to getting an answer was from a porter (a very important position, responsible for ensuring the security of sandbags at the windows on ground and first-floor windows to prevent the incursion of debris from car bombs). He explained with a shrug of the shoulders that the guests needed it, there was a duty of hospitality, so a solution was found.

President Suleiman Frangieh

It was probably just coincidence that President Frangieh was unable to give a broadcast that day because certain items from his Presidential communication system had been stolen. Shortly after this, he invited the Syrian Army in to enforce a cease-fire, protect Christians, and support his Marada militia, which was a Christian, right-wing militia with links with Israel. That went about as well as you might imagine.

The second anecdote relates to an occasion that one of the Muslim militias (I’ve no idea which one. It didn’t seem wise to take notes) decided to take it upon themselves to ensure that decent standards of behaviour were maintained at the Commodore. This seemed to consist of confiscating and destroying all bottles of alcohol that they could find. This they did with great enthusiasm. They destroyed many such bottles. Sometimes by throwing them on the floor, sometimes by using them for target practise.

They did a great deal of damage. Fortunately, the supply of alcohol was not affected one jot. The hotel had long since decanted alcoholic spirits into alternative containers. The militia group had gone to a great deal of trouble to destroy bleach and other fluids of a non-alcoholic nature. The head barman had his very own system for knowing what spirit was in what bottle.

Perhaps the most important factor, however, was the ability to make deals with the various factions that ruled the immediate vicinity. The owner of the Commodore, the redoubtable Yousef Nazzal, had this gift. He ran the hotel on a simple premise: know what the guests want and supply it. Yousef Nazzal is one of those small players in history, now largely forgotten by all but the most specialised of historians, but who had a significant impact on history.

It’s unclear how he came to own the hotel, and the story was told that when he took it over, it was with Druze and Shia militiamen, theoretically allies, fighting in the hotel lobby and engaging in room-to-room grenade duels. The story was told that he managed to evict the militiamen. The how was never explained. Actually, to be strictly honest, the how was explained many times, but no two explanations were the same.

Nazzal realised that what journalists wanted was reliable communications. He installed new telephones and telex equipment, as well as teleprinters that carried Associated Press and Reuters reports. It was better equipped than many newsrooms in quieter parts of the world.

It was in 1982 that the Commodore became significant on the global stage. This was when the Sabra and Shatila massacres took place. These would have been just two more massacres in a war where these were commonplace, were it not for the fact that the journalists at the Commodore were able to see the scene, talk to the few survivors and, most importantly, get their story out.

It was a squalid enough story, although depressingly common enough, both there and elsewhere. The Israeli Army disarmed the Palestinian refugees at the camps, promising that they would protect the camps and this was part of the cease-fire deal. Then they stood back when the Phalange militia went in on a three-day orgy of torture, rape, mutilation, and murder.

The Commodore journalists got the story out. More importantly, on this occasion, the world paid attention. The word got out, despite the IDF imposing a blockade on the sites to exclude journalists (and several were killed getting the story).

Ariel Sharon who became known as the 'Butcher of Beirut'

The story embarrassed Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Defence Minister at this time. Several enquiries were held, and even the Kahan Commission, despite the levels of whitewash used to deflect criticism of Israel, concluded that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” through his negligence and inactivity.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the names Sabra and Shatila became just forgotten names, but for a couple of months, the Commodore journalists achieved something. They were only able to do that because the Commodore was able to get them in, and out, and transmit their stories.

The other key figure in the story of the Commodore was that of the hotel manager, Fuad Saleh. He was a dapper man, a well-dressed five feet two wizened walnut of a man. As far as I can tell, he could do anything. Whatever shortages there were in the city, the Commodore never went short. He always knew a man who could do whatever you needed. Glasses repaired, residency permit renewed, passports of any nation were available on request. I’ve still got the Fijian passport he got me in my name. It’s out of date now, but it was as good as the genuine article.

Once, heavy fighting closed the airport and most of the roads. A group of journalists called to say they would be arriving by boat. Fuad met them at the port with champagne and freshly squeezed orange juice, and with a specially chosen minder.

Rooms were $200 per night (in 1976) and included in the price were cockroaches and rats. Nonetheless, the laundry was always spotless and you could go about your business in Beirut secure in the knowledge that you had a secure base of operations.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow and the Editor of Comedy through the (P)Ages

© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

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