This event goes back to the Seventies soon after graduating from university when I was reluctantly transitioning from studenthood to professional life. I travelled round the Middle East partly to look for work and partly as a tactic to avoid accepting a couple of job offers I already secured.  I flew from Amman to Baghdad where I would spend a week or so with family friends and then on to Dubai to visit my sister who recently moved there to join her new husband.  The flight arrived around midnight and being the considerate type, I decided not to trouble my hosts until the morning so, I collected my luggage and took a taxi from outside the airport terminal.

Driver: where to young man?

Me: to a hotel please

Driver: there are many hotels in Baghdad, any particular one?

Me: the cheapest one you know

Driver: are you sure?

That last question had a clue embedded in it, only if I had the common sense to pick such subtle clues.  We reached the capital just after 1:00 am and the driver delivered me to a derelict building nestling within other derelict piles; in fact, the entire street should have been cordoned off and demolished.

Me: where is the hotel?

Driver: in that doorway right in front of you

Me: where does it say “hotel”?

Driver: it doesn’t.  It’s a cheap hotel.  Tell the owner Ahmad sent you; that’s me.

Being a friend of a Baghdad taxi driver is not exactly the kind of networking I had in mind in my future professional life but, as I always say: “take your opportunities as you find them”.  Reluctantly, I left the relative safety of the taxi and stepped into an unknown world.  I walked through the front door and was greeted by an overwhelming foul smell of a mix of boiled cabbages, rotten eggs, human sweat, dog excrement, and a dozen other odours I did not have the experience to classify.  The steepest set of stairs stood in front of me and I climbed the 20 or so steps with extreme difficulty, even for a fit man in his early twenties.

At the top of the stairs in what you might call “Hotel Reception” was an old thin mattress recovered from a swamp somewhere.  Upon the said mattress sat two men who made the mattress look good, they both had their legs folded under them and whiled away the time by picking dead skin between their toes.  The one in charge welcomed me.

Man: what do you want?

Me: A room until the morning

Man: single or shared?

Me (panicking): not shared, single room

Man: One dinar in advance

Me: ok

He took my money, shoved it in his pocket and said I can use the room down the hall, 4th door on the left.  I looked down the corridor and even with the poor lighting I could see the error of my decision coming to this establishment.  The wall at the end of the corridor served as the hotel toilets with open-plan urinals.  I walked down the corridor and the ammonia smell grew as I proceeded.  4th door on the left was a pale brown metal sheet without a handle, a push was sufficient to give me access to the room which had a bed in one corner, a chair by the window which had a curtain barely hanging on its rail and a ceiling fan-cum-light completed the fixtures and fittings of the room.  I closed the door and found no means of securing privacy from the inside as the door did not have a locking system at all, let alone a handle.  By this time I had been up for more than 20 hours and I was beyond exhausted.  I decided to ram my luggage against the door, not so much to keep intruders out as to give me sufficient time to get my wits about me before I was violently, sexually or both attacked.  I also decided to leave the light on for extra comfort.

I flopped on the bed and was met with another bouquet of extremely unpleasant odours but my fatigue won over my sensitivities and I dozed off almost immediately.

I must have slept for about 30 minutes or so when I woke up with a start.  I felt an itch on my face and opened my eyes but did not sit up.  I scratched the itch and it felt sticky.  As my eyes slowly adjusted to the light in the room, I looked along the pillow and what I saw truly shook me to my inner core.  A long line of black bed bugs formed an orderly queue and the procession was heading towards my head.  I processed the scene for a few seconds and finally a result emerged in my consciousness: GET UP!

I jumped out of bed, put on my jacket, gathered my things and ran out down the corridor and towards “Reception”.  The two men had not moved from their original positions, still mining their feet.

Man: yes?

Me: I am leaving

Man: but it is not morning

Me: I know, I have to go, my friends are waiting for me

Man: we don’t give refunds

Me: it is ok; I don’t want a refund

I ran down those stairs feeling the bed bugs were still chasing me.  At street level I looked left and right.  I could just about see some street lighting at the end of the street to the right so I headed that way.  After 3 or so minutes walking in a very eerie and frankly disturbing street, I reached a main road with some activity of traffic consisting of a parked police car, a taxi moving on the other side of the road and blessedly, another taxi driving on my side of the road.  I waved the taxi with enthusiasm bordering on desperation.  I threw my luggage in the back seat and squeezed myself next to the luggage.

Driver: where to young man?

Me: to a hotel please

Driver: there are many hotels in Baghdad, any particular one?

Me: the most expensive one you know