“I had tea with Saddam Hussein”

In an exclusive interview, Jean Marc Lafosse, founder and CEO of Alorie Hospitality shares with Asian Property Review some of his most memorable moments as a hotelier – during a stint as F & B Director at Le Meridien Palestine in Baghdad at age 28.

Le Meridien Bagdad in 1984 a few days before its opening.

In April 1984, I was despatched to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, to head the Food & Beverage division of Le Meridien Hotel which was due to be opened during that summer. I was only 28 and being the youngest Food & Beverage Director of the entire hotel chain, I was excited by the prospect of a challenging adventure in Baghdad.

Iraq was embroiled in a war with neighbouring Iran at the time. And Le Meridien Hotel was strategically located right opposite Saddam Hussein’s palace across the Tigris River.

Within a few days of my arrival, the inevitable happened. A suicidal truck rammed into the headquarters of the secret police building near the hotel. The explosion crumbled the whole police building and shattered windows and glasses in the hotel which required some major repairs later.

Jean Marc Lafosse

Arms dealers were frequent guests in our hotel. Political tension was high and I recalled just a few months after the hotel was opened, a suitcase suspected to contain a bomb was found unattended in the lobby. Our security team comprising Iraqis secret police , the “Mukhabarat”, discovered it on time and put it on a boat which then exploded in the middle of the Tigris River. Luckily no one was hurt in this incident. These suspenseful events were considered ‘normal’ during the war times.

‘Paris of the Middle East’

One might not think building an international 5-star hotel in a war zone is a wise move. But the hotel was built to welcome the non- aligned country forum. It was during such times that arms dealers were plentiful and many of them came from Europe, America and Russia to Baghdad.

To host the conference delegates, Saddam Hussein (fifth President of Iraq from 16 July 1979 until 9 April 2003), Saddam Hussein decided to build some five-star and four-star hotels; to name a few, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Novotel and their local palace the Al Mansour.

Baghdad city centre in the 1980s; note the European dress style.

People used to go to hotels for fine dining and high tea as food was rationed in the city. Luxury hotels with classy ambience were places where the rich and famous were to be seen. It also allowed the “power of the money” to be shown especially for the high ranking military officers and their families.

Baghdad then was like Paris of the Middle East – women wore fashionable European clothing, people were smoking, drinking arak (a local alcoholic beverage with a lot of aniseed) and were generally enjoying themselves despite the war. In the Tigris River, fishermen used to catch the “masgouf”, a fatty fish very popular in Iraq and very often the freshly caught fish was barbequed while customers were sipping their arak at the terrace along the Tigris River.

Le Meridien, known today as the Palestine Hotel (in the green zone), was the finest French hotel in Iraq and the Middle East at that time. We used to receive many VIP guests including Saddam Hussein, his entourage and family, and friends of Saddam Hussein like former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) associates.

Saddam Hussein

Running a hotel during war time has its own set of challenges especially when it comes to supplies of food and beverages. There was an acute shortage of food because much of the food was sent to the front liners. In the city, people had to queue for hours to get certain basic food like chicken which was rationed while the rich would go to the hotels to have better meals.

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