In a story that spans more than two decades, scenes from armed conflicts in Beirut and Sarajevo are portrayed in a literary diptych as six diverse characters struggle for survival and self-definition from inside varying epicenters of chaos. Holiday Inn: Nights of Respite is the polyphonic account of these characters’ lives, which are extraordinarily intertwined. It is also a fearless inquiry into some of the darkest human impulses.
In this excerpt from Sonia Ristic's moving and incisive drama, Anna, a Swiss photojournalist, has long been carrying with her a sepia-tinged snapshot that was taken in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. The mysterious photograph includes a group of gun-wielding Palestinian liberation fighters alongside a blurry interloping “man without a face.” The picture is accompanied by the journal of an American woman who went missing from Beirut in 1975. For years, Anna has tried without success to piece together these two artifacts. It is only when she has a chance encounter with a loquacious fellow war correspondent that she is given the final piece of the puzzle, which leads to a shocking yet inevitable personal discovery. The following scene is Anna's account of that revelation and her reflection on the strange job to which she has devoted her life.
Sarajevo International Airport. Military cargo planes. Engines roaring. UN Blue Helmet forces. Rain. Anna seated on her duffle bag.
It’s a messed-up line of work. War correspondent. It turns my stomach when I think about it, but our job depends on there always being wars to cover, always being places, spots on the globe where the seed of evil germinates, where the tree of discord spreads its branches, backdrops for us to capture the horror on film or on paper, for the sake of posterity.
It’s a crazy and messed-up line of work we’re in. No, you don’t become a war correspondent by accident or by chance, by falling down some rabbit hole into a maze of bizarre life paths. You don’t become a war correspondent because, since you were little, you’ve dreamed of taking pictures of antelopes galloping through the Tanzanian savannah and, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the crossfire of a conflict. No, it’s something you carry inside, I don’t know what it is exactly—a tear in the fabric of your soul, an original war wrought in your childhood, a way of seeing things so clearly, too clearly, your roots inexorably intertwined with the roots of evil—it’s hard to say what it is, this thing that breathes inside of you and makes it so that, under the guise of pure chance, you become a war photographer.
We’re like a species that can recognize its own, almost more by scent than by the cargo vest and the camera slung around our neck. We recognize each other and jump right into conversation, in hotel bars around the world while muffled explosions go off outside, waiting in line at checkpoints—never in big groups, never with a crew, we’re lone wolves, solitary and on the lookout, the interpreter is the only companion for those who don’t collect foreign tongues like snapshots, those who haven’t learned how to pass. Sure, we drink sometimes in the company of another of our species. And no, we don’t regale each other with tales of our feats and exploits, or at least it takes us more than a few drinks before we do get on that subject. More often, it happens that we tip each other off to good stories in need of some old-fashioned digging up. One of us will say, “I have a lead that I’m not able to follow at the moment, but it might be of interest to you.” And these harmless words of introduction inevitably light a spark, ignite a raging fire in your gut, and make you believe in the promise of a scoop that will change the course of history . . . All the while, you know, deep down, that this job is anchored in the certainty that the world will not ever stray from its self-destructive path, that people will go on ripping each other to shreds, slitting each other’s throats, bombing, raping, exterminating each other through both chaotic and organized means, all over the world, and we’ll be there to capture, on paper or on film, the tank tracks in the snow and the corpses rotting in the sun . . . The first time I came here, almost three years ago, at the very beginning of the siege, I was in Split one Sunday evening, waiting for the next morning’s airlift, and I ran into a colleague, an Englishman or Irishman, don’t remember anymore. A seasoned veteran of armed conflicts who I knew from another evening at another bar, 1987, I think, Jerusalem, the First Intifada. We recognized each other more by instinct than by our faces. He asked if he could join me, I said yes, and we drank—a local spirit, too strong, the kind that slackens the tongue. He had already “done” Vukovar, Dubrovnik, the first weeks of the siege of Sarajevo. He said he was sure it was going to last, the bloodbath, that it was shaping up to be the next Lebanon. He started off strong, on account of the liquor and the one-too-many years he had spent, near death, getting tossed around in the breakers, “in the belly of the beast,” as he said.
He talked too much. Not a bad guy, but like most of them, patronizing when speaking to a woman. A little heavy on the advice and warning, as if I hadn’t “done” the same places he had, for fifteen years, kicked around in the worst spots, “in the belly of the beast.” They would never speak to one of the guys like that, not even to the rookies; the tone is reserved for us, the rare women, whatever our age or experience on the ground. Not a bad guy, no, I don’t think most of them are even conscious of it.
Anyway, he was talking way too much, and I wasn’t really listening, I was looking around at the handful of customers in the café, especially the women, beautiful, very done up, not many men, they must have been at the front, until two words that this English or Irishman came to pronounce grabbed my attention. Two words, weirdly juxtaposed: “Sniper Safari.” I’d never heard the expression before. He said it was another thing Lebanon and Yugoslavia had in common, that it started over there, no one was really talking about it at the time, there hadn’t been any major exposés on the topic. Now it was happening here and it was a good story. It took me a while to catch up with the conversation, to get what he was talking about. And when I did understand, what it was, this strange word association, of “sniper” and “safari,” the tear that I had always felt in the fabric of my soul split wide open, hollowing me out, the vile beast loosened its jowls and swallowed what was left of my humanity.
Men, “normal” men, family men, business men, rich men, they had to be rich because it cost a pretty penny, were paying for these weekend getaways, clandestine little holidays, to get themselves to Lebanon at the time, join this or that militia, one faction or another, they were paying a fortune for this, to get their adrenaline pumping, for the rush, they would go shooting, play at being snipers, in wars they had nothing to do with, just like that, for fun, for pleasure, to feel alive, because the racetrack and the floor of the stock exchange were boring by comparison, they’d go play hide-and-go-shoot, at people, civilians, because it was already made illegal to kill lions for pleasure, and big-game hunting or bungee jumping, that didn’t do it for them anymore, didn’t make them feel alive. Feel alive . . . Is that really how men live?
The monster’s face, the gaping jowls of the vile beast, I’ve already looked it in the eye, and more than once. One of my first big stories had been Cambodia and I thought then that I had seen the worst imaginable horror, that after that nothing but a glimpse of pure uncorrupted beauty could ever shock me again, could take my breath away, since the horridness, I’d already seen the worst it had to offer. I was so young in 1979, still so naïve, to think I’d seen the worst of it, to not yet know that evil never fails to reinvent itself, to imagine that its growth could be anything but exponential. And this Brit or Irishman—fuck, it’s so annoying that I can’t remember where this guy was actually from—he was detailing the leads he had followed, the buses leaving from Geneva, in Vukovar he actually met one of them, one of these monsters, he was talking and it was like the hiss of an artillery shell in my ear, like the dust that rises after an explosion, rips through your lungs and blinds you. In that moment, I knew I wanted to stay blind.
He pronounced the very words, he said: “They are men without faces.” The dust settled and I saw him. The true face of evil. No, the monster is not Pol Pot or Karadžić or Goebbels or Franco, even though they’re also fucking jack-o’-lanterns, no that would be too simple and too easy to remedy if the monster were none other than Hitler-Mladić-Stalin-Pinochet, that would be so simple, it would only take a sharp eye pressed against a scope and a steady finger on a trigger if that were all it took to stomp out the seed of evil. If it were only a seed! The tree of evil has roots that spread even farther than its branches, deeply anchored roots, tangled up in the hearts of men. The wind carries the evil seeds through space and time and sows them promiscuously.
I went back to my hotel room that night, the buzz from the alcohol had worn off. I took out the journal and photo that I never traveled without. I found the same words in the journal, “The man without a face,” Kate had written, and next to that, “Swiss, without a doubt, a banker, definitely not a Palestinian freedom fighter.” I looked at the photo, and all my natural skepticism instantly evaporated, it was definitely him, it was definitely my father. The face of the monster.
She gets up from her bag, crouches down, rummages, takes out the journal and photo, and pauses.
It’s a messed-up line of work we’re in. It pushes us deeper and deeper into the darkness, into the basement of the human soul. Maybe you just have to know when to hang it up, before it’s too late, before being completely swallowed up by the vile beast. Maybe you have to learn how to take pictures of flowers, or chubby little pink babies . . . No, maybe the best thing to do is to quit cold turkey, detox from the image. I don’t know. I don’t know what else to do with my eye, aside from holding it up against the viewfinder of a camera, what to do with my finger aside from resting it on the shutter release. And after that night at that café in Split, every time I point the camera and get ready to release the shutter, it’s his face that I see, my father’s face, the true face of the monster with countless faces. It’s him I see, and I see myself, I loathe the resemblance, and I know that one day, if I don’t ever just hang it up, I’ll do what Capa did, I’ll go off the trail, as many steps as it takes to get the best shot, and I’ll step on a land mine. No, no one will ever get me to believe that when he went off that path in those rice fields of Vietnam, that it was any kind of mistake. No, he didn’t take those steps to get a better angle, he took them because he had too many dark images burned into his retina and stepping on a land mine is as good a way as any to hang it up once and for all.
Anna puts the photo and journal back in her duffle bag and heads toward the cargo plane.
From Holiday Inn Nuits d'accalmie (Manage, Belgium: Lansman Editeur, 2016). © 2016 by Sonia Ristic. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Paul Romano. All rights reserved.