If These Walls Could Talk: A War Correspondent Revisits a Hotel of Ghosts

CreditAnne Barnard/The New York Times

We ask to see the room, a ritual every time we visit. The manager gives me a sad smile and grabs the keys. Last time, someone else’s clothes were on the bed. This time, the housekeeper is busy inside with her daily rounds.

Anthony loved the Liwan for its intricate floor tiles, made in the Mediterranean style called cemento. Built in the 1920s, it was once the home of Subhi Barakat, the president of the French Mandate’s Syrian Federation. Back then, Antakya was part of French-ruled Syria. Mr. Barakat later supported the rebellion against the French.

I don’t know if Syria’s modern-day rebels were aware of that history. I was too busy learning about their present. The Liwan cafe was where I met many online Syrian contacts in person for the first time, and made the acquaintance of others with whom I later kept in touch online. All of us — the Syrians and me, a Lebanese journalist who grew up amid civil war — were enthralled by the chance to talk with people we wouldn’t have met if not for the conflict, about subjects, such as politics and religion, that were once taboo.

Anthony never made it back, but I did, again and again. The rooms are tiny and the internet connection isn’t great, but the place has a charm, especially in the rain; you can hear the drops tickling the skylights.

From 2012 to 2014, the hotel stayed busy. The talk was about Syria’s future. Some of the Syrians wanted a freewheeling secular model like Beirut’s; others wanted a religious state; others’ only dream was to get rid of all the pro-Assad slogans, especially the ones that labeled their country “Assad’s Syria,” as if it were a family possession. Some resisted the militarization of the rebellion; others repeated, “What is taken by force must be regained by force.”

Some smoked and drank wine; at first even some of the Islamists did not mind sitting alongside them and me, a single woman. (Inevitably, the talk would turn to my marital status.) But Abdelrahman, a skinny Palestinan-Syrian fighter with a gray hat pulled low over his face, insisted on moving to a different cafe with no alcohol. He avoided eye contact and, though he spoke softly, he did not hide his hatred for Shiites and Alawites. His unlikely friend Abdelkader Dhon was the opposite: cheerful and chatty, tolerant of everyone, excited about his humanitarian work for refugees.

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