Some sad news reached me last month regarding one of my favourite haunts in Ethiopia. The Taitu Hotel, which has stood for more than a century in the Piazza district of Addis Ababa, caught fire on the morning of Sunday, January 11th, and suffered severe damage to its main – and most historic and characterful – building. One foreign tourist staying there at the time told journalists that the fire brigade turned up in “about ten minutes… but it was really gone by that time.” From the photograph of the fire’s aftermath that I saw in a report in the Guardian, ‘gone’ is definitely the word for it – certainly as far as the upper half of the unfortunate building is concerned.
The Taitu Hotel was the place I stayed in most often when I visited Addis Ababa during the two-year period – from 1999 to 2001 – that I worked in Ethiopia as a volunteer. And when I returned to Ethiopia in 2009 to research a dissertation for a Masters’ degree, I resided there during my whole time in the city. Its main building was a lovely, atmospheric old structure with a varnished wooden floor and wooden furnishings and walls that were adorned with historical and cultural bric-a-brac. I even remember its upstairs landing doubling as a small art gallery.
However, because I was a volunteer, the rooms in that main building were out of my price-league and so I would stay in an annex building at the back of the premises, where the rooms were cheaper, though inevitably scruffier. At least that didn’t stop me from frequently sitting with a bottle of Bedele beer in the restaurant / bar area of the main building – or, when the sun was out, sitting on the terrace immediately behind the building and enjoying the view of Addis Ababa down the hillside below – and pretending I had money.
During my volunteering days, there was also a bar / dance-floor, complete with a DJ’s booth, at the side of the yard in front of the main hotel. Its draft beer was very cheap indeed and I spent many a leisurely afternoon or evening there, wasting my time in the pleasantest way possible. Actually, my memory of that bar also has a darker association, for it was while I was in there that I first learned about events in New York on 9 / 11. My girlfriend of the time and I had been up late the night before, enjoying the festivities of Ethiopian New Year, which falls on September 11th, and we wandered into the bar early the following afternoon hoping to dampen our hangovers with a ‘hair of the dog’. We couldn’t understand why so many staff-members of the Taitu Hotel were huddled around the television set there, which was tuned into CNN and showing scenes of carnage on an epic scale unfurling against a familiar-looking cityscape. I remember my girlfriend’s first reaction being that the TV must be showing a modern version of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds hoax.
When I returned to the hotel in 2009, I discovered that the bar had disappeared. The hotel’s owners must have sold the side-building off because it was now occupied by a bank. Meanwhile, more budget rooms were being created at the back of the hotel and its rear premises were screened off by giant sheets of canvas, behind which construction work was presumably going on. Needless to say, this ruined the view from the terrace. In another effort to attract more budget travellers, the management allowed people to park their 4x4s at the back and sleep overnight in them – I saw one group of westerners turn up in a land rover and then stay inside a tiny tent that they erected on the land rover’s roof.
The cheaper quarters seem to have survived the conflagration. The hotel’s website stresses that 75 rooms remain ‘operational’ and I assume they’re all located at the back.
It’s especially sad to see the Taitu Hotel, or at least the old part of it, vanish in smoke because it constituted a genuine piece of Ethiopian history. It was named in honour of the formidable Empress Itegue Taitu Bitul who in 1896, a few years prior to the hotel’s construction, had led Ethiopian forces into the Battle of Adwa with her husband Emperor Menelik II and defeated a would-be Italian invasion force. It was one of the most venerable buildings in Addis Ababa and, although its sombre, dignified presence felt a little out-of-place in the surrounding neighbourhood of Piazza, which is overflowing with noisy cheap-and-cheerful bars, the hotel certainly deserved its status as one of the city’s landmarks.
The Taitu had literary as well as historical significance. When Ethiopia suffered its second invasion by the Italians in the mid-1930s – the Italians were successful this time, largely because they had something their 19th-century predecessors lacked, military aircraft – the Taitu became the base for the foreign journalists and photographers who were covering the conflict. Among these correspondents was Evelyn Waugh, working for the Daily Mail, and he later used his Ethiopian experiences as material for his satirical novel Scoop (1938). In Scoop, the African country in question becomes the fictional nation of Ishmaelia and the hotel containing the hordes of foreign pressmen is renamed the Hotel Liberty.
I can’t say I’m a big fan of Waugh’s work. I’ve always considered his other famous ‘comic’ novel Vile Bodies (1930), which is populated by the bright young things of England’s upper classes, to be a pile of chinless, double-barrelled tripe. Scoop begins equally unpromisingly, with jokes about crusty old lords, elderly nannies, eight-year-old child prodigies who recite Virgil and dynamic young ladies who crash their motorcars down the steps of underground public lavatories because – haw-haw-haw! – women don’t understand anything about machines! No doubt the likes of Stephen Fry or Julian Fellowes (or come to think of it, Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg) would throw up their hands and chortle in delight at such aristocratic japes, but I find them about as amusing as toothache.
Scoop, however, improves immeasurably when its timid hero William Boot, who pens an innocuous weekly countryside / nature column for a newspaper called the Daily Beast, gets sent, in a case of mistaken identity, to the conflict-ridden Ishmaelia to serve as the Beast’s war correspondent. The absurdities that follow, with none of the European correspondents knowing remotely what is going on but prepared to invent anything and everything in order to justify their presence there (and justify their expense accounts) suggests that little has changed in the workings of the news media during the 80 years since. Incidentally, Christopher Hitchens was a big fan of Scoop and, indeed, he wrote the introduction to the edition of the novel that I have.
The racial epithets Waugh uses to describe the Ishmaelians – the ‘c’-word, ‘d’-word and, yes, the ‘n’-word all see service – make for queasy reading at times, though in his defence I suppose I should argue that he was merely using language and expressing attitudes that were commonly held and accepted among 1930s Westerners: the book was of its time. And he does present the Western characters as being much bigger dolts than the African ones.
The Liberty Hotel in Scoop, with its ‘bare boards’, ‘tin roof’ and every bedroom having ‘a leak somewhere in its iron ceiling’ seems a much less hospitable place than how I remember the Taitu Hotel being 15 or five years ago. Mind you, if the real hotel had been full of leaks letting in ‘the monotonous splash and patter and gurgle of rain’, it perhaps wouldn’t have gone up in flames as quickly last month.