A Taste of Luxury in a War Zone

Believe it or not, there is a small and elegant boutique hotel in Gaza.

And despite all the trouble and difficulties of life in this war-torn strip of land, business is thriving. The motto of the 22-room Al Deira Hotel is "your home in Gaza."

Opened in May 2000, just a few months before the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, it was an inauspicious time to open a business here. According to the larger-than-life general manager Samir Skaik, it hasn't gotten any easier.

"It's getting harder. We don't understand ourselves how we have managed to do it sometimes," Skaik said.

Years of violence and more recently the devastating Israeli economic blockade have made running a hotel, particularly one that aspires to such high standards of service and comfort, very difficult.

But for Skaik, keeping this place running is more than just work. "We try and generate the idea of being a family. We work with our hearts. We love Gaza, and we do this for Gaza," Skaik said during an office meeting over mint tea.

Now, with a fragile truce between Hamas and Israel in place, there is promise of more supplies and an easier life. In Gaza, everything has been in short supply. The Al Deira Hotel's latest challenge has been finding small bottles of mineral water to stock the minibars.

Skaik resorts to asking his friends who are still able to travel to Israel to bring back whatever they can carry. Usually that means diplomats, aid workers or journalists, like me — the people who now make up the Al Deira's loyal clientele.

Another huge problem has been Gaza's unreliable power supply. On average there are only eight to 10 hours of electricity a day. An enormous generator kicks in for the rest of the time. The hotel keeps 5,000 liters of fuel in reserve.

Occupying a prime beachfront location, the two-story building was built in a style that pays tribute to traditional Arab and Moroccan design with modern influences.

Inside, domed ceilings and cool, shady hallways provide a welcome relief from the heat and dust of the street outside.

The rooms are sparsely decorated with local furniture, tiled floors and spacious bathrooms.

Black-and-white photographs of Gaza's better times adorn the simple white-washed walls.

Overlooking the sea, there is a huge terrace with room for 200 diners. The night I was there it was packed with local customers. Large family groups occupied tables next to gossiping local politicians from different factions.

The scent of perfumed tobacco wafted from dozens of nargileh pipes.

The menu boasts the best of the day's catch from local fisherman, as well as traditional Arabic salads and grilled lamb and chicken. But this is Gaza, and there is no alcohol. Freshly squeezed lemon juice is a great alternative.

At times Al Deira's business has suffered. During a phase in which visiting foreigners faced the threat of kidnapping, business dropped dramatically.

Skaik says his strategy is to have contacts with every faction in Gaza. "We want to work with everyone. We don't have an ideological position. Everyone knows I am a Muslim, but I don't have any connections with any particular group," he said.

A few months ago a small bomb exploded on the street outside the Al Deira's main entrance. Islamic extremists thought to be critical of the liberal atmosphere of the Al Deira were likely responsible. Ever since, armed gunmen from Hamas, which now runs Gaza, stand guard outside.

The idea is for the Al Deira to be a neutral space.

A year ago, wireless Internet was introduced allowing guests to take breakfast on the terrace while reading the morning's e-mails and online papers.

Given what has been going on in the streets of Gaza in recent years, the Al Deira Hotel really does provide an extraordinary oasis of calm and comfort.

Skaik hopes the ceasefire will hold. He longs to see more tourists at his little hotel and to be able to visit old friends in Israel once more.

For more about the hotel, go to www.aldeira.ps