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Marriott: secure, tough to get in

New Delhi, Sept. 20: The Marriott Hotels in Pakistan — other than the one devastated today in Islamabad, there is posh facility in Karachi — are as tough to get into as probably any other place in terror-riven country. Two external check points, an electronic and a manual one, and then, as you approach the lobbies, three layers of metal detector, X-ray and human-hand inspections.

The reasons are many and not far to seek — the Marriott is an Amercan chain (locally franchised to the Karachi-based Sadruddin Hashwani group), it is hugely favoured by Western diplomats, NGOs and tourists, and, in both Islamabad and Karachi, the hotels are located close to high-risk targets. The Islamabad one is within earshot of the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, the Karachi Marriott shares its boundary wall with the American consulate.

I have attended a fair number of press conferences at the Islamabad Marriott — a spanking neo-Arabic façade located Aga Khan Avenue in the lee of the Margalla Hills that form Islamabad's spectacular north-eastern flank --- during my trips there; it isn't tough to understand why it would have been an eye-sore to the resurgent Taliban or other brands of Islamic militancy. The Marriott is a place that is virtually is of the West, by the West, for the West.

Covering elections in Pakistan earlier this February, I stayed at the Karachi Marriott for three nights. It took me more time getting into the hotel's lobby than the ride from the airport to downtown Karachi had taken. First, there was machinegun-toting guard who rifled through the insides, including the luggage.

Then, another guard, similarly armed, who ran an mirror-check on my car's underbelly. Next, an electronic scan installed on the portico pillars that I would not have noticed but for its stuttered beep.

Noticing my consternation and growing impatience, senior Karachi journalist and friend Idrees Bakhtiar, who had come to receive me, said, “Routine, not to worry, the Marriott is a special place, be patient, this is not the end of it.”

The lobby isn't the swish of a glass-door flung open by a strapping guard. The guard was there, for sure, strapping, liveried and swooping low in salute, but so was an equally formidable set of machines along him.

Elaborate electronic scanners, X-ray machines and, behind them, a doppelganger of the guard brandishing a metal-detector. The luggage went into the machinery and emerged some 10 minutes later, one of my bags brutally ripped open because they wanted to check my camera battery was really a set of camera battery — "Very sorry, Sir, but regulations, we could not confirm it on the scan" — and I myself was stripped down to shirt and trouser. Jacket off, belt off, watch off, shoes off, socks off. "Welcome, Sir, and sorry, Sir, but these are standard procedures, the American Consulate is next door."

Two years ago, a bomb had exploded in the Karachi Marriott's backyard — it sits with the backyard of the US consulate — mangling a car and killing an American diplomat. They weren't taking any risks at the Marriott. A girl, welcome rose in hand, followed me right up to my room and did a double check of hotel security labels on my luggage. "You are a welcome guest sir," she chortled, "these procedures are for your safety."

No wonder it took a suicide bomber to break through at the Islamabad Marriott today; they had ensured themselves against much everything else.

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