The American Colony Hotel

Sometimes it seems as if the American Colony Hotel is the closest thing Jerusalem has to a capitol building. Because of its bitter divisions the city has never been the seat of central governance, but this former palace of the Husseini family, one of the city’s great clans, sits just along the border between what has become West (or Jewish) Jerusalem and the East (or Palestinian) side. Since its establishment as an inn of sorts in the late 1800s, the Colony has always been a meeting spot for key people from all factions of what is called The Situation: aid workers and refugee authorities; smarmy politicians in waistcoats; ink-stained foreign correspondents locked in deep conversation with their sources; diplomats and parts distributors; hummus-devouring security advisors; negotiators, contractors, and professors; poets, painters, writers, and thinkers.

In back of the hotel things are as ever. Sprawled on chaises around the kidney-shaped pool, in the shadow of a minaret, bikini-slim wives of diplomats on vacation from the Gulf or northern Africa sun themselves, and men with walkie-talkies clipped to their bathing shorts sip martinis. Nearby, American families from the Anglican school celebrate a toddler’s birthday with pink cake and balloons, while a Muslim woman in a chador watches a couple of well-behaved children. Over the high walls of the pool area, sterile, towering hotels have sprouted, but the beautiful American Colony presides over the neighborhood like a proud Arab dowager, with its teas and sweets, its coffee in small cups, the bougainvillea-festooned courtyard, the tree of life tile work in the spacious lobby.

When the muezzin calls the midday prayers, the non-Middle Easterners all start at the sudden loud assault. Then Muhammad, the chief pool man, comes around with watermelon. Later you go to your room knowing it will be cool and breezy; you pad across the shirvan rug and stretch out over the four-poster bed.

One tenet of travel is that it’s always good to stay in any place ever graced by the presence of Graham Greene, and the American Colony is one. He was not the only luminary to pass through: Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, and later Peter O’Toole (who played Lawrence in the movie), Gielgud, Chagall, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Jimmy Carter, Gorbachev, John le Carré, and Ingrid Bergman can all be found on old guest lists. Not all of them behaved like statesmen when they visited, either. Although the Colony has a formal grace to it, hijinks are not discouraged. When he stayed here, Lawrence (a chap whom one thinks of in his robes, doing dignified diplomatic duty among the dunes) often played goalie in the madcap soccer games that unfolded in a garden out back.

It was around 1896 that the palace was taken over by the Spafford family, abolitionist Presbyterians from Chicago who wanted to create a haven for indigent Jews, Muslims, and Christians; later it was transformed into a hotel. But more than a century after, it remains a refuge of a sort. When my family moved for a time to Jerusalem in the mid-nineties, we first stayed at the Colony for several days. I was eight months pregnant. We had two small boys ages two and four. Our 11-year-old cat, Bootsie, had not enjoyed the plane ride from New York and wouldn’t drink any water even though the day was hot. In our room Bootsie fell violently ill. She died that day in a veterinarian’s office. It was tragic, and pregnant women are not known for their ability to downplay drama. But when we returned to the room, all of Bootsie’s sad, sick mess had been meticulously cleared away, Muhammad was in the hallway ready to joke with our boys, there was tea in the courtyard, and somehow I felt life might go on.

Since that traumatic touchdown I’ve been back to the American Colony often, and each time with relief because the hotel is a spot of civilized calm in the middle of a roiling and often bloody conflict. It’s not that it is untouched by The Situation. When there are problems, the staff can be very late to work or unable to get there at all, held up at the endless Israeli checkpoints dotting the West Bank. On particularly bad days you can see that The Situation is chipping away at the spirit of these people whom you’ve gotten to know over the years. But most of the time the staff soldiers on, the guests are empathetic, and everyone tries to pull together as the lentil soup arrives steaming and fragrant at your table in the courtyard, the sunlight starts to fade beyond the hotel walls, and the muezzin begins his prayers again. From $325; 972-2/627-9777;

Amy Wilentz is the author of Martyrs’ Crossing, a novel about Jerusalem.