Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Middle East’s First Boutique Hotel, Part II

One of the hotel’s earliest and most famous guests was T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who regularly dined at the hotel’s restaurant, as well as played goalkeeper in the soccer matches that took place where the swimming pool is today.
The American Colony’s main salon as it appeared in the 1900’s and today
After World War II and the 1948 war, the American Colony found itself situated in the Arab quarter of a now divided Jerusalem. The Vesters began to welcome a new clientele: Christian pilgrims, Beirut residents who could afford to travel and ''oil people, Aramco employees on vacation, for example,'' recalled Mrs. Vester in an interview.

Yet in this beautiful city with a divided soul, Valentine Vester’s lasting legacy may prove to be the hotel itself, which has come to symbolize an oasis of neutrality and one of the few places in Jerusalem where Palestinians, Israelis, Muslims, Jews, and Christians can meet on common ground. "We've tried very hard to be neutral," Vester once said. "And we've tried not to let the hotel become some Disney Oriental."

The actor Peter O’Toole stayed at the hotel while on location filming Lawrence of Arabia; The hotel’s restaurant is a frequent meeting place of the Palestinian elite
Of the frequent guests at her hotel, Ms. Vester was particularly fond of the late Edward Said, the Palestinian American cultural critic and literature professor at Columbia University. "He was very hot on the Arabs standing on their own feet and standing up for themselves," she said.

Far from being a “lonely outpost of American civilization,” as a Minneapolis newspaper had once described it in 1920, today the American Colony serves as the posh headquarters for Jerusalem’s political elite and the international journalists who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On any given day it is not uncommon to find a convoy of white United Nations Land Rovers idling in the hotel’s parking lot.

Hotel guests in the 1940’s; Today the open portico has been enclosed
The sun drenched patios and cloistered halls of this power broker haunt have bared witness to countless secret meetings that have shaped the geo-political map of the region. In 1992 representatives of the Israelis and Palestinians secretly drafted parts of the Oslo Peace Accord at the hotel in Room 16, the former chambers of one of the pasha’s wives. While more recently, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, at the time an international Mideast envoy, took over a suite of rooms on the Colony’s top floor for his offices and headquarters in the region.

At the heart of the American Colony lies it’s most intriguing space, the legendary Cellar Bar. Like Harry’s Bar in Venice and the bar of the Ritz in Paris, the Cellar is the kind of place that’s steeped in history and international intrigue. As its name suggests the bar is located beneath the hotel in a former cistern of low vaulted ceilings, stone floors, and intimate seating areas dimly lit by flickering oil lamps. Under the strains of Fairuz’s hypnotic voice and a cloud of cigarette smoke, one can often find the city’s political agents, foreign correspondents on expense accounts, and even the well-born sons and daughters of East Jerusalem, all holding court over the world’s most complex diplomatic and political scene.

Sir Winston Churchill; The hotel’s famous Cellar Bar
This of course made for interesting eavesdropping; which may explain why Graham Greene, famous for his James Bond novels, could often be found drinking here amongst the Cellar’s stone walls. Greene, an erudite man who enjoyed foreign travel, once dubbed Jerusalem “the world capital of intrigue”, and the Cellar provided him with plenty of material for his novels and stories which would have no doubt pleased the hotel’s late owner.

Valentine Vester was buried on June 22, 2008 at the historic American Colony cemetery on Jerusalem's Mt. Scopus, alongside her husband who died in 1985.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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