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The American Colony hotel was originally owned by a Daoud Amin Effendi al-Husseini, who lived there with his harem of four wives. Soon after his fourth marriage, al-Husseini died. In 1895, the building was sold to a group of messianic Christians from America who were joined by Swedish settlers. This Christian utopian society became known as the American Colony.
photo by rhonda Spivak

Armenian Tile in the Lobby of the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem
photo by Rhonda Spivak

El Snow Bar Restaurant in Ramallah
photo by Rhonda Spivak

The magical view of the courtyard gardens from my Pasha room
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Al Snow Bar Pool in Ramallah

Editor's Report from the American Colony Hotel: Did I vomit in Israel or in Palestine?

by Rhonda Spivak, Jan 26 2014

In the summer of 2010 I decided to stay for two nights at the historic American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, where in 1987, Peter Ustinov filmed much of the 1930s-set Agatha Christie mystery Appointment With Death. In 1995, Ustinov visited the hotel and planted a palm tree in the courtyard, with no hint of the turbulent times when shells and sniper fire rained down on it during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The hotel was caught in the crossfire again during the 1967 Six-Day War.


I arrived in good spirits and before setting out to Ramallah I checked in at the lobby, admiring its stone archways furnished with Damascus inlaid tables and exquisite Armenian turquoise tiles. To my delight, I was upgraded (without my request) to a larger  "Pasha Room" --one which had high vaulted ceilings, oriental carpets on the polished stone and a beautiful view looking out onto the greenery of an extensive courtyard.  Although there is a mosque next to the hotel where theoretically I could be woken by the “Allah-u-akbar,” of the muezzin’s call, my room wasn't near it and I would be insulated from this potential disturbance. Everything seemed to be going well, even better than expected.


The old world luxury hotel (which was originally owned by a Pasha who lived there with his harem of four wives) would normally have been out of my budget range, but it was before Ramadan and they were discounting prices substantially. Realizing that I was to meet  Joerge, a German friend who worked for an NGO in Ramallah , I decided the American Colony which sits on the "seamline" between east and west Jerusalem (and was under Jordanian rule until 1967)  would be a great place to station myself since it is the preferred hotel of many UN and other diplomats, politicians and foreign correspondents. In fact, it was in Room 16 of the hotel that Palestinian and Israeli officials met covertly to draft the 1993 Oslo Accords. 


Former British PM Tony Blair in his role as Mideast envoy of the US, EU, Russia, and the UN had rented out the entire third floor of the hotel as his head offices while I was there. I figured it was always worth sitting in the tranquil interior courtyard restaurant or dining room just to eaves drop on conversations, and gather interesting information. (Only a month prior to my arrival the Israeli press was full of reports that  Kadima's Haim Ramon alleged that Prime Minister Netanyahu had sent a witness to the hotel to listen in on Ramon's  conversation with Palestinian Authority negotiations chief Saeb Erekat .)


After checking in, I dashed up to the third floor to see if Tony Blair was in. A security officer informed me he wasn't in Israel and everyone else who was had left for the day even though it was only 3 o'clock. (I began to wonder whether peace would be at  hand if Blair's team were to stay a little later and finish out the work day!)


I freshened up in my room and got ready to brave the August heat, and meet my friend at the Qalandia checkpoint in Ramallah, only a short distance away. My plan was to return before dark to the American colony and then spend the cocktail hour at the outdoor lounge where I could mingle with the UN type diplomats, and possibly American and Canadian security forces (who were training the PA police).


I got to Ramallah as planned without a hitch and after being escorted to some of the major sites, including Arafat's tomb, and being briefed by a woman who was monitoring Palestinian media,  Joerge took me to one of his favourite restaurants, Al-Snow Bar Garden Pool Restaurant and Bar. The shaded location offered great views of the surrounding hills and was popular with the European Non governmental organizations and more cosmopolitan Palestinians, so much so that it was even written about in the New York Times.


I ordered a large salad and coffee which is all I had eaten that day and it was only a few hours later that I realized that I had made a mistake. I ought to have ordered cooked food dishes, to reduce the chances of food poisoning in the Palestinian territories, which is due to many workers not being trained in food handling, sanitation and safety.


Once back in my Pasha room, I began to feel very sick to my stomach.


Alas, for the next two days I remained confined to my Pasha room, where I managed to get out of bed in my lavish surroundings only in order to vomit. The Hotel sent me pots of freshly brewed tea on the house every few hours-but all my adventurous plans amounted to nothing. There have been many famous guests at the American Colony, including Leon Uris, Lawrence of Arabia, Bob Dylan, and John le Carré. While Carre wrote one of his books at the hotel, I, in comparison, did not  manage to compose  even one sentence.


Later when I told a left- wing Israeli friend about my experience, she asked me light heartedly "Did you vomit in Israel or Palestine ?


I realized that was an interesting question-one I hadn't fully considered, and ultimately depends on one's perspective.


If we say that the process of my getting ill began in Ramallah, then clearly the answer wasn't Israel, since Ramallah is under the Palestinian Authority. Albeit I have heard many Palestinians who say that even with the PA in charge they are still under Israeli rule. Alternatively I have heard many Palestinians who say that PA are puppets of the West/US and Israel, such that they would contend I got sick in Israel or at least under Israeli rule!


I returned to the American Colony from Ramallah by getting onto an Arab bus in Ramallah, which one could say was Palestinian albeit it was an Israeli IDF officer that checked my passport on the bus.


Yet, if we say that I got ill at the American Colony Hotel then the hotel y is under Israeli sovereignty now, although from 1948 to 1967 the hotel was in Jordan. (This got me wondering whether I should in point of fact tell my friends that I vomited in Jordan?) To make matters worse, how could I know where all the sewer lines leading to the hotel are connected or where exactly they traverse?


Moreover, although the hotel between 1948-1967 was technically in Jordan, it wasn't by much! When Jordan controlled the eastern sector of Jerusalem in those years, a wall dividing the city ran right in front of the hotel’s driveway.  In fact during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, shells and sniper fire rained down on the hotel, which was caught in the turbulent crossfire of the 1967 Six-Day War.


There would be some Palestinian staff who might say the hotel was in Israel (As I have met many East Jerusalem Arabs who want to remain part of Israel and not  be part of a future state of Palestine). Other staff no doubt would say they are in Palestine. In the hotel you can hear both Arabic and Hebrew, and visitors can pick up copies of "This week In Palestine," but also pamphlets from the Israeli tourist ministry. 


The hotel is very near Salah-A din street, the main artery of East Jerusalem leading to Damascus Gate, which the PA demands as part of a Palestinian state. However, just to the West of the hotel, there are newer Israeli hotels with kosher food that are within 50 meters of it. There is a Jewish ultra-orthodox neighborhood nearby the American Colony that is growing and I have long thought that while Tony Blair and the UN have been busy ringing up hefty bills staying at the American Colony for the sake of the peace process, on the ground, the area to the immediate West of the American Colony hotel is becoming more and more Jewish.


In summary, I expect the American Colony Hotel will be a bone of contention in any possible future peace deal-- regardless of my vomiting experience one way or another!


Bottom line: How would I answer my friend's question- did you vomit in Israel or Palestine? On reflection, I think it's fair to say that under the circumstances, given how sick I was, I vomited in both, (and also possibly in Jordan).

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.