At the Cellar Bar of East Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel, reporters, spies, NGO workers, and those drawn to the lure of history meet for drinks.

By David Samuels
June 20, 2011

The Summer Bar at the American Colony Hotel is a place for optimists, who sit with an afternoon drink as the sparrows twitter in the flowering bitter-orange trees in the courtyard. On a sunny afternoon, it is possible to imagine that Jerusalem has been reborn as the city of peace. As its name suggests, the Summer Bar is not open in the winter, or for that matter in the fall.

The Cellar Bar is a place for realists, who are sometimes known as pessimists. It is open whenever the Summer Bar is closed. A dark, windowless grotto hewn from the elemental Jerusalem stone, it looks like a chapel from which the bones of the saints and martyrs have been recently removed. All the conspirators and war-zone junkies wash up here, in a place where it is always midnight, where drinks are served at small tables lit by flickering oil lamps, and the floors are always clean. Ibrahim runs the best bar in the city. Issa, Fadee, and Nidal flit from table to table to the stereophonic enticements of Fairuz, the Queen of Beirut. From foreign correspondents on expense accounts, to the well-born sons and daughters of East Jerusalem, to the stringers who get high on the smell of burning tires, everyone gets equal treatment. Everyone smokes.

Since the intifada started, and the wall went up, few Palestinians make the trip to Jerusalem from Ramallah, and few Israelis make the trip from the west to the east side of the city. The American Colony Hotel is half empty. The Cellar Bar is usually full.

After three or four drinks, as Fairuz whispers in her nitrous oxide–filled voice about a hopeless longing for her beloved, it might be a good idea to have something to eat. The Cellar's adjacent restaurant is called Val's Brasserie, but it's really no more than a PG-rated extension of the bar. Here you can restore yourself in front of the fire with a bowl of adas soup with a wedge of lemon, a pair of grilled lamb chops, or a plate of lasagna. The woman at the next table mutters about angels, which have appeared in recent weeks to several longtime residents of Jerusalem.

The angel of history watches over the Cellar Bar. Faisal Husseini's handsome middle-aged son, Abdel Qader, is here. Abdel Qader is named after his grandfather, a brave fighter who was killed in 1948 during the battle for the Kastel. Faisal Husseini was the minister in charge of Jerusalem for the Palestinian National Authority. The British spy Alistair Crooke, an intimate of Yasser Arafat, who loved secrets, was recently sighted here. Upstairs, the corpulent, white-haired head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, is eating dinner with Dina Kenan, the beautiful daughter of one of the leading businessmen in Palestine, and a World Bank employee.

Before the American Colony was a hotel, it was a Christian utopian community, founded by Horatio and Anna Spafford, who arrived in Jerusalem in 1881 after losing four children in an ocean accident and another to scarlet fever. Horatio wrote the hymn "It I s Well with My Soul," the manuscript of which hangs in the lobby near pictures of T. E. Lawrence, a frequent guest. Graham Greene drank here.

It is no accident that the walls of the Cellar Bar are made of stone. My father-in-law, an erudite man who enjoys foreign travel, once pronounced Jerusalem to be the world capital of petradolatry, the worship of stones. All theology ends in a common attachment to rocks. Jews worship at the Western Wall, and Muslims at the Dome of the Rock. Christians worship the rock on which the body of Jesus was laid inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I am happy to worship here.

AMERICAN COLONY HOTEL, 1 Louis Vincent St., Jerusalem; 800/735-2478 or 972-2/627-9777;

Cellar Bar

American Colony Hotel