A Beautiful Oasis Surrounded by Conflict and Killing

Sunday, October 30, 2005

A Beautiful Oasis Surrounded by Conflict and Killing

An interesting and amusing profile from Saturday's New York Times included a startling fact that came as news to me:
At (age) 93, the resident owner of Jerusalem's most beautiful hotel, the American Colony, [Valentine Vester] is a last tie to an earlier era in the Middle East, before the Holocaust, the end of the British Mandate and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war changed the landscape and put her hotel, which was first under Ottoman, British and then Jordanian rule, firmly under the Israelis.

Now hard of hearing and with her vision failing, she remains funny and tart about the world around her and the accidents of her own life.

... Mrs. Vester, who was born in Yorkshire, England, married into a wealthy Chicago family, the Spaffords. They had decided to come to Jerusalem in 1881, after four of their children died in a shipping disaster ... she is pleased that the hotel, which is owned by a board of seven relatives, including her and her two sons, remains one of the few places where both Israelis and Palestinians come.

"We've tried very hard to be neutral," Mrs. Vester said. "And we've tried not to let the hotel become some Disney Oriental, and remain rather traditional."

... Mrs. Vester remembers just after the (1967 Arab-Israeli) war, walking through the grounds, when she saw some Jews from Mea Sharim picking flowers. She remembers saying, "Please don't do that, this is our private garden."

... During the first gulf war, in 1991, she says, the Israelis, under the threat of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons and Scud missiles, handed out gas masks -- but only to the guests, not to the Palestinian staff of the hotel.

"But we diddled them," Mrs. Vester said with pride. "We made an imaginary list of hotel guests. I mean two can play at that game. It was shocking, really."

... "We sit in our beautiful garden while people are killing each other in Ramallah," she said. "I really feel rather embarrassed by it, ashamed in front of the staff, who live in these places and battle to get back and forth, with all these delays."

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