By Joanna Chen
I’m waiting for my friend Nuha at the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem. A favored haunt of foreign journalists, I clocked up many hours sitting in the leafy center courtyard over iced tea when I worked for Newsweek.
The American Colony, nestling in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, has always been an oasis of tranquility in a city that is anything but tranquil. Built in the late 19th century, it has hosted countless peace negotiations and secret talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Lawrence of Arabia met here with American reporters, and John le Carré, is one of many writers who have stayed here. Mostly, the hotel buzzes with UN officials and foreign diplomats. Today, it’s quiet. The only occupied room in this sprawling stone building is the lobby, where guests lounge in chintzy armchairs near the lit fireplace. A loud voice booms out across the room. An Israeli sitting with a Palestinian, closing a business deal. They speak in Hebrew and from time to time the Palestinian makes a phone call on his cell phone, murmuring into the phone in Arabic. They lean towards each other, the Israeli in a blue shirt, unbuttoned at the top, the Palestinian in a moss-green sweater. Across from them is a group of American journalists drinking coffee out of tiny ceramic cups, and a woman in an ethnic poncho wanders up and down the pink flagstones, her heels clicking on the polished surface.
I settle in to a high-backed armchair and order tea. Nuha will be late because she’s working with journalists and you can never tell how long an assignment will take. My tea arrives in a little white pot, mint leaves floating in the steaming water. I take out my laptop and begin writing.
The meeting between the two businessmen comes to an end and the Israeli rises to his feet and asks where he should pay. The Palestinian says, forget it, I’ll pay. The Israeli laughs uncomfortably, and they shake hands. The American Colony was a pickup point back in my Newsweek days. I would sit here, making phone calls, waiting for people to show. From here we would travel to the West Bank, to illegal settler outposts and Palestinian villages. It is from here that Nuha and I set out to visit a Palestinian woman fresh out of jail for attempting to carry out a suicide bombing, and it is from here that we set out to visit a little girl from Tul Karem who captured our hearts.
Nuha Musleh worked with Newsweek for years, functioning beautifully as an interpreter and fixer, setting up appointments and guiding us through all our interviews on the Palestinian side. We often traveled to the West Bank with Mustapha, a burly, laughing taxi driver, who owned an immaculate Mercedes and drove like a maniac along the narrow roads of the West Bank, sounding his horn, Arabic music blasting from the stereo system. I would invariably get a headache on the way home.
It was also here that I met Mike Hastings, an American journalist, who stayed at the Colony before his first trip to Baghdad, on assignment with Newsweek in 2007. It was here, in the dim bar in the basement of the Colony, that he told me about Andi Parhamovich, his girlfriend, asking me whether I thought he should marry Andy, or did I think it was it a ridiculous idea. It’s a ridiculous idea and you should do it, I said, and we clinked glasses and hugged, and I left him that night at the Colony not knowing that, a few weeks after he arrived in Baghdad, Andi would be killed when her car was ambushed by Sunni insurgents.
It was here I met Mordechai Vanunu, the nuclear whistle-blower, after his release from prison. We met on a hot day in 2004 in the dining room that faces the small swimming pool at the rear end of the hotel. His back was to the pool, and as he talked I watched people jumping in and out of the pool, applying sun cream to glistening bodies, sipping cool drinks. Vanunu had nothing to say. In fact, he was forbidden to speak to journalists. So why did I meet him? I was curious to see him, and disappointed at this slight, short man with skin the color of cigarette smoke, a soft voice and eyes that darted about the room throughout our half-hour conversation.
A Frenchman circles the lobby. Black pants, sleek black coat, Ray-Ban glasses positioned on his bald head, hands in pockets. Perhaps he’s a security guard for a high-profile guest. There are plenty of them staying here.
A young guy sits the other side of the fireplace, tapping away on a sleek laptop, perfectly white sneakers on his feet and a tailored jacket. He’s a pastor, he says, here on a twelve-day mission.
Nuha bursts into the lobby in a pink wool coat and black hat. Underneath, she’s wearing a red dress and around her neck is a heavy Palestinian necklace. The colors and styles clash, but Nuha knows how to carry it off. We embrace and it’s real, not kisses evaporating into the air but a warm, long hug. It’s been a long time.
At 2 p.m. we’re already sitting in the dining room, the same place I had sat with Vanunu. We munch on bread dipped in thick olive oil, we eat lentil soup, we laugh and chatter together. Less than a mile away, at the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, a combined knife and gun attack begins. One of the Israeli guards, a 19-year-old woman, is killed in the attack. Two more are wounded. The three Palestinian perpetrators are shot dead at the scene.
For an hour, Nuha and I leave our cell phones in our bags. She talks about the art gallery she and her husband own in Ramallah, and about her mother, who has been sick. I ask her how she manages to keep running on the treadmill of journalism, and she shrugs her shoulders and smiles. I tell her how I took my son yesterday to see the so-called separation barrier that Israel continues to build around the Palestinian territories, and how I made him get out of the car so he could see for himself how a wall, however high it is, cannot hide the other side.
For one hour, neither of us check our messages, or the wires for breaking news. For one hour, we are two friends sitting together across a table. We worked together for over a decade and I trust her completely. I like to think that nothing will separate us.
Half an hour later, Nuha and I say goodbye in the American Colony’s parking lot and I head for home, happy to slip out of Jerusalem before the rush hour. But the roads are heavily congested in East Jerusalem. I make a U-turn and hit even more traffic heading for the Old City. An ambulance flits by, and then three police cars, their sirens shrieking. I switch on the car radio and hear about the attack.