On my very first visit to the “Holy Land,” in the early 1970s, I stayed at some flophouse near the Damascus Gate in occupied East Jerusalem, and one day found myself walking past a handsome gated garden-house establishment that proudly displayed the name The American Colony. My first reaction was to think that this was somewhat giving the game away. But I rapidly came to appreciate that this was not a symbol of the American-Israeli “special relationship.” It was, rather, a survival from an earlier period of evangelical optimism, when American missionaries had settled in the Middle East, either to witness the Second Coming of the savior or, in more extreme cases, to help bring it on. (This Protestant outreach and presence has since taken many protean forms, including the foundation of the American University of Beirut.) In the 19th century, these devotees viewed the immigration of Jews to Palestine as one sign of the fulfillment of Christian prophecy; today the American Colony Hotel is one of the informal gathering places of the Palestinian elite and the less pro-Zionist members of the international press corps.
When Kai Bird first stayed in the hotel as a small boy in 1956, it was in Jordan, where his father was the United States vice-consul. Not far away was the Mandelbaum Gate, the informal crossing-point of the divided city (named for the shopkeeper and stocking merchant through whose premises the 1948 cease-fire line effectively ran). To get to school, Bird had to get used to crossing and recrossing that gate, and also to the idea of partition as it establishes itself in the human mind. Among other things, Bird’s acute and engaging memoir is a mournful recollection of a time when the single issue of Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, was not the monotonously dominant theme that it has since become. Jerusalem was home to many other peoples—Druze, Armenians, Greek Orthodox—as well as to mixtures and comminglings of them. Bird’s closest friend and playmate was the son of a Muslim Palestinian father and a German-Jewish refugee mother. (The boy, Dani, is now a full-grown secular Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem but declines to take Israeli citizenship.)