The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family is a beautiful sandstone building on the corner where the Via Dolorosa turns briefly onto the main alley of the Muslim Quarter’s souq. Buzz at the main gate, climb up two flights of enclosed steps, and you’re in a palm-shaded garden fronting a broad, four-story façade. Nearly 150 years old, it was built for Catholic pilgrims and for much of the second half of the last century was an insanitary hospital. Now returned to its original Austrian owners, it’s a hotel for church groups visiting the historic sites of Jerusalem.
From its roof, there’s a panoramic view of the Old City. It’s for this that I labored up the front steps with my friend, videographer David Blumenfeld, and his numerous camera bags, lights and reflector shields, last month. We’d already filmed a promo video for my next novel THE FOURTH ASSASSIN in my favorite seedy Old City café, where I shone with sweat, swallowed cardamom-flavored coffee and sucked on a foul nargila, until I looked sufficiently like an inveterate marijuana-user coming down. Now it was time for a second video.
I approached the front desk of the Hospice in the large marble entrance hall. A blonde man in his twenties greeted me: “Grüss Gott.” I’m a lover of things Austrian, so I had a good feeling already.
“Grüss Gott. We’re making a short video for my website. Can we film on the roof?”
“It’s not allowed, unless you have permission.” Not unfriendly. Just stating the rules.
But I’ve lived in the Middle East long enough to know that there ARE no rules. “Don’t worry. It’s really nothing. It’s just for my website. To tell people about my book.”
“What is the book?”
The truth: It’s about a Palestinian teacher who goes to visit his son in New York and discovers a headless body in his son’s bed. No, I’d better not tell him that. It doesn’t sound like something he’d want a pilgrim hostel associated with. How about this? “It’s about Palestinians and how they live their lives.”
A bit more of this and the Austrian was thinking hard. “Ok, but just for ten minutes.”
“Of course, thank you. That’s very kind of you. Ten minutes, of course.” In the Middle East, one of the things that really gets me down is that putting one over on someone else isn’t seen as a bad thing to do. If you can get away with it, then good for you. Naturally when I get the opportunity to do this, I have a feeling of payback for all the times I’ve been deliberately misled by the locals. With that warm sensation, I ascended in the Hospice’s rickety elevator.
Up on the roof, the afternoon sunshine was too bright to film. It was so harsh I’d have been squinting into the camera like Clint Eastwood. So David and I descended to the Hospice’s garden café. For a mere 100 shekels ($30) we had a slice each of strudel (an uncommon dish in Jerusalem, where even Israelis who arrived as immigrants from Austria tend to eat Middle Eastern style), some soda and coffee.
Suitably refreshed we returned to the roof and soldiered on, despite the insanely bright sunshine.
Despite the occasional loud Israeli on a cellphone and the Korean tourists who stopped taking photos of the Dome of the Rock so they could photograph me, I managed to read most of the first chapter of THE FOURTH ASSASSIN without a pause.
Then, just before I’d finished, from the corner of my eye I spy the blonde fellow from reception striding toward me.
“Sir, you have to stop now. This has been more than 10 minutes,” he said.
“We’ve only been working a few minutes. We were down in the café most of the time. We had strudel.”
He twisted his face as though his finger had just gone through the toilet paper. “And I should believe you?”
“Yes, why would I lie? Go and ask the people in the coffee shop.”
I feel for this Austrian. After all, Israelis and Palestinians are able to lie with absolutely no compunction. It’s one of the first things you learn when you live here a while. I could see that this poor fellow had been at the front desk of the Hospice for a sufficient time to train him to recognize a lie, but not long enough to give him the graceful Arab ability to maneuver around someone else’s untruths without humiliating them. This fellow had only two options: let me get away with it, or kick me out.
“So five more minutes and then you’re out,” he said.
Here’s where my own cultural training came in. The over-emotional Welshman in me wanted to say: Listen, butty, I paid 100 shekels for some stiff strudel in your café, so you can bloody well calm down. In any case what do you think I’m filming up here? It’s just my face, some domed buildings in the background, and a lot of sunshine. What’re you protecting? It’s not a military installation. I’m buggered if I’m going to be hurried by you.
But I also know that the Middle Eastern way is to move from bald-faced lieing to apparent humility and submission, smug in the knowledge that you’ve got what you want. So I let him think he was having his way.
Twenty minutes later, when David and I passed the reception desk on our way out, I stopped to wave my thanks to the Austrian. Never leave anyone with a nasty taste in their mouth. Arabs taught me that. The kisses on the cheeks they bestow after a dispute really do defuse all the tension.
He ignored me. A Palestinian would never have done that.