28 April 2009 0 Comments

Baksheeshed to the Bone


I’m guest-blogger today on Checkpoint Jerusalem, the excellent and delightfully varied blog by McClatchy Newspapers Middle East correspondent Dion Nissenbaum. Dion does a better job of rooting out interesting cultural angles on the news than anyone else covering the Middle East. Under the headline “Jesus was Right: Finding a Good Samaritan”, Dion introduces my series of Palestinian crime novels and then posts this contribution from me:

It turns out Jesus was right.

I know, because I found a Good Samaritan.

Really, he was a good guy, and he actually was a Samaritan. There are still a few of them about.

In January, my new Palestinian crime novel, The Samaritan’s Secret, was about to be published.

The story unfolds on a West Bank hilltop where the last remnants of the ancient Samaritan tribe live.

There are just 370 of them, high above the violent city of Nablus, near the site where they believe their ancient Temple stood.

To help my readers get a sense of the place, I decided to film a video clip using many of the locations from the book.

My friend, videographer David Blumenfeld. and I headed from our homes in Jerusalem to shoot the video.

The day before, I had spoken with a Samaritan priest to arrange some meetings and to be sure the enclosure around the Temple wouldn’t be locked.

“That depends on the money,” he said, in Hebrew. (The Samaritans mainly speak Arabic, but they also have Israeli ID cards and speak Hebrew. On their Sabbath, they speak nothing but Samaritan, which they believe is true ancient Hebrew.)

As a journalist, I’m not accustomed to paying to interview people.

“How much?” I asked.

“How much do you think?” he ventured.

Oh, no, we’re about to get all Middle Eastern, I thought. I hate haggling.

“Well, let’s say 200 shekels.” That’s about 60 bucks.

He scoffed.

“A thousand.”

I made groaning noises to show that such a figure was painful to me.

“Five hundred.”

“Five hundred,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”

When we reached the village, Kiryat Luza, the day was clear and sunny. The priest met us at the museum — which he set up some years ago in his living room — and we filmed a few scenes alongside his trove of photos and old documents.

Before we’d finished, he took out a receipt book: “I’ll do your receipt, shall I? What did we say? A thousand, wasn’t it?”

“No, it was five hundred.”

He started to tell me about how much work we were making him do. I gave him seven hundred and let it go.

Now, the priest was supposed to open the gates to the Temple compound for us. But somehow, after I’d paid him, that duty was delegated to another fellow.

As we filmed, the new guy complained that he needed to go home and eat. (The Samaritan village is about the sleepiest place I’ve ever seen. If anybody up there had anything pressing to do that necessitated hurrying me along, I’d have been very, very surprised.)

So, as we left, I gave him 100 shekels [about $25 US] and thanked him with my warmest collection of Arabic words of praise.

“Something for the other guy?” he said, pointing at a figure lurking near the gate. “He had to wait too.”

I peeled off 20 shekels more. I hadn’t been squeezed this badly since I was first in the Middle East as an innocent 19-year-old backpacker, shucked for “baksheesh” by every Egyptian within a mile of the Great Pyramid.

David and I had filmed for four hours in a ridiculously hot January sun. I had read my cue-cards in five different languages, and I’d been fleeced until the leather on my wallet started to look raw. Sustenance was in order.

We went down the slope to the village to look for food.

There are only two establishments in the Samaritan village that in any way resemble eateries. “The Good Samaritan Restaurant” would’ve been the best bet, you’d have thought. But it serves no food — only whiskey.

Next door, the “Guests and Tourists Paradise” was open. Three men smoked cigarettes lazily at one of the tables.

“Is it possible to eat?” I asked.

A tall, thin young man rose and welcomed us. We took a couple of Cokes from the fridge and sat. There was much muttering among the three smokers. Two of them disappeared up the street.

“I think they’ve gone home to ask Mamma to make our lunch,” I said to David.

Certainly no cooking took place in the kitchen at the back of the restaurant. The tall man smiled and nodded.

“No problem,” he said. “Food is coming.”

We waited… and waited… for half an hour. But the food did come, and it was good.

As we left, the young man told me his name was Samih. His father was the High Priest of the Samaritans. He gave me a free poster with historical information about the Samaritans and smiled very broadly.

Then he counted out my exact change.

I left a nice tip.

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