The Ido

Let me tell you about a different kind of hotel no tell. The Ido, pronounced e-DOH, in downtown Jerusalem is a charming nook that doesn’t pop up on any hotel review website or generate any buzz, on or offline.

I’ve been the hotel’s night auditor for the last two years. In all that time I haven’t seen or heard a single celebrity endorsement for the Ido on tv, radio, the local newspapers or world wide web. I’ve worked during two peak holiday seasons. Not once did the hotel’s general manager host a lavish Rosh Hashanah, Purim or other holiday party. No A-listers. No red carpet. No flashing cameras. No paparazzi.

That’s probably not surprising since this strange little stopover has never had a general manager.

No, this hole in the wall basks in anonymity, the way a spy in a Jean Le Carre novel is enveloped in the absolute power of seeing all while not being seen by a single soul.

Hold on. Kindly allow me to amend the totality of the Ido’s powers of invisibility. The hotel isn’t completely transparent. It’s frequented by a gaggle of rogues who measure success by the length of time a secret is kept, the size of the return on a well-placed bribe, the ability to reach out and talk about stalled building permits with the mayor of Jerusalem – right as the chief executive’s son is being Bar Mitzvahed at the Wailing Wall.

That’s how a flophouse like the Ido can compete with the likes of King David, Waldorf Astoria, American Colony, or any other of the city’s 700 hotels. Ido’s utter obscurity is a perfect hiding place for the city’s sworn political enemies to meet, drink, chat and pass hours of invigorating camaraderie together. Outside of the Ido, such associations would destroy political careers that are fueled by constant conflicts and manufactured crises.

Working nights here is akin to taking a temporary flight from the Jerusalem I see, hear, smell and touch every day. The second I clock in for the lobster shift I’m propelled down a rabbit hole, past the mirage of a city existing on the razor’s edge, into the middle of where the real action is.

Here’s a story you may have heard about. Just last week, the local media was aflame with reports about a foreign government using local charities to secretly purchase property in East Jerusalem. The day the foreign invasion story broke, the leader of one of these aid agencies said this on Israeli television: “We look forward to counting every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is the blood of Allah’s blessed martyrs. Every martyr will be greeted in heaven by Allah and get his reward.”

But what you didn’t see on your local newscast was this same gentleman attending a reading, in Hebrew, at the Ido’s Garden Terrace the very evening he called for the launch of Jihad. The reading was of some of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s most well-known works. Also in the audience were a smattering of Israeli parliamentarians who a few hours earlier had filibustered on the Knesset floor for this man’s immediate extradition back to Turkey.

In an animated discussion after the reading, the words of the greatest Hebrew poet since King David inspired these Jewish nationalists to compare Yehuda Amichai to Al-Mutanabbi, the wandering wordsmith who fathered many Arab proverbs. Over several cups of sweet tea, all camps then sat around the Garden Terrace’s deck chairs and took turns quoting their favourite versifier. Surprisingly, Bob Dylan ranked highly among all assembled true believers, though his three-album Gospel phase was dismissed as ‘confusing.’

Like all off the record events at the Ido, this one was organized and held in total secrecy. According to the hotel’s reservation system, what officially transpired between the hours of 8:30 pm and 1:30 am at the Garden Terrace was the ‘Goldfarb Bar-Mitzvah and reception.’ Since the Ido’s main entrance faces out onto heavily trafficked King George Street, all participants were snuck in through a series of underground parking lots, freight elevators and emergency exits whose alarms were shut off for the occasion. No credit cards, bank wires or any other traceable means of exchange were used to fund this happening. Cash and promises to keep the Tax Authority out of the Ido’s books were sufficient currency.

Another clandestine gathering I witnessed a couple of weeks later brought a dovish Israeli cabinet member and hawkish Palestinian leader together at the Ido’s hookah lounge, where guests imbibed the hypnotic musical stylings of the best Sufi musicians this side of Bollywood. The ecstatic singers and whirling dancers, turbocharged by a pulsating frame drum, created an electric moment in time that left guests simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. I managed to record a couple of minutes of the concert with my Smartphone. But the device was grabbed and smashed into a million little pieces by one of the many tall muscular men with close-cropped hair and dark suits who were hovering about.

I’m getting ready to clock out of here for the last time and naturally think back to my first night on the job at the Ido. It was during Israel’s last major military action in the Gaza Strip. A senior spokesman from the Hamas group that rules Gaza had taken time off from his busy schedule to participate in a week-long mosaic workshop at the hotel’s conference centre. A fellow devotee of Gaudi’s Trencadis mosaic technique was none other than the Israeli army’s chief of staff. At around 2:00 am, as I was posting that day’s room rates to each guest’s account, I noticed that the conference centre’s lights were still on. I peaked in and saw Israel’s number one soldier engrossed in an intense game of backgammon with a leading figure of an organization publicly committed to Israel’s destruction. Both of their bodyguards were passed out and gently snoring on a nearby couch.

Before I make tracks, I throw a few items worth keeping into a small brown cardboard box I found in the hotel’s gift shop – now closed for good. I run my pointer finger over a souvenir from my tour of duty on the frontlines of the Ido. It’s a small silver amulet that’s meant to protect the wearer from werewolves or something like that. For a handsome fee and vow of silence, the curator of Jerusalem’s leading Islamic art museum brought together acclaimed painters, sculptures, industrial designers and jewellers to present their interpretations of the Hamsa, that ancient, omnipresent, symbol of an eye embedded in the palm of an open hand.

Among the many luminaries at this exhibition was Israel’s chief rabbi, who got quite chummy with a former diamond merchant who was standing trial in Brussels for illegally shipping arms to Congo. The fact that the latter was officially under house arrest in Belgium didn’t seem to put a damper on the evening’s festivities. At some point, the chief rabbi and alleged chief of an international arms network embraced and gave each other kisses on both cheeks. Then the trail runs cold. As much as I rack my brain, I can’t recall how and when the guest from Brussels left the Ido. He simply up and vanished into the dark Jerusalem night.

I leave the Ido’s front entrance and punch in the security code for the last time. “What’s the point of locking up now?” I say to no one. It’s 6:00 am. In the next few hours, a ‘For Sale’ sign will be posted in front of the hotel. The Ido’s incredibly good luck had to run out sometime. Elections held six months ago swept a new chief executive into office. The new mayor is a young, diligent, articulate Harvard graduate from a leading Jerusalem family who had served in the legendary Sayeret Matkal army unit. At some point in his meteoric rise, he founded and then sold a hi-tech startup for millions. The new mayor’s first order of business is to rid the city of the corruption that had taken root over the last two decades under the watchful eye and gentle encouragement of his predecessor, a man known for his penchant for all-white suits, all-night poker games and money laundering.

Without a benefactor in the city hall, the Ido’s days were numbered. None of the construction done at the hotel over the last 20 years was remotely legal. And it didn’t take long for the new sheriff in town to find out that the Ido’s Olympic-size outdoor pool and spa had been built on land belonging to a neighbouring Greek Orthodox church. Once the new mayor’s people do a bit more digging, they’ll also find that the Ido’s in-room massages and housekeeping services were provided courtesy of polite, hardworking people smuggled from Africa into Israel through Egypt.

So, where will those dime-store Machiavellians go now that their favourite port has been stricken from the charlatans’ local itinerary? Like all serial entrepreneurs, they’ll return to the blackboard. This is what I’m doing right now, as I sip my mud coffee and look out of my tiny apartment patio on to the hustle and flow beginning to wash over the centre of town. It’s 7:00 am, and I have nothing but time on my hands.


This short story was originally published on J-Wire, May 25 2020.

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