The Israelis and Palestinians were facing off in Jerusalem again — but this time they actually seemed to be enjoying each other’s company.
Dozens of Israelis and Palestinians, some dressed in yarmulkes on their head or headscarves, gathered at a historic former train station in the divided city on Wednesday night for a backgammon tournament.
They smoked shisha water pipes, munched on ruby-red watermelon slices and listened to a band play Arab music as they matched wits in the board game popular throughout the Middle East.
For a few hours, concerns about violence and territory could be put aside for at least the illusion that the two peoples could live together.
“I remember the time when I spent nights here, in Tel Aviv or in Haifa,” said Abud, a Palestinian Christian in his 50s from Bethlehem who declined to give his last name.
“I had Israeli friends who came to see me in Bethlehem, to eat hummus or falafel.”
In front of him on the other side of the game board, Baruch Mehri, a retired Jewish man in his 70s originally from Iraq, took the opportunity to dust off his Arabic.
He and Abud traded insults while doubling over with laughter.
“As someone from Iraq, this atmosphere, the music, the language, the game, it’s what I dream of for this country,” Mehri said.
– Brief co-existence –
The tournament was organised over four nights in both the Palestinian and Jewish sections of Jerusalem. They required no special security.
The status of Jerusalem is among the most contentious issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestinians view east Jerusalem as their future capital, while Israelis see the entire city as theirs.
Israel occupied east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community, which has expressed alarm over the expansion of Jewish settlements there.
Wednesday’s games were held in an area along the line between mainly Palestinian east and mostly Jewish west Jerusalem, at an Ottoman-era train station now home to bars and restaurants.
While Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side in Jerusalem, there is very little mixing and constant tension. Any true coexistence remains a far-off dream.
But events like Wednesday’s backgammon tournament can provide a break from ever-present passions in a city holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
It was a group of young Palestinian and Israeli activists that decided to make a play at temporary peace with one of the world’s oldest board games.
They called it “Jerusalem Double” — a reference to when a player ups the ante of points and forces his opponent to match or concede.
Veiled Palestinian women, ultra-orthodox Jews wearing black yarmulkes, families pushing strollers and excited children gathered to watch at the train station.
“You know, for many people, this is the most interaction that they will have with an Arab or a Jew,” said Zaki Jamal, a Jewish man and one of the organisers.
– Play fights –
Mahmud al-Rifai, a Palestinian organiser, said that 150 people attended on the first night, while even more were at the second.
He said it included those who spoke of what they described as the good old days — perhaps with the help of an overly generous memory — when Jews, Muslims and Christians mingled more easily.
“The situation is not what the politicians try to sell to us,” he said. “Look at how much Jerusalem residents want something like this.”
In Arabic and in Hebrew, the game is called “shesh besh,” mixing Turkish and Persian to say “6” and “5”, as well as “tawle” for the Palestinians.
It’s a popular game among men who gather at cafes from the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Palestinian political capital, to Tel Aviv, Israel’s seaside commercial centre.
Tournament organisers realised that the Palestinians played a variation called “mahbussa,” unknown to Jewish players.
The Israelis clear the checkers when they reach the edge of the board, while Palestinians stack them.
The difference — perhaps symbolically — caused endless lighthearted disputes between Abud and Mehri.
One volunteer proposed to mediate, leading the two men to break out in laughter.
For organiser Jamal, “there is something with backgammon that brings different people here — not only the usual peace activists, but also people who have no desire to talk about politics.”
“I think that we have put our finger on something,” he said.