In the early evening on a backstreet in downtown Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews are milling around, preparing for battle. But this isn't a new round of Middle East violence; it's a showdown over shesh besh, the local name for backgammon.
The gathering is the latest in a series of events organized by Double Yerushalmi, a group trying to build closer ties between Arabs and Jews through cultural activities like singing, dancing and the increasingly popular shesh besh championship.
To the strains of Arabic Dabke music – not usually heard in the western, mainly Jewish side of Jerusalem – around 50 players turned up last week, sitting hunched over the backgammon tables, shaking dice and clicking the counters like pros. Shouts of "yalla" and "kadima" – Arabic and Hebrew for "come on" – rang out.
"You want to win, but it's friendly too," said Karem Joubran, a 27-year-old from Shuafat camp, a Palestinian refugee neighbourhood in north Jerusalem, who had to cross checkpoints to get to the event. "It's good, it brings people together."
Joubran said he usually speaks Hebrew to his Jewish opponents, but sometimes comes across a Jewish player who speaks decent Arabic, and they chat and joke. They tend to avoid politics or the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – their common ground is backgammon.
"There aren't many mediums to meet people from the other side of the fence," said Binny Zupnick, 22, who moved from New York to Israel eight years ago.
An Arabic speaker who wears a kippah, Zupnick said lighthearted interaction over backgammon was a good way of building understanding.
"There's an automatic topic of conversation," he said, mentioning that he had been to other Jewish-Arab co-existence events that were almost too serious and stilted.
"Shesh besh is a simple way to break down barriers. It's important to do these things from the ground up."Thursday, March 09, 2017