Jews and Arabs come together for backgammon championship in Jerusalem

The gathering was part of a series of events organized by Double Yerushalmi, a group trying to build closer ties between Arabs and Jews through cultural activities.

Ammar Awad/Reuters
A man and woman compete Feb. 27 in a backgammon championship in Jerusalem organized by Double Yerushalmi, a group trying to build closer ties between Arabs and Jews through cultural activities.

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 this past Monday, 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 neighborhood 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.

Zaki Djemal, an Israeli of Syrian Jewish descent, is one of the organizers of the gathering, which has met six times in recent months – half in Arab neighborhoods, half in Jewish ones – and has seen its popularity grow steadily.

"The city is segregated in many ways, so we wanted to create some crossover between neighborhoods," he said. "Politics is not at the center of this, but it's around."

With a history that some trace back 5,000 years to the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, backgammon is a mainstay in the Middle East, the clatter of the counters ringing out in the souks of Cairo, Istanbul, Casablanca and Damascus for centuries.

Jerusalem has also long been a center for the game and Djemal is hoping to reinforce that by organizing a Mediterranean championship later this year, with players coming from Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and across Europe.

On Monday evening a group of Palestinian women in hijab came to cheer on husbands and friends, while their children played backgammon at a nearby table. Across the cobbled alleyway, Orthodox Jewish locals listened, fascinated, to the Dabke music.

On the next street, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians from Shuafat jointly practiced the Brazilian martial art of capoeira.

"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."

In Monday's competition, two Jews and two Arabs reached the semi-finals, then, after hard-fought matches, it was an all-Jewish final.

But by the end of the night, everyone was dancing Dabke in the streets together, a small but symbolic act of unity at a time when the city's divisions are as acute as ever.

Additional reporting by Sabreen Taha; editing by Gareth Jones.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.