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Israelis, Palestinians ‘battle’ in tabletop game

Backgammon tournament held in former Jerusalem train station leads to laughter for Arabs and Jews

Palestinians and Israelis take part in a backgammon tournament in Jerusalem on August 31, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN)
Palestinians and Israelis take part in a backgammon tournament in Jerusalem on August 31, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN)

AFP — 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 with yarmulkes on their head and some with headscarves, gathered at a historic former train station in the divided city on Wednesday night for a backgammon tournament.

They smoked hookah 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.”

Israeli Arab Abu Riad (L) plays against Israeli David Aviv (R) during a backgammon tournament between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem on August 31, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN).
Israeli Arab Abu Riad (L) plays against Israeli David Aviv (R) during a backgammon tournament between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem on August 31, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN).

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 organized over four nights in both the Palestinian and Jewish sections of Jerusalem. They required no special security.

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. 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 organizers.

Play fights

Mahmud al-Rifai, a Palestinian organizer, 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.

Palestinian men perform a traditional dance during a backgammon tournament between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem on August 31, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN).
Palestinian men perform a traditional dance during a backgammon tournament between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem on August 31, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / GIL COHEN-MAGEN).

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 center.

Tournament organizers realized 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 organizer 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.

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