Watermelon brings Jews, Arabs together in shadow of Old City walls

Food and fun recall the way things used to be, pre-intifada, in the capital’s Musrara neighborhood

Illustrative photo of Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem (photo credit: via Facebook)
Illustrative photo of Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem (photo credit: via Facebook)
Jews and Arabs share a plate of watermelon (photo credit: Hamutal Wachtel)
Jews and Arabs share a plate of watermelon (photo credit: Hamutal Wachtel)

Towering platters of watermelon and Israeli cheeses brought together Jews and Arabs in the Musrara neighborhood this week as part of the first annual “Between Green and Red” festival in Jerusalem.

The festival, which began on Monday and continues until Saturday, is a throwback to what the neighborhood, close to the Old City walls, used to look like in the days after the Six Day War in 1967 and for the two decades after that, participants said.

Matan Israeli, the festival’s artistic manager and the brains behind the entire production, said, “The idea of a watermelon stand is not new; we just revived it. This is a place where everyone in the neighborhood would gather. When the people who remember those summer nights talk about it, their eyes still sparkle.”

The summer of ‘67 marked a critical turning point in Jerusalem. Israel had just recaptured Jerusalem’s Old City and what had been considered “no man’s land,” the area that had once divided the city, became an open space of opportunity.

Benayun, Israeli and Ohayon working the watermelon stand (photo credit: Hamutal Wachtel)
Benayun, Israeli and Ohayon working the watermelon stand (photo credit: Hamutal Wachtel)

Without permits or planning, watermelon sheds and stands, or bastas in Arabic, transformed the desolate space into a center of culture and refuge. At night, once the bastas had closed, the parties would begin, sometimes lasting all night, as Jews and Arabs came out, bringing with them watermelons, cheeses, coffee and pastries to share. Later, the stands set up videos and TVs, and martial arts movies would play into the small hours.

But in the late 80s, with the first intifada, came violence and tension, Israeli noted. The watermelon stands were shut down, the municipality began to enforce new regulations, and the area became something of a no man’s land again.

That was until this year, when several organizations came together with the Jerusalem Season of Culture to organize a watermelon festival, in conjunction with the Under the Mountain public art festival.

“Between Green and Red,” which takes place in a large wooden enclosure that was built for the event, features plenty of singing, dancing and displays of art, including a single symbolic watermelon shed and greenhouse. The production was set up and is managed by Koko Deri, one of the original founders of the 1970s Sephardi social protest movement, the Black Panthers. Deri and several other members of the movement were handing out watermelon to hungry Jerusalemites.

Moroccan-born Rafael Ohayon, who was just 17 when he joined the Black Panthers, recalled an era of Sephardi bitterness at discrimination, and the sense that Ashkenazi immigrants from Eastern Europe were running Israel, marginalizing those of Middle Eastern and North African origin. “I was naturally a part of the Black Panther movement,” he said. “I was from this neighborhood and this is where all the leaders gravitated.”

His friend David Benayun, a Jerusalem native, said of the movement, “We just wanted a slice of the cake. If you have food, share it. We changed the views of the government and the people of Israel.”

The change they advocated was a forceful one. Benayun recalled the violence and arrests that accompanied the social protests and demonstrations taking place in Jerusalem at the time.

‘When you eat watermelon, you never eat it alone’

Forty years later, Benayun said the Arab Spring represented some of the same ideals which the Black Panther movement stood for. Meanwhile, things have improved slightly in Israel — between the Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and even between Jews and Arabs, he said.

“Tonight is beautiful and I’m amazed,” said Benayun. “Twenty years ago [at the time of the first intifada], there was fighting here.”

Motioning to a group of dancers, he said, “This is the only place in the Middle East where an Arab can dance with an Ashkenazi woman.”

Shiri Klein, a photography student at the Bezalel Academy, said the festival is exactly what the city needs. “Watermelon is a fruit that both Israelis and Arabs enjoy,” she said. “When you eat watermelon, you never eat it alone.”

Da’ud “Dudu” Shaludi, an Israeli Arab from the heart of Jerusalem, said he came to the festival for the party and to sit and enjoy the fruit. “Growing up, my grandmother always told me that watermelon was good for you,” he said. “She would say, if your head hurts, eat watermelon.”

Organizer Israeli hailed the watermelon as a symbol of simple pleasure. “During the hot summer, it is something that can bring people together. It is a big fruit; you have to share it, so people should also try to share the joy.”

To learn more, visit the Facebook page or the festival’s website.

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