'I can't see any borders here': Israelis and Palestinians unite for backgammon

That most ordinary thing in the Middle East — a game of backgammon — is suddenly extraordinary because it's Israelis and Palestinians sitting opposite each other to play.

'We are offering a human solution, where people realize there is a human being facing them'

Israelis and Palestinians of all ages gathered in Jerusalem recently for a unifying night of backgammon, music and dancing. (Irris Makler/CBC)

That most ordinary thing in the Middle East — a game of backgammon — is suddenly extraordinary because it's Israelis and Palestinians sitting opposite each other to play.

On a warm night at Jerusalem's upscale Train Station restaurant complex, alcohol, cigarettes and watermelon have been laid out so people can knuckle down for some serious backgammon — or shesh besh as it's called locally. 

Jews play Muslims, men play women, while the children who don't want to learn the rules run around. Everyone dresses how they please.
These women came from East Jerusalem with their children to enjoy the music. (Irris Makler/CBC)

It's the brainchild of peace group Kulna Yerushalayim, which means "We are all Jerusalem," a name that has one word in Arabic and one in Hebrew.

"We are offering a human solution, where people realize there is a human being facing them," says Israeli organizer Idai Goldschmitt.

Palestinian activist Mohammed Al Rifei says his motto has always been: "Let's just put people together without having to talk about anything political.

"Let's see if they can hold together for an hour, two hours, even half an hour without getting on each other's nerves."
Peace group Kulna Yerushalayim, which means 'We are all Jerusalem,' organized the event. (Irris Makler/CBC)

Al Rifei, who describes himself as a Sufi Muslim, says he was born on the Mount of Olives, "just next door to Jesus," and has been a long-term worker for coexistence here.

"The question that should really be asked is not who does Jerusalem belong to, but who belongs to Jerusalem? And with that belonging comes an obligation: to really respect the honour God has given us of being a part of this city."

'Beautiful night'

Abu Iyad Najjar has walked up from the Old City, one square mile that's holy to three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It's his first time playing here in the Jewish side of the city. He figures he's been playing backgammon for 55 years, and is looking forward to this match. 

His grandson, Otaiba Bakri, who recently completed a nursing exchange program at a Catholic university in Toronto, has come with him. 

"I think it will be a beautiful night. It's my first time here, so it will be a good experience for me," Bakri says.

He's here to watch his grandfather's moves — and to photograph them and upload the pictures to social media, of course.
In addition to backgammon and watermelon, there was plenty of live entertainment, including Palestinian-Israeli orchestra Firket al Nur. (Irris Makler/CBC)

There is something for everyone. People who don't want to play the board game can listen to Palestinian-Israeli orchestra Firket al Nur.

Two Israeli pensioners, Metukah ("sweet") and Yaffa ( "pretty"), are Jerusalemites who say they've come mostly for the music, but also for the togetherness.

"I wish we would have peace here. I pray for it every day, because once we did have it, when I was growing up here we had Palestinian friends, they were in our houses and we were in theirs, and now we've lost that," says Metukah Levy. "It's a pleasure, a real pleasure to see this event here this evening. It's unbelievable that it's happening."

'I just love it'

Linda Menhuin Abdel Aziz was born in Baghdad and loves Arabic music and culture. She is Jewish, but doesn't see herself as an enemy of anyone here.

"I can't see any borders here, everyone is together and I just love it. I can see people from all walks of life, religious and secular, and it's fantastic. I hope it happens every day."

Young men from the Palestinian refugee camp Shuafat, one of the most neglected areas of East Jerusalem, dance for the audience.
Young Palestinian men perform a traditional dance called a debka. (Irris Makler/CBC)

Lead dancer Sam Araj, who is also a soccer player, was recently released from an Israeli jail. Last year, social media reports falsely identified him as being the shooter in a deadly attack at an Israeli bus station.

Araj went to the Israeli police, who acknowledged the mistake but charged him instead with throwing stones at officers during a riot. Araj confessed — under duress, he says — and the result was nine months in prison.

Despite this experience, Araj says he remains committed to co-existence — and that's why he's here.
Dancer Sam Araj believes something as simple as playing a game can make a difference and help bring people together. (Irris Makler/CBC)

"Inside yourself you think that now we are playing, but tomorrow we could be opposing each other again, with weapons," he says. "But maybe, maybe, maybe, from this game he will remember and I will remember that once we sat and played together, and so we won't be against each other again. We always have hope."

Perhaps what's most remarkable about this night is how very normal it feels. No guards with guns. No one on alert. No one sitting separately in the audience. There are Palestinians and Israelis out together and it's relaxed. And in Jerusalem, that's rare.