Peace Through Backgammon
Jews and Arabs connect through tournaments
Beit Safafa, Jerusalem – The tournament started late as many of the players had never been to this Arab neighborhood in southern Jerusalem and got a little confused finding their way. A cool wind is blowing, and the players hunch into their jackets. The tournament is being held outside a local fish restaurant, which has provided drinks for the players, and Arab music as the games get under way.
Avi Glickman, 29, is a car salesman, who describes himself as a backgammon addict. He can spend an entire day playing the game.
“It’s a whole way of life,” he told The Media Line. “I heard about it through Facebook, and we just came to have fun.”
The tournament is sponsored by Jerusalem Double, an NGO of young Arab and Jewish residents of Jerusalem, which aims to bring the two populations in Jerusalem together. In a play on words, it also refers to a move in backgammon.
Along with the backgammon, there is a demonstration by a Palestinian kapoueira group from East Jerusalem, and Arab music in the background.
Zaki Djemal, one of the founders of Jerusalem Double, said that while Israelis and Palestinians share the city of Jerusalem they do not interact beyond seeing each other on the light rail or at the grocery store.
“I think backgammon is an invitation to get to know each other,” Djemal told The Media Line. “It’s a way to create the initial connection which people can build in a lot of different ways. What takes precedence is the game and the moment, not the politics.
Deputy mayor Ofer Berkovich stopped by the tournament, remarking that he had never eaten at the restaurant and now wants to try it one day.
“The only chance for Jerusalem to succeed is that every group will feel confident and that they have the possibility for prosperity,” Berkovich told The Media Line. “It’s also really cool. It’s different and I’m going to continue to find ways to help them financially.”
He said that about a third of the Palestinian work force in east Jerusalem works in west Jerusalem, leading to at least a worker-employee relationship. Jerusalem’s population of 865,000 is two-thirds Jewish and one-third Palestinians. For the most part they live in separate neighborhoods and go to separate schools.
This was the eight backgammon tournament, held alternately in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of the city. The organizers chose backgammon, they said, as it has roots in both Jewish and Arab culture.
“Backgammon originates here in the Middle East and people have been playing it for thousands of years,” Djemal said. “If you walk around the Old City of Jerusalem or Ramallah or Istanbul they play backgammon. There is something about the gam that is so familiar and local.”
Even those who don’t play have a good time.
“I came to give my friends a ride but also because of the idea that games can bring people together – it’s not about politics, it’s just about having fun together,” Tamar Aziz told The Media Line. “I wouldn’t have come if it was just Israelis in a Jewish neighborhood.”
Aziz grew up in a West Bank Jewish settlement where she had little contact with Palestinians, and most of her neighbors oppose a Palestinian state.
“It’s a chance to eat in this restaurant and to hang out,” she said.
Jerusalem Double are planning their next tournament in east Jerusalem, and will include an iftar break-fast meal for the end of a day of fasting in Ramadan.
In early fall, they are organizing the “Middle Eastern backgammon championship” and hope to host players from Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan, all countries that have at least unofficial ties with Israel.
Djemal said the backgammon tournaments are just one of a group of shared cultural experiences between Jews and Arabs living in Jerusalem, sponsored by Kulna. Others include music, dance and martial arts.
“We are very modest in what we are trying to achieve,” Djemal told The Media Line. “We do think it can spark that initial connection and create some of the trust we need for a more significant connection. It’s hard to come together without some base to act as a glue.”
For more information, watch a TED talk by Zaki Djemal