Bonding over backgammon
Jerusalem Double tournament at Machane Yehuda market, Jerusalem. (photo from Jerusalem Double via israel21c.org)
On a winter night inside the Mayer Davidov Garage in the Talpiot industrial area of Jerusalem, some 500 university students, mechanics, high-techies and senior citizens – wearing kippot, kaffiyehs and everything in between – played or cheered on contestants in a backgammon championship accompanied by live Arabic music.
Backgammon (shesh-besh in this part of the world) is thousands of years old and remains a popular pastime among Arabs and Jews. And, in Jerusalem, a surprising number of them are playing the board game together since the spring 2016 launch of Jerusalem Double, a project of the nonprofit organization Kulna Yerushalayim (We Are All Jerusalem).
“Backgammon is played throughout the Middle East, so we have this game in common. It’s fun, down-to-earth, accessible and inclusive,” said Zaki Djemal, one of the founders of Jerusalem Double along with Dror Amedi, Mahmoud Schade, Hiday Goldsmith, Kamel Jabarin, Mahmoud Jamal Al-Rifai, Matan Hayat, Noa Tal-El and Shir Hoory.
“Games have an amazing power to reduce tension and create empathy,” said Djemal, 29, also the cofounder and managing partner of fresh.fund, the first student-run venture capital fund in Israel.
Often, players discover other cultural commonalities through the medium of the game. “Shaike, a Jew who runs a car-parts shop, is playing with Munzir, a Palestinian originally from Bethlehem, and they’re speaking in Arabic. Shaike pulls out his oud and Munzir starts singing,” Djemal pointed out to Israel21c.
Djemal, a Harvard graduate born in London and raised in Jerusalem, explained the origins of Jerusalem Double in his recently filmed TEDxWhiteCity talk titled Game Changer: How Backgammon Will Bring Peace to the Middle East.
“I was sitting together with Jewish and Arabs friends at Hiday’s house in Jerusalem,” he said. “We were discussing a project we’d been working on to bring Jews and Arabs together around a shared love for Middle Eastern music, but we couldn’t agree on anything, and very quickly our discussion deteriorated into a heated debate. Then, in the middle of all of it, my good friend Dror said, ‘Guys, why don’t we take a break? Let’s play something. How about backgammon?’… In six short minutes, this game had completely defused all tension.… We thought to ourselves: ‘Why not organize a backgammon tournament for Jews and Arabs … to meet beyond the daily grind of buses, supermarket checkout lines, hospitals? And we wanted there to be crossover between neighbourhoods that for years have been completely segregated.”
Some 150 people showed up for the first Jerusalem Double tournament in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem. “A third of them were from West Jerusalem, and it wasn’t easy convincing them to come,” said Djemal.
One of Djemal’s friends, a religious Jew in high-tech, was afraid of coming to Beit Hanina. “He thought it would be dangerous, but we insisted. And he ended up winning the tournament that night. For us, the real victory is that he’s attended every one of the events since and that’s, in a nutshell, what a project like this can accomplish.”
Mahmoud Al-Rifai, 53, was the one who offered to host the event on his home turf. “I didn’t even know how to play shesh-besh, but I went along with it because I met these young people who were trying to do something important and looking for a place to make it happen,” he told Israel21c. “I like to work with people who do things, not just talk about things. And I knew it would work because I’ve done some joint events in Beit Hanina since 2004. To me, it was an attempt to break the stereotype that it’s dangerous here.”
The stereotype-breaking went both ways. Some local teens known to be wary of Jewish Israelis encountered them in a new light at the Jerusalem Double event.
“They were dancing and hugging Jews, playing shesh-besh with them, exchanging phone numbers,” marveled Al-Rifai, whose nonprofit organization, Jerusalem Consortium for Research and Development, holds interfaith meetings and other mixed events. He also is a Sufi master and runs a computer business and a social jewelry-making business for women in cooperation with the municipality.
“It was beautiful and we can’t just stop here,” said Al-Rifai, a self-described diehard realist.
Djemal agreed: “Our plan is to organize an international backgammon championship in Jerusalem with delegations from Turkey, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt all playing backgammon,” he said.
The crowd that came to the fourth Jerusalem Double event, in Talpiot, included Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch and supermarket king-politician-philanthropist Rami Levy. Djemal said 64 people played “and the rest just come for the party. We have a good following and are getting new participants all the time because we’ve created a way for people to interact.”
Jerusalem Double won $35,000 in the Jerusalem Foundation’s 2016 Social Innovation Challenge. The project is also supported by the Pratt Foundation and Jerusalem municipality.
“It’s pretty amazing to see this happening,” said Djemal, whose long resumé includes entrepreneurial ventures, beekeeping, journalism, mentoring and humanitarian work with Israeli organizations IsraAID and Tevel b’Tzedek. The Jerusalem Double cofounders previously started Simply Sing, a series of popular public sing-alongs in Hebrew and Arabic, which they are now reviving.
Djemal said he returned to Jerusalem after five years in the United States because “I thrive on being close to where it’s all happening and being confronted with so many issues that need to be solved. I didn’t want to come back and be complacent. I see a lot of opportunity in the city.”
Israel21c is a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.