Roll the dice

Jerusalem Double invites Jews and Arabs to share in the love of the game.

Jerusalem Double invites Jews and Arabs to share in the love of backgammon (photo credit: SHABTAY AMEDI)
Jerusalem Double invites Jews and Arabs to share in the love of backgammon
(photo credit: SHABTAY AMEDI)
Anyone for a game of backgammon? Games have a way of bringing people together in a unique kind of camaraderie. Kulna Yerushalayim, or Jerusalem Double, is counting on that uniting force that some call the love of the game.
“Backgammon has all those qualities of creating empathy, bringing down boundaries, persuading people to think creatively about the world that we see in play in general,” organization co-founder Zaki Djemal says.
“We see that people come to an event like this and may feel nervous; perhaps they’ve never been to east Jerusalem before, or to west Jerusalem before. Once they start to play, however, all of that is forgotten very quickly.”
Jerusalem Double is a double entendre, alluding to the coveted rolling of a double in backgammon and also to the two Jerusalems that exist within one city – east and west, Arab and Jewish.
The organization is dedicated to bringing the two halves together using various cultural activities. This is its second project. The first, spearheaded about two years ago by co-founders Zaki Djemal, Hidai Goldsmith and Mahmoud Schad, was called Simply Sing. The idea was to have singalongs in Hebrew and Arabic.
“People like to talk about peace and dialogue and what we can do together, but the basic human interactions, like singing together, don’t really happen,” Djemal says. “It seemed like something that was attainable and the project took off quite nicely.”
Jerusalem Double had succeeded in producing an experience of shared culture, but the founders saw that while attendees were in the same space, they were not interacting. They decided that a more structured form of interaction was needed.
Thus the idea for backgammon (or shesh besh as it is called here) tournaments was born.
“We decided that shesh besh could be a good solution, also with Arab and Mizrahi music,” Goldsmith explains. “The two types of music have the same roots.
Many Arabs listen to Sarit Hadad and Dudu Aharon, and many Jews listen to and were raised on the greatest Arab singers. Plus the game itself is played by both Jews and Arabs.”
Backgammon is one of the oldest board games in existence. Its origins date back thousands of years to the Byzantine empire and to the Mesopotamian kingdom of Ur. Backgammon’s deep roots in the Middle East make it the perfect centerpiece for cultural coexistence.
“It’s not chess or bridge,” Djemal adds. “It never left the Middle East. It was played during the Ottoman Empire and it’s still played today; in the army, miluim [reserve duty], the Old City, the Iraqi shuk in Mahaneh Yehuda, in Beirut and Cairo. It’s loved by people across the board – pun intended. So it makes things possible that wouldn’t be in other settings.”
Djemal points out that the Jerusalem Double backgammon tournaments are drawing a wide array of attendees; not only the already-convinced liberals, but people you wouldn’t normally expect to see at a coexistence event. Begun eight months ago, there have been six tournaments to date, with locations as diverse as the participants: Beit Hanina, Mahaneh Yehuda, the First Station, Beit Safafa and Ben-Yehuda Street. The most recent event drew 500 people and there is no plan to slow down.
With support from the Pratt Foundation and the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jerusalem Double team is in the midst of creating what will be its biggest event yet: an International Backgammon Championship, to take place in the Old City in September. As for details, all that is known at this time is that big names from the Mizrahi and Arab music world will be singing live and that Mike Natanzon, or Falafel as he is known in professional backgammon circles, the world champion backgammon player, will serve as the event’s ambassador. The founding team is hoping that the championship will attract not only a local audience, but a global one of professional players from around the world and some of Israel’s neighboring countries as well.
“We try to do half our events in east Jerusalem and half in west,” Djemal says.
“The idea is to engage these neighborhoods and to create crossover between communities that have been segregated for years. This championship event is on another level because it will put Jerusalem on the map as the global backgammon capital. The idea is to have 20 smaller tournaments in different places in and around the Old City and then to have the championship at Sultan’s Pool.”
Jerusalem Double has even spoken with President Reuven Rivlin’s office about having him award the championship prize. “He cares deeply about this as well,” Goldsmith adds. “He loves Jerusalem and cares about the future of the city, as we do. We hope that he’ll be involved.”
Thus far, the tournaments are structured with 64 players engaged in rounds that lead up to a knockout round. The winner is then lauded with song and dance. The rest of the hundreds of participants come to hear the music, enjoy the atmosphere, and of course, to watch the games. Each tournament winner will be invited to the championship in September; making it really a culmination and celebration of all the events that have come before.
“People think it’s just a game, but it’s really catching on and capturing the imaginations of a lot of people,” Djemal says.
“We don’t have an immediate solution for the problems here in Israel, but we think that the first step is for people to know each other and see that there is a human in front of them,” Goldsmith states.
“This is the main idea and it’s the first step to any solution. You have to see that there is someone in front of you who has the same desires and fears as you. We believe that we’ve started to make some waves on both sides.”
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