If the first night of the 32nd annual Hutzot Hayotzer is anything to go by, the Jerusalem International Arts and Crafts Fair is set to do the capital proud, once again. Thousands of patrons of all ages and ilks milled around the Sultan's Pool compound while, in the international stall area, a traditional Latin band provided a definitively tried and tested - but nonetheless highly entertaining - musical substratum (the enthusiastically performed Cuban staple "Guantanamera" was a big hit with the public). Meanwhile, over at the main stage area a funky gospel group was keeping an audience of several hundred grooving at the edge of their bleacher seats while a Greek-inflected Israeli band did the business at the, naturally, heavily populated food and local arts and crafts stalls area. The laissez-faire ambience at the fair almost makes you feel that all is well with the world and that, perhaps, things in the Middle East are headed in the right direction after all. Eka Namasharan would certainly subscribe to that seemingly fanciful idea, particularly in view of the current dire straits in which her own country finds itself. Thirtysomething Namasharan, her daughter, niece and parents hail from Tbilisi in Georgia, and will be selling various pieces of silverware and other silver-based jewelry from their stall throughout the fair. "We left Georgia on August 8 and the war started later that day," says Namasharan. "We have family in Tbilisi and we heard today that the Russians are going to start bombing the city. There are no lines of communication now. We are very worried." That must seem like worlds away on a balmy evening at the fair site with the Old City walls providing a romantic backdrop. "Maybe it's a strange thing to say, but I feel much safer here in Israel," says Namasharan. "We are due to go back to Georgia on August 28. I just hope we can get back into the country." Another visitor who evidently feels at ease here is sculptor Ahmad Khalifeh from Amman. "I have been coming here since 2005," he says. "I like Jerusalem very much and it feels natural to be here." Khalifeh says he has a good rapport with Israelis and had no qualms about making the trek to this side of the Jordan River, regardless of regional events. "I was here in 2006, during the war in the North. There were some people who didn't want me to come, but I came anyway. I believe peace is made between people, not politicians. We have to meet each other, and get to know each other." In fact, Khalifeh has gotten to know quite a few VIPs on both sides of the border. "I have spoken to [Jordanian] King Abdullah about me coming here and how things are in Jerusalem. He is a good man." Khalifeh also plans to leave something behind for a prominent Israeli citizen, after the fair, and also helping to keep our spirits up. "I am making a special sculpture while I am here for [President] Shimon Peres. He is a good man, too, like [Yitzhak] Rabin, King Hussein and Ezer Weizman. I am also going to Sderot to do some workshops with children and housewives there, to encourage them. I want them to know that a Jordanian supports them." Isn't Khalifeh at all concerned about Kassams? "If I die for peace, that's not such a bad thing. I'm not afraid of that." Nizam Nache from al-Aslam Factory in Hebron is also delighted to be peddling his glassware and pottery at the fair, although he says it hasn't all been a bed of roses. "I was here last year, too, and it's great to be here but it costs me NIS 1,500 a day for my stall. That's a lot of money." Does that mean we won't be seeing Nache at the fair again? "Thank God, I make some money here and I will keep on coming back - as long as I get the permits." The latter, apparently didn't prove too difficult. "I made it here from my home in half an hour. I sell my stuff in Italy and France, too. I make good money there, but this is a lot closer to my home." Internationally renowned wood turner Eli Avisera certainly didn't have to travel too far to set up his stall at the Sultan's Pool. "I live in Kiryat Hayovel and I have my Wood Craft Center in Moshav Aminadav," Avisera explains. "I love coming back here every year. There's a wonderful atmosphere, especially this year." In his 14 years at the fair, Avisera says he has witnessed some lean times. "During the [Second Lebanon] war things were a bit tough, and crowds were down when they had the event in the center of town, during the second intifada." But the wood turner says things are looking up. "I've had people here from Tel Aviv, Kfar Saba and Galilee this evening. But the most encouraging thing is the number of tourists from abroad. There have been Americans, Canadians, British and French here. That's really great." As usual, there will also be plenty of professional entertainment to be had over the 13-day event. The main stage will host an impressive roster of local rockers, the likes of Aviv Geffen, Barry Sakharov, Meir Banai and Mosh Ben Ari, with more ethnic musical acts at the two smaller stages. Edible sustenance is also available, in abundance, and there are chill-out spots for young and old alike. The fair runs through August 23. For more information, visit: www.jerusalem.muni.il/yotzer/chutzot.html

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