By Luke Baker
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - In the early evening on a backstreet in downtown Jerusalem, Arabs and Jews are milling around, preparing for battle. But this isn't a new round of Middle East violence, it's a showdown over shesh besh, the local name for backgammon.
The gathering is the latest in a series of events organized by Double Yerushalmi, a group trying to build closer ties between Arabs and Jews through cultural activities like singing, dancing and the increasingly popular shesh besh championship.
To the strains of Arabic Dabke music - not usually heard in the western, mainly Jewish side of Jerusalem - around 50 players turned up on Monday, sitting hunched over the backgammon tables, shaking dice and clicking the counters like pros.
Cigarette smoke hung heavy in the air, beers and energy drinks were consumed and shouts of "yalla" and "kadima" - Arabic and Hebrew for "come on" - rang out. Tables were bashed.
"You want to win, but it's friendly too," said Karem Joubran, a 27-year-old from Shuafat camp, a Palestinian refugee neighborhood in north Jerusalem, who had to cross checkpoints to get to the event. "It's good, it brings people together."
Joubran said he usually speaks Hebrew to his Jewish opponents, but sometimes comes across a Jewish player who speaks decent Arabic and they chat and joke. They tend to avoid politics or the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - their common ground is backgammon.
"FROM THE GROUND UP"
Zaki Djemal, an Israeli of Syrian Jewish descent, is one of the organizers of the gathering, which has met six times in recent months - half in Arab neighborhoods, half in Jewish ones - and has seen its popularity grow steadily.
"The city is segregated in many ways, so we wanted to create some crossover between neighborhoods," he said. "Politics is not at the center of this, but it's around."
With a history that some trace back 5,000 years to the ancient Iraqi city of Ur, backgammon is a mainstay in the Middle East, the clatter of the counters ringing out in the souks of Cairo, Istanbul, Casablanca and Damascus for centuries.
Jerusalem has also long been a center for the game and Djemal is hoping to reinforce that by organizing a Mediterranean championship later this year, with players coming from Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and across Europe.
On Monday evening a group of Palestinian women in hijab came to cheer on husbands and friends, while their children played backgammon at a nearby table. Across the cobbled alleyway, Orthodox Jewish locals listened, fascinated, to the Dabke music.
On the next street, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Palestinians from Shuafat jointly practiced the Brazilian martial art of capoeira.
"There aren't many mediums to meet people from the other side of the fence," said Binny Zupnick, 22, who moved from New York to Israel eight years ago.
An Arabic speaker who wears a Kippah, Zupnick said lighthearted interaction over backgammon was a good way of building understanding.
"There's an automatic topic of conversation," he said, mentioning that he had been to other Jewish-Arab co-existence events that were almost too serious and stilted.
"Shesh besh is a simple way to break down barriers. It's important to do these things from the ground up."
In Monday's competition, two Jews and two Arabs reached the semi-finals, then, after hard-fought matches, it was an all-Jewish final.
But by the end of the night, everyone was dancing Dabke in the streets together, a small but symbolic act of unity at a time when the city's divisions are as acute as ever.
(Additional reporting by Sabreen Taha; Editing by Gareth Jones)