Watermelon and music breaking down barriers
MUSRARA, Jerusalem – It is virtually impossible to eat a watermelon by yourself. The juicy red fruit begs to be shared, and in a large vacant lot just outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, all kinds of people are sharing plates of watermelon and salty cheese.
The event is called “The Meeting Point” and it harkens back to the 1970s when this area, which was a no-man’s land between Israel and Jordan from 1948 to 1967—was home to watermelon stands that brought Jerusalemites together. Today, the organizers have built a large wooden “bar” serving watermelon and salty cheese, along with a performance stage.
Every night for two weeks, there are free performances ranging from belly-dancing to poetry readings. Entrance is free, and patrons sit on small rattan stools. All of the material used to build the watermelon stand is recyclable, as is the mulch on the ground.
“The problem between us is the leadership, not the people,” Maher Al-Mufrah, a Palestinian who runs a small humus restaurant near the Damascus Gate, told The Media Line. “We can communicate, sit and talk and maybe we’ll come up with some new ideas.”
Spearing a piece of watermelon, Nader Hussein, another Palestinian agrees.
“We all live together in one city,” he says. “I have a lot of Jewish friends, and we help each other. The atmosphere here is very nice. The problems are with the government. We all want to live. We all have children and want a better life for our children.”
The event costs about $100,000 to stage—most of it covered by donations from foundations. The vibe at the event is laid-back hippy. Young couples carry babies in wrapped shawls, and several have brought their dogs along. Musrara also has a mix of ultra-Orthodox Jews and young students.
“We live in this neighborhood and we wanted to support this project,” Itamar Arvut, a student of psychology at Hebrew University told The Media Line. “We also wanted a chance to meet people from the eastern side of the city, which we rarely get to do.”
Although Israel annexed east Jerusalem in 1967, most Jews and Arabs in the city live separately. Of Jerusalem’s 800,000 residents, about two-thirds are Jewish and one-third are Arab. Most of the Palestinians choose not to accept Israeli citizenship.
The project also hopes to break down barriers between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of the city.
“I live in the Old City of Jerusalem,” Shulamit Yisrael said, referring to the area that has sites holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “We used to have all kinds of Jews there—ultra-Orthodox, regular Orthodox and non-religious—but today it’s completely ultra-Orthodox.”
She said she was looking forward to meeting different kinds of people at the event.
Organizer Hamutal Vachtel says there is no political agenda to the event—just an opportunity for different kinds of Jerusalemites to bond over watermelon.
“There is so much conflict in Jerusalem,” she told The Media Line. “It may sound naïve but by bringing simple people to come and sit together and meet each other something interesting can happen. The real peace will happen between people and it will happen here on the seam line.”
This neighborhood was also the birthplace of the Israeli Black Panthers in the early 1970s, a protest movement for advocating for equality for Jews that immigrated from Arab countries. Organizers say they hope that spirit of justice will permeate relations between Jews and Arabs as well.
“Jerusalem should be without any walls or boundaries,” Lana Remez, an activist for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence told The Media Line. “I try to encourage people to let the mental boundary fall first. If we anticipate fear, fear will exist. The harder work for all of us is to find the unity, harmony and tolerance.”