Eating Watermelon for Peace

A watermelon stand opened on the seam between East and West Jerusalem last week - a temporary reminder of the genuine bonds that existed between Jews and Arabs on the same site not so long ago.

Jerusalem has formally been a united city for 45 years, but during that time very few institutions have managed to create genuine links between the capital's Arab and Jewish residents. In most contexts where members of the two populations meet, one group invariably feels as though it is the other's guest. This dynamic is at play when Jewish visitors head to parts of the Old City, or when Palestinians shop in the Malcha shopping mall.

Up until 20 years ago, there was one place where Arabs and Jews conducted their affairs as equals. This was the parking lot across from the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City.

That lot is located on the seam of the two, East and West, parts of Jerusalem. During summer months, about 10 fruit stands would operate in this lot. Customers would purchase watermelon, listen to music blasting from the stands and even watch kung fu films. The old watermelon stands disappeared at the end of the 1980s, when Route 1 was paved.

As a tribute to this bygone Jewish-Arab idyll, a new, temporary watermelon stand opened last week in the area, operating for five days before closing yesterday, at the initiative of local artists, residents of the Musrara neighborhood and volunteers. As in the past, patrons could be seen during the week sitting on stools with plates full of watermelon. Music blared and there were the same old films.

The new stand was propped up near the old site, in an empty lot across from the Old City walls, at the edge of the Musrara neighborhood. Between 1948 and 1967, a separation fence stood at one side of this lot, as a marker between the two sides of the city. On the other side of the lot stood the home of Reuven Abergel, a social activist and a founder of the Mizrahi protest movement the Black Panthers. Today, as 20 years ago, members of the Black Panthers left their imprint on the fruit stand.

"The idea was to remind people that not so long ago there was a culture of rapprochement between Jews and Arabs here," said Abergel, who was involved in the establishment of the new watermelon stand. "As people ate watermelon, high-quality Jewish and Arab musicians performed. There was coexistence and cooperation here, until officials from the police and municipality decided they didn't like the idea and shut down the fruit stands."

The new stand, called Between Green and Red, was established by a group of artists from the Muslala nonprofit organization, comprised of Musrara residents who promote creative projects involving people living on both sides of the city. Muslala has supported a number of initiatives devoted to the history of this unique locale.

The stand was established as part of the Under the Hill festival for public art. The Jerusalem municipality contributed funds and helped clear building debris from the site. Watermelon grower Omar Kadah, from Kafr Manda in the north, contributed three and a half tons of watermelon. Volunteers built the wooden stand and, next to the stand, they built a small greenhouse for the cultivation of mini-watermelon saplings in recycled water. Watermelon rind was taken to compost receptacles.

"The idea was to create a temporary structure that would not appropriate this site and that is rooted in its historic culture," said Matan Israeli, from the artists group.

Every evening last week, Moti Meshli could be found at the site, knife in hand, cutting watermelon slices. A former Musrara resident and the stand's owner, he sold a slice of watermelon for NIS 5 (with an addition of Bulgarian cheese, the treat cost NIS 10 ). Musicians and singers appeared at the site, which was packed with patrons.

Crossing invisible barriers

Gaps that have widened between residents from Jerusalem's two parts since the 1980s found expression in this initiative. Since the stand's operation was supported by the Jerusalem municipality, yellow-vest-wearing security guards had to be deployed. (The project's backers realized these security men were liable to deter patrons from East Jerusalem and so the guards were asked to paste symbols of watermelon onto their yellow vests to mitigate somewhat their imposing appearance. ) Meantime, a Palestinian media network based in Silwan disseminated a rumor that the public art festival was sponsored by a "Jewish settler organization." Also, some of the city's Jewish residents remonstrated against a large Arabic sign at the site that invited the Palestinian public to take part in the festival. As a result, the sign was lowered slightly so as to be a bit less prominent.

In small numbers, Palestinians appeared at the festival, crossing invisible barriers to enjoy the watermelon and music. Throughout the week, there were art exhibitions, music performances and story readings there.

On Tuesday evening, several dozen Palestinian youngsters came to the stand and started to dance, but their celebration ended badly. Jewish residents in the area complained that Palestinians were taking control of the neighborhood and there were reports of complaints being lodged about harassment of women.

"We were in a euphoric state," Matan Israeli said after this incident, adding that the organizers would monitor the event closely and would turn down the volume of the music. "We have tried to do something simple, not to change the world," he added, expressing a hope that the watermelon stand served as "a zone where people who want to meet people from the other community could meet and have a good time."