We’re not gonna lie. It took a good minute for the Friendship to get up and running. It took a few hours of jet-lagged napping in the Jerusalem hotel lobby, some side-eyeing at new smells and flavors at meal times, and a fair amount of awkwardness amidst this overwhelming encounter of cultures and languages. And then Feel Beit happened.
Feel Beit is a cooperative Palestinian-Israeli art space on the border between East and West Jerusalem, and it was the perfect location for the Friendship Games Opening Ceremony, but let’s call it a celebration, because that’s what it was. It was a celebration of what we are as PeacePlayers, what we stand for, and what it means for us to be together.
The focus of the first part of the evening was definitely food. Lots and lots of food. But we’re not talking about a few catered mini-sandwiches and pigs in a blanket; we’re talking about delicious, home cooked food created by members of the PeacePlayers Middle East family. Food that comes from the heart and seeps straight into the soul. When she addressed the group at the start of the event, Annie Sibboney, a Canadian-Israeli culinary TV personality and special guest of the Friendship Games, also zeroed in on that nafsi, soul in Arabic, the secret ingredient of all the food that night. Food that was made to be shared, to be the fuel for new friendships. The centerpiece of the feast was definitely the Maklouba, a traditional Palestinian dish (literally meaning “upside down” in Arabic). Friendship Gamers stood around and watched Heba, a Palestinian PeacePlayers mom, as she ceremoniously flipped her Maklouba in its pot to reveal a beautiful mound of fragrant rice and roasted vegetables, that we would all soon enough be lucky enough to dig into.
Now, with food in our bellies, we were all ready for the main event. Everyone grabbed a spot – on the ground, on the steps or on a bean bag – and gave the floor over to Jinan, Or, Neta, Sireen and Keren, Palestinian and Israeli PeacePlayers Middle East alumni who spoke from the heart about their PeacePlayers stories – some of them with tears in their eyes as they talked about the friendships, the love and the belief in the peace that had left them forever changed. They spoke as young people who understood that their stories are special, that not enough Palestinians and Israelis in their communities get the chance to see the humanity in one another and to believe in an alternative to hate and bloodshed. But they also see that unfortunate reality as something they can try to change. “If you had asked me a few years ago what are the most important things that I got from the program, I would tell you that it’s the way I see human beings – seeing people as human beings. And I think today, if you would ask me the same question, I would say that the most important thing is getting the opportunity to pass it on,” shared Or, a Jewish Israeli alumna who already in high school started coaching PeacePlayers teams in Jerusalem, and passing on what she herself had learned.
The Middle East alumni capped off their words by teaching a traditional dance, or rather two, to the rest of the Friendship Games crew. In the weeks leading up to the Games, the Middle East alumni worked together to combine the Palestinian Debka with the Israeli Hora into a fully original dance for both nations. Now, they had the chance to teach it to 120 people from around the world. Participants, alumni and coaches went round in a circle formation, doing their best to learn the moves, laughing and high fiving all the way.
But the dancing didn’t stop there. Without being part of the plan, participants from Cyprus and from South Africa started teaching their own traditional dances and before long, Americans were learning Cypriot dances, Cypriots were learning Middle Eastern Dances, Middle Eastern PeacePlayers were learning South African Dances, and on and on.
And then, as if by design, or by magic, fireworks lit up the sky over the hills of Jerusalem. No, it wasn’t part of the plan, but a happy coincidence that Palestinian families across Jerusalem were celebrating the matriculation of their friends and family on that day. But still, it was a fitting addition to the evening, summing up the feelings that were bubbling all around.