By Shane O’Connor
A watermelon stand with a difference opened in a part of Jerusalem once known as ‘no man’s land’
“Between Green and Red” is the name of the coexistence project that we were fortunate enough to visit on a small plot of land between East and West Jerusalem last week - a temporary reminder of the genuine bonds once existed between the Jewish and Palestinian communities before military occupation plagued this historical, cultural and religious city.
It all took place in a car park across from the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City. This car park is located on the seam of the two, East and West, parts of Jerusalem. Our curiosity got the better of us after a number of evenings hearing the music, drumming and what seemed like a festival atmosphere penetrating the sounds of the old city where we were living. On Saturday night after the fast of Ramadan had been broken, we crossed the road dividing east and west Jerusalem and entered ‘between Green and Red.’
We quickly learned from talking to one or two of the community who remembered the old melon stand that during summer months, about 10 fruit stands once operated on this spot right up until about 30 years ago. Customers would purchase watermelon, listen to music blasting from the stands and even watch kung fu films together. The old watermelon stands are now only a distant memory, or a story told to younger generations about what once was.
This recent initiative of local artists, residents of the Musrara neighborhood and volunteers took place over five days and the old watermelon stands reopened in the area. 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.
Between 1948 and 1967, the UN who still according to international law are supposed to have control of the city, put a wall very different to today’s apartheid wall in place. This wall stood at one side of the Musrara neighborhood, as a marker between the two sides of the city.
During the summer of 1967, when the state of Israel occupied the whole city of Jerusalem with military force, a move deemed illegal by international law and by the UN, something rather unusual began to occur in this part of the city. No man's land as it was soon nicknamed was a stretch of land divided both sides of the city, East (Palestinian) and West (Israeli) and it became a meeting point for the two communities, the old and new city, as well as the borderlines between a whole range of other nationalities, ethnicities and ideas.
With no permits or supervision, the space determined its own rules and order, and through an independent process the watermelon sheds (bastas) became a place of refuge from the summer heat. Every evening, as the sun went down, the area between the Nablus and Mandelbaum Gates came to life and filled up with revelers. The Arabic-Hebrew partying sometimes carried on all night, and included delicacies like salty white cheese and watermelon, a round-the-clock bakery, hot sahlap and open-air televisions.
This nighttime experience was open to everyone, rich and poor, tourists and residents, secular and religious, Jews and Arabs, and had one particular focus—watermelons, the knife to cut them, and the sweet cool taste of the fruit. Still today, anyone who remembers these summer nights gets an irresistible spark in their eye.
By the end of the 80s, due to the enforcement of yet another segregation law by the Israeli state, all the sheds were closed. One local resident told us “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 initial friendly atmosphere and open environment, which characterized the communal space, was replaced by suspicion and hostility. The local Israeli Government began enforcing new apartheid laws and regulations, issuing fines and restricting movement in the space. Even the watermelons had their seeds removed, and the sheds became whispers of what used to be.
This recent attempt to revive the spirit of good will that once existed among divided communities "Between Green and Red" certainly caught our eye. It did not appear to be an attempt to re-enact history exactly or an attempt to misrepresent the complex and harsh reality of decades of bitter conflict in the city, but rather an expression of hope that if the success of the past are tied together with a great deal of creativity and imagination, art and joy, then maybe it will be possible, for just a few minutes, to experience what it must have been like and how it might well be some day.