On the flittering streets of East Jerusalem, I hailed a taxi to return to my apartment. I was leaving from Damascus Gate, the Muslim entrance of Jerusalem’s Old City, when the car pulled up. An ahlan wa sahlan, meaning welcome in Arabic, greeted me as I fell into the passenger seat.
So far, taxis have been the best avenue for Arabic practice and I was excited to improve. Conversation makes the short rides more enjoyable, and the usually interesting lives of taxi drivers help with my vocabulary development. However, this ride served as an archetypical encounter in Israel, simultaneously a frustrating and interesting interaction.
Palestine men near Old GateI began speaking in Arabic with this man, but after mispronouncing a word, he discovered my Arabic, to say the least, is in development. So to be polite, he switched to English. He was also proficient in Hebrew, as may Arabs are outside of the West Bank. And when we continued to converse, I found he spoke fluent Spanish, having lived in Madrid for three years after moving to escape one of Israel’s wars and remaining for a girlfriend. Thus, dwarfing my Spanish abilities with his near perfect accent.
Though this was an interesting experience, it makes learning a new language more difficult. When nearly everyone you interact with speaks English far better than you speak you Arabic or Hebrew, it often leads to the switch to a more comfortable language of conversation.
This fact in conjunction with a noticeably difficult community to penetrate due to the political tensions and cultural differences makes language practice here a challenge. So I began searching for opportunities to organically infuse my way into Arabic speaking circles. Nothing quite came to mind aside from making friends with a shopkeeper by stopping to talk and buy a bag of chips everyday on my way home from class. Besides these small practice sessions, my improvement was lagging, and I became frustrated with my lack of advancement.
One night in the second month of the semester, I went to a nearby park in East Jerusalem to play some pickup basketball. Usually when I pass the courts during the day, the park is a ghost town. All interested athletes are deterred by the searing Middle Eastern heat that beams down even during the Fall. However, on this night, the courts and fields were crowded with athletes of all kinds. So much so, that the usually empty basketball court was brimming with young Arabs making a go at the famously American sport. It was either join, or go home, so I took my best shot. Asking to play with them in Arabic, I was answered with the usual looks of surprise and confusion when a white boy speaks in Arabic, but soon they graciously accepted me onto the court.
View of East Jerusalem and West Bank
Several months later, I have returned weekly to my friends at the basketball court. Though none of us are too stellar at basketball, the practice helps both our skills on the court, while improving my Arabic I have been so eager to practice.
Basketball has been one of the most effective bridges to reconcile the gap between my world and that of the Arab-Muslims. We have little in common other than the bare basics of  loving our families and wanting happiness. How, where, and with whom we grew up are strikingly different. But me being Catholic and them being Muslim won’t affect the score of the game or whether or not we have a fun night. In a way, these pick up games are a little like the Olympics. Though the athletic ability of myself compared to Olympians is nearly opposite, the basketball my friends and I play and bi-annual gathering on the world stage are prime examples of what sports can do. They can bring people together. They act as an avenue for two people from completely different walks of life to work with or compete against each other, and then even become friends. Yes, it will no doubt take more than basketball and sports to make Muslims, and Christians, and Jews to see eye to eye. It will take a wave of changes, both grand and modest, to redress the fissure between these communities. But for me, basketball has certainly been one way to cross this gap.
Jon Stormer Pezzi is a Global Politics major with an Arabic and Poverty and Human Capability Studies Minor at Washington and Lee University. He studied abroad with IFSA at the Diversity and Coexistence program in Jerusalem, Israel in the fall of 2018. He served as an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.