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Happy Campers at the Oasis

The Middle East’s Coolest Swimming Pool

Sunday 8 July 2007, by Deb Reich

The smothering heat that descends on our hilltop Oasis at this time of year does nothing to smother the enthusiasm of children and families vacationing at the Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam swimming pool. On the contrary. While administrators toil at their computer screens in the village offices nearby, a cheery cacophony of laughter, splashing, shrieking and more laughter wafts out of the pool area and through the open office windows, enlivening the stale air with a measure of holiday energy. The sound of a child’s uninhibited laughter is almost certainly the best antidote to the dreary daily reports from the political and humanitarian fronts “out there,” from Gaza to Kiefr Hares to Jerusalem and beyond.

from the NSWAS’ admin office window

The Oasis of Peace not only offers one of the loveliest swimming pools around, it also provides something the others don’t: an assertively egalitarian environment where children have what are known as “unmediated encounters” with youngsters from “the other side.” Palestinian Arab children, in other words, can splash around next to Jewish Israeli children, and vice versa, while they discover one another as “just regular kids.” They are supervised by the two young men in the lifeguard tee-shirts who happen to be bilingual, a very handy thing at a pool full of Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking swimmers. Both lifeguards are Palestinian children of the village – Shadi Laius, son of Berna & Salim, and Sami Mana, son of Adnan and Lily.

The pool director, longtime NSWAS resident Ofer Zohar, who is Jewish, is completely at ease fielding questions about the quality of inter-ethnic contact in and around the pool. “Often the youngsters who come to swim here are hearing the other language for the first time, and lots of times you can almost see them thinking, Hey, these kids are just like us. —Of course sometimes they argue, and sometimes you’ll hear ethnic slurs, so the parents or the lifeguards will step in and do some ad hoc educating. But kids will call each other crude names at every swimming pool; it’s nothing to get excited about, really. And here you’ll see them, five minutes later, happily playing water games or volleyball together. I consider that a worthwhile achievement,” concludes Ofer heartily. “After all, where else in Israel could that happen with a bunch of Jewish and Arab youngsters? It’s what makes this place special.”

Job scene

Jobs for young people are always hard to come by in the summer time, so the lifeguarding and other jobs at the pool are a boon for younger village residents. Shadi, now 17, mentions that he began working at the pool in 7th grade, at the snack bar, and has worked there every summer since. He got his lifeguard certificate at a private course in Ramat Aviv: an entrance exam, a swimming test, 15 training sessions, and a final test, plus 40-something hours of First Aid training from Magen David Adom. He does look reassuringly fit, actually.

Rotem, elder daughter of pool director Ofer, is collecting admission fees and checking membership cards at the entrance gate on this early July afternoon. “I’ve only been here a couple of days,” confided the fourteen-year-old, “and it might not turn into an actual job... I don’t know yet.” Her sister Eden, age 9.5, is keeping her company. “Were both of you born and raised at Neve Shalom?” asks a visitor. “Yes,” says Rotem, and “No,” asserts Eden decisively: “Oh, right,” Rotem clarifies; “I came here when I was about a year and a half old.” She shrugs off this minor detail, but Eden isn’t buying. The expression on Eden’s face is easily read: Not everyone can claim the privilege of having lived in this unique place all their life, and they’d better not try to fake it, either!

Time out for fun

The pool hosts dozens of organized groups during the summer, including summer camps that send their campers here once a week or for an extended holiday. Right now, early in July, we are hosting a three-week swim camp called Pesek Zman (“time out” in Hebrew) for about 100 elementary school children from Modi’in and Maccabim. Both those towns are Jewish towns and all the children in the camp are Jewish. This camp is not new, but formerly was held at Neve Atarot; this year, it moved to Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam. They come for the amenities, explains Ofer happily, but they leave with different ideas about Jews and Arabs. His younger daughter Eden is a camper too, and looks like a poster child for summertime in the royal blue baseball cap and tee shirt all the campers are wearing.

As the Pesek Zman children retire noisily en masse to the lawn for lunch, like a swarm of hyperactive young movie extras in swimsuits, the pool is left momentarily almost deserted. Meanwhile Shadi, eyes front as he keeps tabs on the remaining handful of swimmers, is chatting with a Palestinian family from East Jerusalem - mother, father, and three young daughters - who are cooling off in the shallow end. “Is this your first time here?” the couple is asked. “No,” says the dad, smiling the distracted smile of a busy professional still trying to get used to being on holiday. “We’ve been here several times,” he elaborates, as the children splash each other and giggle. “We like it here very much,” adds the mom; “it’s hilou (lovely).”

National exposure

Ofer mentions that people from all over Israel come to the pool, during their summer outings to Jerusalem or elsewhere. They usually hear about it by word of mouth and show up at the gate to buy a one-day ticket. The Pesek Zman children aren’t the only summer camp booked here this year – in an average year there may be ten to fifteen bookings by camps during the twelve-week season. About a hundred Arab teens in a CIT (counselor in training) course from Peki’in are expected this very afternoon, for an evening by the pool. They will stay the night and go home tomorrow morning. But they will miss the group of knitted-skullcap yeshiva boys from Mevo Horon; maybe next year. The yeshiva boys are coming on another day and have reserved sole access because they are not permitted to swim with girls.

Religious considerations are also what prompted the proprietors of the Pesek Zman day camp to separate their young customers into two groups for the first time; formerly, Orthodox Jewish children and secular Jewish children attended the same camp on the same schedule, but the religiously observant parents objected. No one could envy Ofer Zohar his booking headaches, that’s for sure! It’s a job for a man of boundless optimism… and Ofer, who has run the pool here since 1997, clearly qualifies.

Note that guests staying at the hotel in the village are admitted free to the swimming pool, where they can see a slice of egalitarian life in real time as they lounge poolside or on the lawn, and soak up the sun. The snack bar where Shadi began his summer employment as a seventh-grader is reputed to serve some very tasty toasted sandwiches for NIS 10. So we are told by Samah Daoud (daughter of Anwar and Nihaya), who is currently working as an administrative secretary in the village while planning the next phase of her educational career. “When you hear the campers having so much fun just a few meters from your desk,” queries a visitor, “does it evoke happy memories of when you were young?” To which Samah replies emphatically: “I’m STILL young!” As indeed she is. All this youthful multicultural energy can certainly help to keep ennui at bay during the dog days of summer. Come on over to the NSWAS pool on your next visit to the village, and feel the good energy for yourself. Tell ‘em Samah sent you.



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