Traditional ring game returns to Ramadan nights in Iraq

Popular game that usually draws hundreds of people was called off last year amid measures to contain spread of Covid-19

Iraq’s national championship for mheibis, a traditional game often played during Ramadan, has made a welcome return after coronavirus restrictions made it impossible to play last year.

Throughout the holy month, towns and cities across the country have echoed with the familiar sounds of people playing the immensely popular game.

At a game The National attended in Baghdad, Emad Al Aswad paced up and down in front of rows of men seated with their fists clenched, his grey kandura flowing behind him.

Mr Al Aswad had only 10 minutes to find a ring being concealed by one of the opposing team.

After quiet discussions with his teammates, he rushed towards one man, grabbed his wrist and yelled: “Give me the ring!”

As the man opened his hand, revealing the ring hidden inside, Mr Al Aswad let out a fierce roar.

In scenes of jubilation rarely seen in Iraq since before the pandemic, his teammates danced, hugged and lifted him on to their shoulders.

“Mheibis is the sweetest thing in Ramadan after fasting and praying,” said Mr Al Aswad, 44, as he caught his breath after the celebration.

“This is our hobby, like other people who are crazy about football or other games."

He leads Baghdad’s Al Ameen neighbourhood team.

“We play it in other months but we can’t taste it as in Ramadan,” Mr Al Aswad said.

Rules of the game

Mheibis, named after the Arabic word for a ring, is similar to the English game Up Jenkins in which players conceal a coin.

In mheibis, two teams take turns hiding a ring and searching for it. It is often played after iftar and games regularly last until sunrise and sometimes even beyond.

The game starts with a coin toss to decide which of the teams will hide the ring first.

The leader of the team that won the toss then walks among his players with the ring in one hand as others shield him with a blanket or sheet so the other team cannot see where he puts it.

Once he has hidden the ring he yells, “Baat!”, giving the other team the signal to start looking for it.

The opposing leader must then scrutinise the facial expressions and body language of the players to determine who has the ring, before picking one and asking him to unclench his fist.

If he correctly identifies the person holding the ring, the chance to hide it passes to his team, which earns a point.

But if he fails, the other team earns a point and gets to hide the ring again.

'I'm sure we will win this year'

Mr Al Aswad said he first played mheibis at the age of 14. He has now been a ring finder and the neighbourhood team’s leader for 20 years.

“We used to play in alleys after iftar as our parents did,” he said, adding that he was proud of his ability to find the hidden ring, which he has had since childhood.

“I was audacious and that made me the master among my friends and then allowed me to lead the team,” Mr Al Aswad said.

On Tuesday, he led a hard-won game against a team from the southern province of Diwaniyah, a rival side he defeated in 2018.

Mr Al Aswad’s team won the national championships in 2008 and 2010.

“I’m sure we will win this year,” he said as his players prepared to hide the ring behind him.

Iraq’s Youth and Sport Ministry allowed the tournament to take place this year with some restrictions added because of Covid-19.

The tournament was being held at an outdoor basketball court in Baghdad’s Al Shaab sport complex and the number of teams was reduced from 50 to 22.

Each team can have 40 players instead of the usual 100 in the first round of qualification, but that number increased to 45 in the finals.

Social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines were not closely followed, however, and organisers struggled to push back enthusiasts who crept from their seats down to the court with their eyes glued on the players.

Participants greet each other with kisses and hugs, while players sat shoulder to shoulder.

“Coronavirus is in the hand of Allah, we are all in the hand of Allah,” Mr Al Aswad said, when asked about the lack of adherence to precautionary measures.

The origins of mheibis are obscure.

The continuation of the game is essential to preserve our heritage and traditions

Jassim Al Aswad

Some believe the game goes back several hundred years to the Abbasid period, when it was played in palaces and guesthouses.

Others say it originated in Iraq in the 20th century before spreading to other countries, including the Gulf states.

Jassim Al Aswad, a legend of the game and the head of the committee overseeing the championship, said mheibis had deep roots in Iraqi society.

“The continuation of the game is essential to preserve our heritage and traditions,” said Mr Al Aswad, 65, who has been campaigning for official recognition for the game by the Ministry of Youth and Sport.

The veteran player, who leads Baghdad’s Al Kadhimiyah team and works as a real estate agent in his retirement, won about 30 national championships in a career that began in the late 1970s.

For him, the game is more than a way to kill time during long Ramadan nights.

“It brings Iraqis from different backgrounds and areas together," he said. "It shows the coherence among Iraqis and portrays a picture of a unified Iraq."

Updated: May 4, 2021 03:26 AM

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