Improved security lets Iraqis revive traditional Ramadan game

Sunni and Shiite communities across country unite to play
Kurds play a traditional game called mahabes or "rings", which is a common pastime during Ramadan.
Kurds play a traditional game called mahabes or "rings", which is a common pastime during Ramadan.

BAGHDAD // Ramadan may be best known for the daily dawn-to-dusk Muslim fast - but for some men in Iraq the holy month is a time to enjoy a decades-old game played in courtyards across the country.

As security has improved, communities have resumed citywide matches of mahabes, a fiery game where rival teams must find a ring hidden by their opponents.

At a club in north Baghdad, the mostly Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiyah hosted a team from nearby Saba Abkar, with about 40 men on each side seated on plastic lawn chairs or on the

"Mahabes is in our blood," said Essam Al Malik, a match organisers. "We never stopped playing it. Even during the sectarian war we used to play - but only with neighbourhoods close to Adhamiyah," the 55-year-old said, referring to the Shiite-Sunni fighting that erupted after the 2003 US-led invasion and peaked in 2006 and 2007.

The game begins with a player from one team hidden under a blanket moving among his teammates and secretly handing a ring - "mehbis" in Arabic - to one of them. The rival team designates one of their own to find the ring.

If unsuccessful, the team that hid the ring gains a point. If he finds it, his team must hide the ring and try to rack up points of their own.

The first team to reach a pre-agreed number of points wins.

During the Adhamiyah-Saba Abkar match, Qahtan, a 30-year-old baker chosen as his team's ring finder, strutted along the rows of the rival players, occasionally stopping to shout in their faces.

"Show me your hands!" he would scream, prompting players to hold out their closed palms. But Qahtan would look only at their faces, attempting to read their emotions to deduce who was hiding the ring.

After doing this several times, he suddenly turned and rushed to one man, grabbed his right wrist, opened his palm and let out a fierce roar as he found the ring.

Music erupted as his teammates exploded in jubilation and lofted him on their shoulders, until the match resumed.

"You can tell who is holding the ring," Qahtan said. "He sweats, shakes and makes more sudden movements than the others. Knowing who is holding the ring, though, requires experience and talent."

Mahabes is played across Baghdad and in several other Iraqi cities during Ramadan, with matchestypically starting after the iftar meal.

In Karbala, southern Iraq, authorities have organised a championship, pitting teams from across the country against each other.

Competitors from Baghdad, predominantly Shiite cities such as Diwaniyah and Najaf, and mostly Sunni towns like Baquba and Mussayib are all taking part, said Salem Al Naqqash, Karbala team captain.

"The games used to continue until dawn and sometimes until midday, until one of the teams would win," said Mr Malik, referring to matches played before the invasion.

But since 2003, violence has led to an overnight curfew requiring Iraqis to be in their homes and the walling off of communities.

Adhamiyah, for example, is across the Tigris river from the mostly Shiite district of Kadhimiyah, with the two connected by a bridge that was closed to traffic for several years during the peak of the bloodshed.

Qahtan recalled a match in 2007, the year before the bridge was fully reopened, that aimed to promote reconciliation.

"The most beautiful game I participated in was between Adhamiyah and Kadhimiyah," he said. "We played to bring people together - we did not care about winning."

Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM


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