Backgam­mon: The old­est board game in his­tory lives on

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENT - Yas­mina Salame

In Le­banon, the an­cient board game backgam­mon is much more than just a game to pass the time of day; it’s tied into Le­banese iden­tity

De­spite be­ing one of the old­est twop­er­son board games in his­tory, with traces back to an epi­gram of Byzan­tine Em­peror Zeno from around 476-481AD, backgam­mon ( tawle) still re­mains popular in Le­banon to­day. Wan­der down any street and the game still has a strong pres­ence, from open-air cafes where the game is ac­com­pa­nied by nar­guileh (wa­ter­pipe) and Ara­bic cof­fee, to a dec­o­ra­tive board on makeshift ta­bles and chairs made out of up­turned buck­ets. The game is rooted in Le­banese iden­tity, a long held tra­di­tion passed from one gen­er­a­tion to the next and a rem­nant of an old cul­ture, where life spilled out onto the streets of Beirut .

In the Beirut dis­trict of Achrafieh, one street lined with peach and pink colored crum­bling build­ings ap­pears un­changed since the 1950s. It’s a self-suf­fi­cient bub­ble where ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one else and the mainly el­derly res­i­dents pass be­tween the bar­ber, bak­ery, min­i­mar­ket and butcher, each hum­ble bea­cons of the com­mu­nity where con­ver­sa­tions are drawn out over cof­fee, nar­guileh and games of backgam­mon. For the res­i­dents play­ing the game is a daily rou­tine, a way to pass the time and re­lax in be­tween work.

Here, at three in the af­ter­noon, butcher Wissam Saad and min­i­mar­ket owner Tony Had­dad sit on plas­tic chairs out­side bat­tling it out over a game of backgam­mon; they’ve gath­ered a small crowd of on­look­ers with jokes fly­ing be­tween them all. “My fa­ther taught me how to play when I was a kid. I’ve played it al­most ev­ery day since,” says Saad while rolling the dice. “Some­times we have back-to-back tour­na­ments where the whole neigh­bor­hood gets in­volved. It brings peo­ple to­gether and on slow days at [work] it’s a fun way to pass the time.”

In the back­streets of an­other Beirut sub­urb, 43-year old me­chanic Abed Dia sits op­po­site his op­po­nent on a pile of tires and makes his win­ning move with oil-stained hands and a toothy grin. Taught by his grand­fa­ther, also a me­chanic, backgam­mon is a daily rit­ual for him be­tween fix­ing cars. “Af­ter a morn­ing of work I stop for a break of manoushe and tea and, of course, a game of backgam­mon,” he says. “It’s a good time to re­lax and for­get about the daily grind. My grand­fa­ther taught me and I feel like I’m play­ing for him. Now I started teach­ing my nine-year-old son. A lot of street her­itage is be­ing lost; it’s a way of pass­ing on the tra­di­tion and keep­ing it alive.”

Though many backgam­mon play­ers are from Le­banon’s older gen­er­a­tion, in­ter­est in the game has been sparked lately in the younger gen­er­a­tion too, with a new wave of play­ers want­ing to keep a con­nec­tion to what many be­lieve is a strong part of their his­toyr. There’s even been an evo­lu­tion in its form with backgam­mon apps and on­line games mak­ing it pos­si­ble to play the game via a smart­phone while on the move. If en­thu­si­asm for the game con­tin­ues and evolves fur­ther, then backgam­mon may just be one of the few rem­nants of an old cul­ture that re­mains and lasts into the fu­ture.

cour­tesy of Yas­mina Salame

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