Backgammon: The oldest board game in history lives on
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