Storytelling, games make Iraq comeback on Ramadan nights
MOSUL, Iraq – “Once upon a time” tales and folksy games from the pre-television days are making a comeback in Iraq during the long nights of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Traditional storyteller Abdel Wahed Ismail, a red fez atop his head, yellow scarf draped over his shoulders, in a black gallabia gown, captivates audiences in the northern metropolis of Mosul.
As in other Muslim countries, the annual month of dawn-to-dusk fasting is a time for evening gatherings in restaurants, coffee shops or homes of family and friends across Iraq.
While many spend the night in prayer at mosques between an evening feast and pre-dawn snacks, others take part in games that in Iraq are reserved for Ramadan-time.
Up until one or two generations ago, Ramadan nights were the preserve of the hakawati, or Arab storytellers, regaling audiences with fables as well as local news and historical stories.
Mosul, now a city of almost two million people, has for centuries been a commercial and intellectual hub of the Middle East.
With the arrival of television and radio in the 1960s, the hakawati vanished from the coffee shops and restaurants where families and friends gathered.
Two years after Mosul — a city gripped by violence following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein — was freed from the stranglehold of the Islamic State jihadist group, Ismail has been leading a revival.
The 70-year-old actor and local celebrity takes his seat each night on a white wooden bench on a platform to tell tales in the unmistakable Moslawi dialect.
“I’ve lived through so many different times, so I try to pass on stories of good things to young people,” said Ismail, who witnessed the bloody overthrow of Iraq’s monarchy as well as a succession of coups and wars.
While tales such as the chivalrous epic “Antar and Abla” put smiles on the faces of older members of the audience as they reminisce, Ismail slips in references to hip online games such as PUBG for the younger ones.
In the oil city of Kirkuk, half-way between Baghdad and Mosul in northern Iraq, the game of “Sini wa Zarf” (the tray and the envelope, in Kurdish) has hundreds of Ramadan-time aficionados among its rival Kurdish, Turkmen and Arab communities.
“It’s also known as the game of the communities because it really brings together all the communities,” said Shano Askar, a Kurd in his 30s, absorbed in an encounter.
Around the city’s citadel and across its historic districts, outdoor coffee and tea shops are packed with enthusiasts, their eyes glued on the metal trays and 11 upturned small gold cups used for the game.
A die is hidden under one of the cups and the players have to work out which one.
Another competition in which players must find a hidden object — “mheibess” (rings) — is extremely popular in Baghdad.
A player discreetly slips a ring to a member of his team, and their adversaries have to figure out who, reading their body language and facial expressions.
Such games form part of a wider social phenomenon as Ramadan nights turn once again, often for the first time since the 2003 invasion, into social events rather than a time to be hunkered down at home.
They also serve to show that “technological progress has not got the better of the good things of the past”, said Iraqi sociologist Saad Ahmed.