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Obaid bin Sandal (right) explains the rules of the game to kids from the Sharjah Youth Centre during the seventh Traditional Handicraft Forum. Jaime Puebla / The National
Obaid bin Sandal (right) explains the rules of the game to kids from the Sharjah Youth Centre during the seventh Traditional Handicraft Forum. Jaime Puebla / The National
Emirati teens playing the Al Dama game during the seventh Traditional Handicraft Forum at the Heritage Area of Sharjah. Jaime Puebla / The National
Emirati teens playing the Al Dama game during the seventh Traditional Handicraft Forum at the Heritage Area of Sharjah. Jaime Puebla / The National

72-year-old Emirati tries to keep the games of yore alive

The old games that entertained generations of Emiratis are fast disappearing, but one man, 72-year-old Obaid bin Sandal, is doing his best to keep them alive.

SHARJAH / / Sometime in 1950, on a cold dark night in the middle of the desert, Obaid bin Sandal was proudly carrying a goat's thigh bone.

The Emirati boy was about 10 years old and it was his first time being the "lawah", the player who is picked to wave the bone over his head, performing a little chant before hurling it somewhere into the distance, with two teams of players bolting after it in hot pursuit.

"Othaiym sarra" (fast bones) the lawah would yell out and the players would reply "ma nara" (we can't see). The thrower then replied "othaiym lawah" (bones waver or thrower) with the players responding "loweh beh" (wave it).

The lawah would end with "tah wa rah" (it fell and disappeared), at which point the bone was thrown.

"Or we would say, 'bu othaiym lawah, eli tah wa irtah', taunting the players as we pretend to throw and then actually throw," Mr Sandal says, laughing as he recalls that night when he and his friends played "othaiym sarra", as the game is called.

This last chant is roughly translated to say "here I am, the bone that fell and is now resting". The rhyming and wit is lost in translation.

"It was a perfect bone," recalls Mr Sandal, 72, who is widely regarded as the grandfather of traditional Emirati children's games.

"In the bone game, the players must find the bone and bring it back to the lawah. Sometimes when it was very dark, we would tie a black piece of cloth to the bone. The bone is hard to steal from someone's hand, as it is not big, which is part of the fun."

Variations of this game can be found across the Arabian Gulf, with some using different kinds of bones, such as camel or chicken, to add variety. There is also an element of "Jinn" and their proximity to bones, and the belief they reside in abandoned places, such as deserts and caves.

"Some say it is a strange and creepy game," Mr Sandal says. "How it came about is not really known but most of our traditional children's games were inspired from things we had in our immediate environment."

The bone game is one of more than 60 traditional children's games Mr Sandal has documented in his books and which he regularly teaches in schools across the UAE as part of a one-man mission to preserve childhood games. He has also run a permanent traditional children games and toys museum in Sharjah's Heritage Area since 2000.

"I am the UAE's oldest child," he smiles. "I never grew up."

Until Friday, Mr Sandal and his assistants will be instructing and explaining the rules of traditional games at the museum every day from 5pm to 8pm.

Competitions will also be held in the courtyard outside the museum as part of Sharjah's seventh Traditional Handcrafts Forum. The games are open to all ages and are free.

"Adults are showing greater enthusiasm than the children. The young can't focus or remember the rules, and quickly lose interest," Mr Sandal says. "It is a shame, as our old games were full of riddles, imagination, exercise, competition and team spirit."

The old games are fading so fast that in 2011, the UAE submitted its children's traditional games to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) for "safeguarding" as an intangible cultural heritage.

"We wanted to revive this side of heritage by getting adults and children to participate in the actual games and to learn how their ancestors entertained themselves and what tools and rules they came up with," says Dr Parween Arif, the intangible-heritage expert at Sharjah's Directorate of Heritage and chair of the special local committee working on Sharjah's Unesco file.

Intangible cultural heritage as defined by Unesco includes "the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills - as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith - that communities, groups and in some cases individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage".

It can include oral traditions and expressions, traditional craftsmanship, performing arts, and social practices and rituals.

"Attested as early as 2600BC, games are a universal part of human experience and are present in all cultures," Dr Arif says. "The Royal Game of Ur, Senet and Mancala are some of the oldest known board games."

Emirati traditional games can be categorised based on whether the child was born on the coast, in the desert, or in the mountains, and whether they were played by girls, boys or both.

There are similarities to universal games, where a basic game of tag - Aaskar wa Harami - has a thief who needs to be caught; Khobz raqaq, where boys form a line and each one leaps over the other in leapfrog-like jumps.

Al Tabba involves hitting a wooden ball with sticks like street hockey, while Al Zabout are wooden spinning tops and Al Jaheef is a hopscotch game with rectangles instead of squares.

The boys' games tend to involve more of a show of strength, such as wrestling, while the girls' games are more related to being mothers and playing house. Often there is a "big bad wolf" in several games, where the wolf player chases everyone else or is chased.

"In this forum, we looked at how traditional children's games are important for physical development, how they lead to a healthy body and a healthy mind, and how the games used recycled elements from their surroundings where nothing was wasted - reusing bones and cans for playing, and how culture and heritage play out through them," Dr Arif says.

"I have my fondest memories from my own childhood games, like playing house, skipping rope, marbles and playing with my dolls.

"We can safely say that the first encounter of any child with his or her folklore is through games," she says, recalling the day her father brought her a "rough plastic" doll with arms that moved. "What a great day that was."

From building boats with cloth dolls tied to it, to playing with sea shells or making swings out of palm fronds, most of the games were accompanied by songs or lyrical dialogues that many children, or even adults, today have a hard time memorising or understanding.

"One of the main reasons I take care of this part of heritage, is to make sure our language and traditional sayings are not lost for ever," Mr Sandal says.

Surrounded by children of various ages, he asks them a riddle.

"Shayi yinkish kashi, Ahlam min al sukar hashi, iza jak nasset kul shi," he says in an exaggerated tone, that roughly translates to something that if shaken out of, leaves you shaken, dreams of sugar that wander, and if it came it makes you forget everything.

"Well?" he asks. None of them had an answer, and many were confused with the meaning of the words.

"I am sleep," he says, disappointed. "We need our children and teenagers to think and look outside the boxes, like computer, smartphone and TV screen."

But, says the master of old games, "it is the parents' fault. Children copy their parents. If the parents are not bothering to challenge themselves by playing traditional games, or any games, actually, their children won't. The old games are not boring, they are fun, challenging, and better than any gym."


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