x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Around the tarneeb table, diversity not always an asset

What ecver happened to the ability to compromise and accept that others are different?

During a recent game of cards I watched unfold in Lebanon - the popular Middle East game Tarneeb - the players were as diverse as the pack of cards they were holding. Some were huddled over and squinting. Others sported their best poker face.

All were Arabs, all were retired and each came from a different background.

One was a jeweller who said he's still a communist. Another was a businessman who is Jewish, but has been telling people for most of his life that he is a Christian. A third was an artist, who remained a devout Christian throughout her very public and unconventional career. The fourth, who is Muslim, was a homemaker and a poet. She never worried about Islam's different sects.

When you want to see a different side of a person, I recommend you sit and play this card game with them, or simply watch them play. With shisha unfortunately usually not far from the table, something happens to the players. They get into this special zone, and say things they'd probably not say openly or directly unless engrossed in their cards.

"Let us see who are the chosen people," the communist quipped, making everyone laugh.

This is how it was: they targeted stereotypes and deflated what would otherwise be heated or taboo issues through jokes and friendly open discussions. Wars, current political affairs, even religious matters were discussed without hate or judgement.

It was at this table I first heard the opinion that "before" Arabs didn't care about the religion or sects of their neighbours. Arabs were all just Arabs. A person was not judged on how "pious" they appeared, but based on their "akhlaq" - their manners, morality and upbringing. I'm not sure if this was always how people viewed each other across the Arab world in previous decades, but for this group at the table who have been friends for at least 40 years, it was.

They were living by the motto of "live and let live", a refreshing idea that needs repeating. And it's an idea some of my old schoolmates might consider heeding.

I recently reconnected with a handful of these childhood friends, who have all gone their separate ways. Some married and had children, while others pursued careers. Some managed to have both.

We had different ambitions as children, too, but back then, these details didn't matter. We were friends and we respected each other's differences. Now, in our late 20s and early 30s, it's all about details.

We met and decided to play Tarneeb. It started off far less congenially than the game I observed recently. The first question was fired at me. "So your mother still hasn't converted to Islam?" one former classmate asked. "You do know she is going to hell unless she does, right?"

This has never come up before, and so I replied coyly. "One's relationship with God is private. Between the person and God," I said.

The divisions at the table became clear. There was one group that had declared itself to be on the "right path" and "real Muslims", and another that had lost faith and was harassing those who still believed.

Accusations started flying. "My husband has a large zabeeba on his forehead as proof of his piety. What does your husband have to show for his dedication?" said one friend. A zabeeba is a mark on the forehead from pressing it frequently on the prayer rug. The same friend had put on her hijab recently and has been judging others who aren't covered as "lost women".

I am apparently one of them.

She announced she now has joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and will never talk to me or the rest until we became "good Muslims". The irony of it all was that unlike the older group, all those present were Muslims.

Whatever happened to the middle ground? I'll have to ask the older group of tarneeb players, the next time I see them.



On Twitter: @Arabianmau