Shuffling a pack of cards is a UAE tradition during Ramadan
Silence fills the air. The atmosphere is tense. Suddenly, the winning hand hits the table, followed by a mix of defeated sighs and yelps of anger.
Despite the high emotion that’s on show, ranging from playful smugness to anger at being on a continuous losing streak, card games are a noted part of Arab culture. Particularly, for some, during Ramadan.
With Iftar tents a feature across the country, tending to residents and visitors until the early hours of the morning, the chances to play card games with friends open up.
Card games play an important role in Arab culture today, says Akram, a Lebanese Palestinian who lives in the capital.
“It is really a chance for us to get together with friends and catch up and enjoy our company after a long day. But, at the same time, you have to understand that there is a form of competitiveness involved. It is a game and we all want to win. So, if you lose one night, you keep coming back in order to win again.”
Some of the more popular games that are played include Tarneeb, in which four players, in pairs, bid for hands. In each round, teams compete with one another to be able to choose the strong suit, the trump, they hope will help them towards victory.
Other games include Trix, involving four players, which is played in four cycles. Each cycle consists of five games – the order of which is chosen by a different player for each cycle.
Trix, along with Likha, which is similar to Hearts, are favourites of Akram.
“Well I am from The Sham [Levant], so we play games like Trix and Likha. This is what we grow up with.
“I would remember growing up in Lebanon and seeing the grown-ups play and I would enjoy seeing them. I wanted to join and friends and family started teaching me, bit by bit.”
For Ishaq, playing cards is a habit that he rarely indulges in outside of Ramadan. It is something, the Abu Dhabi resident says, that helps to pass the time.
“In Ramadan, that’s key. You are fasting. You don’t have much energy for anything else.”
During previous Ramadans Ishaq, a Palestinian, would play throughout the evening.
“When I was in Jordan and it was around wintertime, we used to fast there and I’d just sit and play cards with my aunt and her husband up until Iftar. After, we’d sit and relax and, before the Turkish soap operas came back on again, you’d play cards. Half watching the soap operas and half playing cards.”
Spending time in Iftar tents, the 23-year-old says he sees fewer people playing cards.
“We were playing cards in the Shangri-La and I looked around and saw three or four guys just sat around a table, each of them on their phones. That happens wherever you go. It’s become a full on, tangible effort for people to go out and play cards.”
When 38-year-old Emirati Mamdooh sits down to play cards, there are no phones and no soap operas involved. Nor is it a pastime relegated to certain times of the year. For the Abu Dhabi native, playing cards is a way of life.
“Before or after Ramadan. Every day,” he says.
Mamdooh plays with a regular group of friends, with Trix and Hokm, a trick taking game in which the object is to be the first team or player to win seven points, the favourites.
With the enjoyment of a good game, and possibly a win, also comes the possibility of losing one’s cool, should things not go their way. This is, says Akram, the nature of the game.
“Well, this is a competition, at the end of the day. Every time I go to the cafe in Khalidiya where I play you always hear someone getting angry and losing their temper. I know someone who got so angry at his loss that he wouldn’t speak to his friends for about 20 days. As for me, yes, I can lose my cool. At the same time just as quickly as I get angry, I also calm down pretty quickly and continue playing.”
While it may not sound relaxing for some, for others, like Akram, it is the only option.
“People do different things to relax. Some people go to the movies and some go to the malls. I choose to play cards. Each to their own.”
For Mamdooh, every person handles losing in their own way. Including, he says, himself.
“It depends,” he says with a laugh. “It depends on the person. It’s a matter of luck, in the end. You don’t know what cards will come to you, yes? Unless, if you are a magician.”
As a child, when he had his hands on a deck of cards, Abu Dhabi resident Saif spent most of his time attempting magic tricks.
Ramadan, he says, offered him different options.
“We played cards a lot back in the day,” says Saif, a Bahraini who has lived in the UAE on and off for years. “I feel like playing cards in Ramadan was a specific kind of game, like Tarneeb.”
Although he has not spent as much time this Ramadan playing, it is a vital part of the month, he says.
“Definitely. I feel like it would be part of the thing you would look forward to, in Ramadan, going to a cafe, [having] shisha and then playing cards with your friends.
“This is what you do.”
Zaineb Al Hassani is a senior news editor at The National.
Updated: July 9, 2015 04:00 AM