x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The suhour shuffle

Look closely inside the UAE's Ramadan tents, and you'll find people immersed in passionate games of cards after iftar.

Ahmed Feras al Khalid studies his cards at the Royal Meridien Hotel's Ramadan tent in Abu Dhabi.
Ahmed Feras al Khalid studies his cards at the Royal Meridien Hotel's Ramadan tent in Abu Dhabi.

Tensions run high. Friendships once thought invincible are tossed aside, replaced instead by feelings of paranoia, revenge and an unquenchable thirst to win. The air is thick with anticipation. Suddenly, a cry rings out. Heads collapse onto the table, heavy with defeat, while others celebrate their long-awaited victory. Now imagine this scene multiplied dozens of times over, and you'll be that much closer to experiencing an evening spent in the comfort of one of the United Arab Emirates' many suhour tents.

Venture into the UAE's cavernous tents during Ramadan, and you will find yourself surrounded by a multitude of people out to socialise after breaking their fast (iftar). Look further still, amid the plumes of smoke emanating from shishas, and you'll find that the majority of people will be intensely focused on the deck of cards in front of them. For it is not the tents or the shisha that bring out such a passionate reaction in people, but simply a plain old hand (or two) of cards.

Young or old, male or female, at this time of year no one is immune to the allure of a skilfully played card game. And while defeat is always crushing - no matter how many times you lose - the overall experience of sitting around a table with a group of your closest friends, for hours on end, is worth the disappointment (in hindsight at least, if not at the exact point of losing). Speak to any card player and the chances are they will have at least one great memory of a game - whether they are recounting stories of watching in awe as children while their fathers played or the time they organised a huge Tarneeb match at their university hall, not to mention the tournaments that ended up lasting whole weekends.Cards have played an integral part in the lives of many here. Only a game? Somehow, we don't think so: tarneeb, 400 and trix are taken very seriously indeed. Here's what some of the players in Abu Dhabi have to say about their card games.

Yousef Barghouti, Palestinian, 26, senior analyst "Given that it is Ramadan, the main thing that gathers my family around a table - other than having iftar - is playing trix. We usually play for about an hour every day." Khaled and Tareq Chahal, Lebanese/Canadian, 28 and 25, property "We learnt most of the games we know by playing with the Syrian workers from our farm in Lebanon. We spent countless nights with them mainly playing "trump", although they also taught us card tricks. We'd get the shishas ready and play for hours, at least three nights a week. It was fun because we learnt new things and the workers were good company. It was also a way for them to pass the time being away from their families. We don't have one, single great memory from playing cards - they have all been brilliant."

Zaid al Chalabi, Iraqi/Canadian, 25, sales and marketing co-ordinator "I like playing card games because it brings us all together. I've also been part of some great debates that have taken place around a game of cards. We usually play all night, but no matter how many times you play the same game, it never gets boring. Usually, when we've been playing for hours, we all end up pretending to cheat. It drives everyone crazy but it's always a good laugh."

Omar Eraiqat, Emirati, 26, associate manager "I'm passionate about cards. At our old house we had an outdoor tent where we would sit and play. My granddad taught me most of the games I know, but he also used to cheat when we played, hiding the best cards from the pack under the table." Rami El Dada, Lebanese, 26, risk management "I grew up watching my dad play cards and remember always wanting to join in. I got into cards when I was at high school, and I think my favourite memory is the time I organised a huge tarneeb tournament when I was studying in Montreal."

Rasheed Chahal, Lebanese/Canadian, 25, corporate investment manager "There's a great atmosphere when you play cards. It's a unique feeling. When you can't go to a club during Ramadan, there's no better way to spend your evenings than playing a game of tarneeb with friends." Mohammed Yousif, Canadian/Iraqi, 30, electrical engineer "Some card games are really smart and therefore a nice way to stimulate your brain. If you're not familiar with people and trying to get to know them, card games are also an excellent way to break the ice. During the Gulf War, my family, along with our neighbours, would play a game called 51. There would be no electricity, so we would have to play by candlelight and you could hear bombs going off outside the houses. Playing cards was a way for our brains to switch off from what was happening around us."

Ammar al Nasseri, Iraqi/Canadian, 28, consultant "Playing cards is part of our culture. Along with shisha, cards come with the territory. But I don't play casual games, I take it very seriously! I'm passionate about Tarneeb. The best memory I have is of one of our Tarneeb games where someone actually broke a table during play. That was an intense game!" Mona Kamal, Egyptian, 26, translator "I basically wasted my second year of university playing cards non-stop. We used to have these big tournaments that we took pretty seriously, but that didn't stop them being a lot of fun. Cards are a big part of Ramadan because of the suhour tents. You've got the guy playing the oud, you have your shisha, you have your tea and you have your cards. What more could you ask for?"

Ahmed Feras al Khalid, 26, Jordanian, doctor "I grew up watching my granddad and dad play cards and my dad used to cheat all the time! He'd keep the jokers and aces in his pockets. I always associated card games with being an adult, so I was in a rush to grow up and be able to play cards like my dad." Maryam al Hassani, Scottish, 21, student "My cousins and I used to play this game called kent when we were kids. It used to get really competitive because whoever lost would have to tidy up the whole house. I did a lot of tidying up when I was young!"

Dilan Pasha, Kurdish, 27, project manager "My first memories of card games was watching my parents and their friends. They would play in big groups and stay up really late during Ramadan, drinking Moroccan tea. As kids we were always curious to know what our parents were doing." Rula al Mutwali, 26, Iraqi, auditor "I love cards and the whole culture surrounding them more than I can describe. It's great seeing everyone get so passionate, and the time just flies by. I love playing tarneeb, but equally, I can't stand losing tarneeb! The competitiveness is a huge part of the enjoyment."