Interplay of Transit
Backgammon Culture in Cairo
On my first semester i Cairo, I took a course
called "Professional writing". I wanted to do
a feature on Backgammon, and so I strolled the cafes fro
a suitable group to cover. It turned out everybody were
playing the dominos, and I was just about to give up when
I stumbeled upon the cafe opposite of Windsor hotel. I watched
the players for some time -trying to pick up the game, when
they invited me to join. I proceeded to see Fathi and his
friends weekly for several months, resulting in this article.
is waiting. When you are waiting, one place is as good as
the other. Fati Abu Mira spends his time waiting at the
Telegraph cafe. While you are waiting, one game is as good
as the other. Fati spends his time playing Taula. After
waiting for 33 years, he has become quite good at it. Playing
Taula, that is.
is the Egyptian version of Backgammon. Or rather, Backgammon
is the western version of Taula. Its value for killing time
was well known by the Pharaohs, who brought the game along
on their way to afterlife. The Pharaohs might have turned
in their pyramids had they known the game after this showed
up in Rome. Despite being where all roads led, the game
then spread to Asia and back over the next thousand years.
It returned just in time for the crusaders to pick it up
on their sporadic and rather destructive visits to the area.
Following the game in its great tradition of movement, Fati
knows his destiny:
My God has told me that I will travel. But I'm still here
waiting," he says while throwing the dice.
not that he questions the mysterious ways of Allah. He is
not in a hurry, and he is doing quite well as an accountant
for Sherk insurance. His likes his job, and he knows his
time will come. Besides, he knows what to do in order to
shorten the waiting period. He goes to his favourite cafe
every day. He does not have to walk for too long, for the
Telegraph is just across the street from his office.
playing is what you do while waiting, it competes with the
glossy magazines of a doctor's reception hall in its ability
to kill time. Just as the magazines in the doctor's office
never change, the boards at the Telegraph stays the same.
The once light wood has been burnished dark by the counting
of thousands of fingers. The chips have been moulded like
pebbles on a beach to lose all sharp features. The triangular-shaped
counters would have been long gone had they been painted
on the board rather than made from a darker wooden material.
the boards are just as ancient as the doctor's magazines,
they differ in one respect. Whereas last year's fashion
stays the same, the Taula always bring something new. Each
player has his characteristic style, and it is the merging
and the interchanging of different approaches that polishes
the game. In the beginning, the atmosphere is usually very
relaxed. The moves are simple, and luck is cursed or blessed.
- Ham du li le! Praise the almighty!
a while the chatting slows and eventually comes to an end.
It becomes crucial to occupy certain spaces. Sometimes to
enable your own leaps, sometimes to halt the opponents charge
towards your home base. When Fati fails to occupy the lots
he wants, he shifts his style. Either he becomes more aggressive,
or more defensive. His physical appearance does not change,
nor does his speed of movement. He simply moves different
chips. An outsider would not think twice about it, as it
is obvious he is only moving according to the dice. Each
player is so eager to see what the next throw will bring
that the dice are automatically taken off the board the
moment after they have landed - and then thrown again. In
the short moments in between, the players analyse the situation,
count the alternatives, and are ready to move when the dice
Arba, Arba, Arba," prays Fati. Four, four, four.
when the dice are thrown, it is not Fati who moves. It is
Mohammed, one of the other regulars with whom Fati is playing.
Fati had shifted his strategy to blocking every fourth move
Mohammed could make, except for one. So when Mohammed finally
got a four, he had to move the only one he could. This particular
piece was a thorn in Fati's side, and he was happy to see
it go. And until Mohammed gets a better spread on his pieces,
Fati controls which particular piece he will squeeze. And
again, the outsider would simply see the obvious - that
Mohammed had no other choice.
Kamal wears a light orange shirt with the sleeves rolled
up and the two top buttons open. His long, thick black hair
is thinning at the temples, but is combed to the side with
enough Brylceem to mask the thinning. He has been doing
his share of waiting, for the space between his teeth has
turned black after years of smoking Marlboro reds. Except
for a plain but gold watch around his wrist, he wears no
ornaments at all. The exceptionally long nails on his little
fingers add to the impression that he doesn't have to -
he is a wealthy man. When you look at his hands you notice
he wears no rings. He is unmarried. Unless the family laws
in Egypt start allowing men to marry each other, he will
remain so. As the family law in Egypt is the only law subject
to the holy Islamic law, Sharia, this is highly unlikely.
Wahed Sisha," he demands.
clicking of the Taula pieces is not the same without the
bubbeling sounds of the waterpipe. The water cool the smoke
and removes the tiny leaves of the tobacco that otherwise
might get into your mouth. The tobacco is heavily flavoured,
most often with apple. The flavour makes the tobacco so
wet that it is impossible to light unassisted. Coal is being
used to keep the leaves glowing. In any one Ahwa, there
is at least one waiter responsible for keeping the coals
warm. The Sisha-savers might still slumber on their way
to each pipe. The Garcon has developed a very impressive
air-swing of the coal in to counter this.
restocking each pipe with red-hot coals, the Garcon fills
his little metal container with incense. He then makes a
new round. The thick, sweet smelling oriental aroma immediately
overpowers any previous blend of apple, coal, tobacco and
coffee. When coffeehouses were introduced as a marketing
place for the fresh black-hot substance from Yemen five
hundred years ago, Shisha and Taula became instant members
of the Ahwa society. They have remained in high regard ever
the Telegraph hardly is as old as coffee, it was probably
there for the newly cleansed to enjoy after a visit to the
Ahmem just opposite. The English turned the Turkish bath
into an officers club. It was there to witness the dramatic
assassination of Lord Moyne in the beginning of World War
II by Palestine Zionists. The Britsh Minister of State in
Cairo had outraged the Israelites by expelling illegal Jewish
immigrants. The highest imperial British representative
was not very popular amongst the Arabs in general either,
and even the Telegraph regulars might have disliked him.
Churchill, not yet aware of all the intricacies, temporarily
abandoned his long-standing support for the Zionist cause.
Being a good friend of Lord Moyne, it is also not surprising
that he never visited the Telegraph after this.
surrounding buildings shelter the Telegraph from the modern
world, with its cars, exhaust and buzzing city noise. Its
corner position makes it visible from two small streets.
A tree is standing just off the corner, and will eventually
threaten the pillar it was planted to decorate. It was supposed
to be surrounded by tiles, but these never arrived. The
sidewalk is a 20 cm deep concrete trench just wide enough
to fit each of the six outdoor tables with four chairs.
Telegraph al Cafe is cut in Arabic script into the back
of each chair. The chairs not attached to a table are placed
in the street facing outwards. Here the guests can watch
the tourist traffic to Windsor hotel which, incidentally,
used to be a club for British officers. If the tourist season
has yet to come, they can watch the shoe shiners or the
bouquet decorations in the neighbouring flower shop, instead.
The florist isn't there. But whenever the florist observes
potential customers, he gets up from his seat at the cafe
and strolls over the street to make a sale. Most of the
time though, he follows the games going on at any one time.
game is quite easy to play. There are 24 triangles in four
pockets on the board. The first pocket is your home base
and the one directly opposite is your opponent's home base.
Each player has fifteen white or black counters, which are
placed in the first triangle of the respective player's
home base. Each triangle represents one eye on the die,
and you move one or two counters according to the two dice
in the direction of a tilted U. When the dice match, you
move four times instead of two. The objective is first to
move all fifteen pieces into the last pocket - the opponent's
home base - and from there off the board. The catch is that
when a triangle is covered by at least one of the opponent's
counters, you can not land or transit there. The more counters
one of the players manage to place in a consecutive order,
the more difficult it will be for the opponent to pass them.
When there are six pieces in a row, the path is completely
barred. The winner is the one who manages to move all of
his counters off the board first. The number of counters
the opponent has left on the board then makes up the score
of the winner, and you don't really win until you get 31
points. Though the players immediately knows how the dice
add up - and where each piece will land - the adding works
a lot less smoothly when it comes to sum up the scores.
Seventeen plus faaaaaiivvv, uhum, eeehh, aahh, twenty...Three.
yyoou haaad... " they continue, hoping to be cut off
before they lose the remainder their breath.
You know this piece," Fati comments after catching
holding up a backgammon chip.
you break it in two, you will find Mohammed inside"
Mohammed is very good at playing Taula, Fati is merely explaining
why he lost. As he begins work early in the morning, he
does not want to start another game. It is time to go home.
He calls Mohammed the waiter for the bill, who in turn calls
Abdul feloooooooos," he shouts.
the moneyman. His lean face and his greying hair give an
impression of authority. Whereas all the Garcons wear blue
uniforms, his is a clean white khaki coat. The "Telegraph"
name is printed above his left breast pocket. He keeps a
short pencil behind his ear to help him visualise the math
when collecting bills. Some future archaeologist might confuse
by Mr Abdul's arithmetic scribble with that of a school,
as he writes on the white walls of the coffee shop. Nobody
seems to mind the writing; they are more concerned with
the ludicrous amounts of coffee, tea, lemon juice and shish
he is trying to make them pay for. After a proper time of
protest and collective argument, they agree upon his figures
and pay the eight pounds he is asking. In addition, they
pay him about a pound in baksheesh, or tip, knowing that
tip makes about three quarters of the salary for all the
nine people who work there.
When it is time to leave, the Taula is folded together and
left on the table for someone else to open. When Fati leaves
for good, he will take the game with him.