In Ramadans past, teams of men drawn from neighborhoods across Baghdad faced off in nighttime matches of mihaibis (the ring game), an amusing pastime dating back to the Ottoman Empire. A ring, small enough to conceal in the palm of the hand, and unlike any other on the men’s fingers, was given to one team, whose leader chose a player to hold it in his clenched fist. The team with the ring then lined up, each man with clenched fists held out and turned downward. The head of the other team paced up and down the line, staring intently into the eyes of the opposing players to guess the identity of the ring-bearer. A single session could last for hours. Iraqis played the ring game with their friends or at home with their families until suhur, the pre-dawn meal Muslims consume before resuming the Ramadan fast at sunup.
“We used to move from one place to another until we reached the finals,” says Jasim al-Aswad, a man in his fifties, of the mihaibis team of his youth. “The game became very famous. I could get the ring out of 300 people. I was considered ‘professional’ beginning in 1978. I want to pass the secrets of this game down to our young players, and keep this game alive forever.”
In today’s Baghdad, riven by violence and haunted by fear, there are no mihaibis matches in the streets. They only take place in TV studios, the taped showdowns broadcast right before the breaking of the fast and again late in the evening. Al-Aswad directs the games shown by the state-run al-Iraqiyya channel.
Smiling and wearing a gray dishdasha, al-Aswad runs rose-colored prayer beads through his fingers while waiting for the TV announcer to arrive. Two teams of 25 male contestants, mostly young, sit at the ready, each team decked out in color-coordinated dishdashas. The channel’s slogan, “Al-Iraqiyya — We Are Brothers,” is emblazoned on banners on the floor in front of each team. Large round trays of baklava and other traditional confections await the end of the game. Both teams will partake, no matter who wins. “We have very strong teams known for their efficiency,” boasts al-Aswad. “But here in the studios it is very different from the real games, where we wander from one neighborhood to another. We miss the big, lively, cheering crowd.”
The announcer finally shows up and a band strikes up old Baghdadi tunes. Al-Aswad instructs the players not to curse and, in a sign of the times, not to use sectarian terms when speaking to each other. The broadcaster introduces the teams, and one team’s lieutenant tries to cover his mates with a sheet while they hide the ring. The other team’s leader passes by his opponents one by one, scrutinizing their faces. “Tog!” he shouts, using the old Turkish term for “Open up!” if he thinks a player does not have the ring. He is trying to winnow the ranks of his adversaries to just a few. His team cheers him on: “Hurray! Look at Abu Jasim! He will get the ring for us.”
Abu Jasim finally decides who he thinks has the ring. “Tog! Tog! Tog!” he shouts three times. This time he is correct: His team scores a point and gets a turn to hide the ring themselves. When he guesses incorrectly, the opposing player with the ring retorts: “Bat (Here it is)!” The ring stays with its original holders, who themselves score a point. This round of mihaibis lasts for hours, but the players do not grow restless. To the contrary, they become more and more excited the longer the game lasts. Laughing, al-Aswad explains: “We consider Ramadan a month of vacation from our families and work.”
He goes on: “By the way, we do not have specific numbers of Sunnis or Shi‘a on each team. The teams are all mixed. Sometimes we incorporate Christians and Sabeans, for mihaibis is a game for everyone, regardless of religion or doctrine — just like soccer. The politicians are the ones who created these differences — not us — for we are one people. Mihaibis has become even more famous now than in the past, because of television. Even women are playing it at home. We called the game this year ‘the national reconciliation game’ and we hope this will unite Iraqis.”
Popular as the televised matches are, they are no substitute for the Ramadan entertainments of the past, when it was safe to go out at night. “Before I used to hang out with my friends after the iftar,” says Mustafa Jasim, a resident of the al-‘Adhamiyya neighborhood, where there are more Sunnis than Shi‘a. “We would play games like mihaibis until the wee hours of the morning, or wander among the shops, or play billiards in the cafés. This district used to be like heaven in Ramadan. But now people are leaving or, I should say, deserting Baghdad, because of all the threats — the killings, the kidnappings, the explosions. I wish I could take the children to a safe place to play during the ‘id [the three-day feast at the close of the holy month], but they wind up locked in between four walls. We used to wish for the sanctions to be lifted, but now we wish for security to come back. As Imam ‘Ali said: ‘There are two blessings one rarely counts: health and security.’”
The rhythms of Ramadan — including suhur, the meal that often follows late-night sessions of mihaibis in family homes — are disrupted. Jasim’s wife, Ghaida Muhammad, explains: “We miss the drummer who used to walk through the neighborhood to wake us up to eat before dawn prayers. We rarely hear him because he does not come out when there is shooting or clashes.” Her husband continues: “I have heard [the suhur drummer] only once during Ramadan and I could not believe my ears. After that one time, he stopped, and I asked him why. He told me he is afraid to be caught up in a shooting. Or he could be shot by Americans thinking he is trying to plant a roadside bomb.”
This is Ramadan in wounded Baghdad.