In Iraq, an ancient board game is making a comeback

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Iraqi artist Hoshmand Mofaq and British archaeologist Ashley Barlow (R) play an ancient board game that dates back to nearly 5,000 years ago. (AFP)
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Iraqi artist Hoshmand Mofaq sits over an ancient board game, known as the Royal Game of Ur, in the northern Iraqi city of Raniey. (AFP)
Updated 26 November 2018
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In Iraq, an ancient board game is making a comeback

  • Originating nearly 5,000 years ago in what would become Iraq, the Royal Game of Ur mysteriously died out
  • It was only in 1922 that the board game came to light

RANIYE, Iraq: After rolling pyramid-shaped dice, Iraqi Kurdish artisan Hoshmand Muwafaq shifted his pebble around an ornate board, his handmade recreation of one of the Middle East’s oldest and most popular games.
Originating nearly 5,000 years ago in what would become Iraq, the Royal Game of Ur mysteriously died out — until Muwafaq resurrected it by making his own decorated wooden board.
“It is a nice feeling when you rebuild and recreate a game which is not played by people anymore, and you try to show your generation and your people what we used to have before,” he told AFP.
“So you introduce the board again to the people. It’s just really something, somehow amazing.”
It was only in 1922 that the board game came to light.
A board — a kind of draughtboard in an elongated ‘H’ shape — together with its pieces and dice, were found during archaeological excavations at the royal cemetery in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, known now as Tal Al-Muqayyar, in southern Iraq.
Taken to the British Museum for closer study, it took more than five decades until experts managed to match up and translate a set of rules carved into a piece of clay with the board game.
It became known as the Royal Game of Ur.
Two players have seven circular pieces each, which they must move in a loop across the beautifully carved wooden board.
If a player lands his piece on a square already occupied by his rival, he can knock off the original piece and his rival must start again.
Some of the 20 variously inlaid square places on the board offer players a refuge from being knocked off, or allow for a second roll of the unusual, pyramid-shaped dice.
Despite its simple rules, it makes for ferocious competition.
“It’s not just a game of luck, there’s strategy,” said Irving Finkel, the British Museum curator who worked to decipher the game’s rules.
Not only had they discovered the game’s playing instructions, he said in a video published last year by the museum, but also that it could be played for more than just fun, with some people betting for drink and women.
Superstitious players in ancient Mesopotamia thought the outcome of each Royal Game was directed by the gods, or had an impact on their future.
Finkel said the board predated backgammon, a similar and extremely popular game now played across the Middle East.
“Before chess and before backgammon came into the world, everybody played this game,” Finkel said.
But it has largely been forgotten by modern-day Iraqis.


To revive the game’s prehistoric popularity, British archaeologist Ashley Barlow asked Muwafaq to recreate a board based on the dimensions and design of the original.
The aim is to create the first Ur game board “produced in Iraq for millennia,” said Barlow, who lectures at the University of Raparin in the town of Raniye, 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Baghdad.
Although it was invented locally, the game seems to have reached communities hundreds of kilometers away, even as far as India.
“The board itself, with its Afghan Lapis lazuli and Pakistani carnelian (gemstones), is testament to a globalized world connected by traders, merchants and craftsmen,” Barlow told AFP.
By reviving the game back in its birthplace, he hopes Iraqis can move past recent decades of violence to build an identity based on a shared ancient past.
“We want to reintroduce and re-educate people in their Mesopotamian history, something they can be really proud of — something that unites people rather than divides people,” he said.

Barlow and his team of volunteers are on a mission to bring back the spirit of Mesopotamia by spreading the game — first in the north, and then hopefully to Baghdad and Mosul.
Their first stop is the local park.
There, mainly older men play more mainstream games like checkers and backgammon — but can the Royal Game of Ur make a comeback?
“Yes!” says Mam Rasool, one of the elderly men there.
“I would play if there is someone to play the game with, like they (the Mesopotamians) did.”
He picked up a piece to move it across the intricate board.
“It’s 5,000 years old, but to us it’s new,” said Rasool.


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”