‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese

‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese
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Lebanese businessman Elie Kesrouwany, creator of Wasta. (Arab News photo by Firas Haidar)
‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese
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Customers play Wasta at On Board, Elie Kesrouwany's restaurant in Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut, is one of the few here that remain open. (Supplied)
‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese
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Lebanese businessman, Elie Kesrouwany, creator of Wasta. (Supplied)
‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese
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Inside On Board restaurant in Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut. (Supplied)
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Updated 24 November 2020

‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese

‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese
  • Elie Kesrouwany’s board game offers a satirical take on the country’s dysfunctional politics and nepotism
  • Inspired by the ‘thawra’ protests of Oct. 2019, the game features illustrations by cartoonist Bernard Hage

BEIRUT: In the Zero 4 shopping hub in Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut, Elie Kesrouwany sits at a table sipping his morning coffee, surrounded by stacks of board games. With Lebanon’s economy on the rocks and the coronavirus outbreak forcing stores to close, Kesrouwany’s business, On Board, is one of the few here that remain open.

Lying sprawled across the table is a deck of comically illustrated cards from his latest creation: Wasta.

The board game, inspired by the anti-government protests that swept Lebanon in October 2019, is an exercise in witty seriousness and black humor. The illustrations, by popular cartoonist Bernard Hage, highlight what many Lebanese view as the bane of their lives: corruption, clientilism and nepotism.

Elements of this entrenched culture have also been held responsible for the Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, when nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing more than 200 people and leaving 300,000 homeless.

“I wanted to criticize society, particularly present Lebanese society,” said Kesrouwany, who lost several friends in the blast. “We are in huge pain every day. My entire generation has been suffering from our present predicament and these warlords in the government have been there for years sucking the blood of this country.”

Wasta, which takes its name from an Arabic word for political and social influence or sway, is commonly used to denote an individual’s powerful connections used to rig opportunities in their favor.

The game was first released in June, two months before the port explosion, and sold out its first batch of 500 units in just two weeks.




Illustrations by popular cartoonist Bernard Hage. (Supplied)

It has been so popular, particularly among the Lebanese diaspora, that Kesrouwany is now creating an English-language version and an expanded second edition, with new illustrated characters to correspond with the country’s latest travails.

Kesrouwany, who worked as a librarian for 17 years before establishing his business, says he has long been a lover of these humble tabletop games — a vanishing pastime in the age of smartphones and gaming consoles.

“I began collecting board games in the trunk of my car and would go into coffee shops and offer games for people to play,” Kesrouwany told Arab News. “I then organized board game nights. It was a side gig at the time and one I was greatly passionate about.”

Kesrouwany was inspired to establish his own premises following a visit to London, where he encountered an avid community of board gamers. And so, on Dec. 22, 2019, at the height of Lebanon’s revolution — known in Arabic as the “thawra” — he opened On Board, a coffee shop for board-game lovers.

“It was my dream to create a game community in Lebanon open to all ethnicities and different religious affiliations under the umbrella of having fun,” he said. “It was an anti-sectarian space.”

It was during Lebanon’s coronavirus lockdown earlier this year that the inspiration for Wasta struck. Here was a creative and enjoyable way to speak out. “Having fun is a clever way to slip ideas into the minds of people that are hard to talk to,” Kesrouwany said.

Wasta players compete using points-weighted cards, each depicting a different facet of Lebanese society. Among the characters are the sectarian thug, the banker, the mother, the journalist, the soldier and the sheep (who blindly follow the government).

While the symbolism of each card offers a crash course in the different characters that make up Lebanese society, the genius of the game lies in the way the cards interact with one another when played.

IN NUMBERS

  • 89% Lebanese who reported corruption in government as a big problem in 2019.
  • 68% Lebanese who thought most or all government officials are involved in corruption. 
  • 28/100 Lebanon’s score in 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures public-sector corruption.

The starting player (obviously a Lebanese person) is the last person who managed to withdraw “fresh money” or US dollars from the banks. “This is a sardonic twist to the start, as recently the banks weren’t parting with US dollars anymore,” said Kesrouwany.

Since April of this year, Lebanese banks have forced customers with dollar accounts to withdraw Lebanese pounds at a fraction of the black-market rate. Now the Lebanese, ever creative in their response to sudden change and instability, must exchange their “fresh money,” when they have it, on the black market to get the best value, as the Lebanese pound continues to slide.

“The game is based on kicking other players out of the game and the objective is to either have the highest number or be the last man standing at the table. The most powerful card in the game is the Lebanese flag, which is number 8. So, if you have this card in your hand and the whole deck is done, then you win the game.

“However, on the card there is a small sentence that reads that if you throw the Lebanese flag from your hand, then you lose your dignity and are out of the game.”




Cartoonist Bernard Hage in his studio. (Arab News photo by Firas Haidar)

Some aspects of the game mirror Lebanon’s system of political patronage. “The player who has the sheep picks his political leader (another player) and he follows him blindly. And if that leader wins the game, the player that played the sheep also wins a round and gains a tarboosh,” he said.

When players win a hand, they win a tarboosh — the iconic Middle Eastern felt hat. The first player to get three tarbooshes wins.

There is even an “external political influence” card — another echo of Lebanon’s entrenched clientelism, which allows you to swap cards between players. “Because both players then have information about each other’s cards, they are now pitted against each other,” he said.

If you get the “political immunity” card, then you become immune to the influence of other cards. “This is a reference to how Lebanese politicians are abusing power today to hide away from law and justice because of their political immunity,” Kesrouwany said.

And of course, there’s the “wasta” card. “Wasta can illegally copy a card that was already played on the field. It’s like a cheat card.”

Given the in-your-face style of Wasta, some amount of backlash was perhaps inevitable. 




The view outside On Board restaurant in  Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut. (Supplied)

 “Bernard (the cartoonist) has enough guts to do whatever is needed through his art and relay the right message,” said Kesrouwany, who has also caught some flak. “It was troublesome for some people. I got some calls too, but I didn’t answer.”

As with so many other things in Lebanon, Kesrouwany’s board game injects charm and humor into an otherwise bleak situation, but with a kernel of hope.

“In the expanded version (created after the Beirut explosion), I focused on the fact that the game should still be fun and that makes people forget a little bit of the pain that they went through,” he said. “At the same time, the game needs to raise awareness, but always with some positivity. This is why I made cards representing the Lebanese diaspora.”

The new version does not go into detail about the explosion, the deaths, the destruction and the broken homes. “It was too painful — we Lebanese already feel like we’ve been going through a funeral for the past month,” he said.

“Lebanon is in a very messy situation now, but we will get through it and will overcome it with time by the sheer will to live.”

_______________________

Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets

Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets
Updated 18 min 42 sec ago

Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets

Jordan slams Israeli police bid to silence call to prayer at Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets
  • Israel is a signatory to numerous international treaties obliging it to respect the sanctity of holy places

AMMAN: Jordan on Wednesday condemned Israeli police for sabotaging door locks at four Al-Aqsa Mosque minarets in a bid to silence the Muslim call to prayer.

The move came after waqf officials, who oversee Jerusalem’s holy sites, refused to turn off loudspeakers on the first day of Ramadan. They said the Israelis had wanted it quiet while new soldiers prayed at the Buraq (Western) wall.

Jordanian officials claimed employees of the Jordan-run Jerusalem waqf and Al-Aqsa affairs department were harassed during the police operation.

Daifallah Al-Fayez, spokesman for the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, described the Israeli actions as a provocation against Muslims around the world and a violation of international law and the historical status quo.

He said that Al-Aqsa Mosque was a “pure” Islamic holy site and that the Jerusalem waqf department was “the sole authority” tasked with supervising all of its affairs.

A source at the Jerusalem Waqf Council told Arab News: “This is the first time since 1967 that Israeli occupiers have sabotaged locks in order to enter the minarets and physically cut off the electricity to the loudspeakers. And they pursued waqf officials and staff who refused to carry out their demands.”

Israel is a signatory to numerous international treaties obliging it to respect the sanctity of holy places.

An Israeli siren was sounded in Jerusalem at 8 p.m. on Tuesday as a tribute to the country’s 23,928 fallen soldiers with that day’s call for isha prayer in the city being at 8:29 p.m.

Hanna Issa, head of the Islamic-Christian Committee for Jerusalem, told Arab News that the Israeli action had been a violation of the 1998 Rome Convention and called on the international community to hold Israel to account.

Dimitri Diliani, president of the National Christian Coalition in the Holy Land, told Arab News that the incident was an attempt to stifle religious freedoms and represented an attack against Islamic holy places.

“In addition, this is a reflection of a racist policy of the Israeli occupiers that can’t accept anyone who is not Jewish,” he said.

Ahmad Tamimi, member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, urged international action to put an end to Israeli violations of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.


Houthis to prosecute abducted Yemeni model

Houthis to prosecute abducted Yemeni model
Updated 15 April 2021

Houthis to prosecute abducted Yemeni model

Houthis to prosecute abducted Yemeni model
  • Kidnapping of Al-Hammadi and two friends is latest attack by the Houthis on dissidents

AL-MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis plan to launch a criminal investigation against Entesar Al-Hammadi, a young Yemeni model and actress, who was abducted from a Sanaa street on Feb. 20, the model’s lawyer Khaled Mohammed Al-Kamal said on Wednesday.

The kidnapping of Al-Hammadi and two of her friends is the latest in a string of attacks by the Houthis on dissidents and liberal women in areas under the group’s control.

Al-Kamal told Arab News that a prosecutor from the rebel-controlled West Sanaa court will question Entesar on Sunday.

“My client was arrested without a warrant,” Al-Kamal said by telephone, giving no information about the Houthis’ explanation for the abduction.

Yemeni officials said the three actresses were traveling to shoot a drama series when the rebels stopped their vehicle on Sanaa’s Hadda Street and took them to an unknown location.

Al-Hammadi was born to a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother and pursued her ambition to become a model despite growing up in a conservative society. The 20-year-old first caught the public’s attention after she published images showing off traditional Yemeni costumes and she later appeared on a local television show talking about her dream of becoming an international supermodel.

The Houthis accused the abducted actresses of violating traditional Islamic dress codes.

Their detainment has sparked outrage inside and outside Yemen as human rights activists and government officials compared Houthi suppression of women to similar activities by terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh.

Moammar Al-Eryani, Yemen's minister for information, culture and tourism, said the rebels have launched a “systemic and organized” crackdown on Yemeni women in areas under their control.

“We call on the international community, the UN, the US envoys to Yemen and the women's protection organizations to condemn this crime and pressure the terrorist Houthi militia to immediately release the abductees,” the minister wrote on social media. “They must stop the extortion of women and release all disappeared women from their secret prisons unconditionally.”

Al-Hammadi told a local TV station last year that she wished she could travel abroad to work as a model, citing parental and societal resistance at home.

“It would be great if I was given an opportunity outside Yemen,” she said.

Social media users have blasted the Houthis for snatching women from the street.

Huda Al-Sarari, a Yemeni activist, said that the abduction of Al-Hammadi is part of “a dirty” campaign by the rebels against women.

“My solidarity is with my dear Entisar and with all male and female abductees inside the militia’s prisons,” she wrote on Twitter.

Amat Al-Salam Al-Hajj, chairwoman of the Mothers of Abductees Association, an umbrella organization for thousands of female relatives of war prisoners, told Arab News that the Houthis have “brazenly” committed crimes against dissidents and women amid “unexplained” silence of international rights organizations.

“The Houthis have abducted models and female activists and committed flagrant violations of human rights before the eyes and ears of the UN, human rights organizations, and everyone else,” she said.


GCC calls on world powers to include Gulf concerns in Iran nuclear talks

GCC calls on world powers to include Gulf concerns in Iran nuclear talks
Updated 15 April 2021

GCC calls on world powers to include Gulf concerns in Iran nuclear talks

GCC calls on world powers to include Gulf concerns in Iran nuclear talks
  • Nayef Al-Hajraf told P5+1 talks in Vienna should not be limited to the Iranian nuclear program
  • Arab League says Iran talks should also address the concerns of Arab countries

LONDON: The Iranian nuclear talks in Vienna must address the concerns and interests of Gulf countries to enhance security and stability in the region, the GCC secretary general said on Wednesday.
The comments by Nayef Al-Hajraf came in letters sent to the foreign ministers of the permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, UK, France, china and Russia — and Germany.
The talks in Vienna are aimed at finding a way for the US to re-enter Tehran’s nuclear agreement with world powers and have Iran comply again with its limits.
Al-Hajraf said the GCC is a major contributor to strengthening the security and stability of the region, and that the negotiations currently underway in Vienna should not be limited to the Iranian nuclear program, but rather should include Iran’s destabilizing behavior, ballistic missiles, and paths.
The talks have been thrown into disarray by a weekend attack on Iran’s main Natanz nuclear enrichment site suspected to have been carried out by Israel. Tehran retaliated by announcing it would enrich uranium up to 60 percent — higher than it ever has before but still lower than weapons-grade levels of 90 percent.
The GCC chief warned that Iran’s announcement of uranium enrichment is a dangerous and worrying indicator for regional and international security.
Saudi Arabia similarly issued a statement, saying enriching at that level “could not be considered a program intended for peaceful purposes.”
Al-Hajraf also called on the “international community to shoulder its responsibilities toward this dangerous and threatening development to regional and global peace and security.”

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said he was “deeply concerned” over Iran’s announcement of uranium enrichment, saying it is a “clear and certain step” toward developing a nuclear weapon and increases doubts about the real goals of Tehran’s nuclear program.
He also said that ongoing negotiations in Vienna should not be restricted to the nuclear aspect, but should also address the concerns of Arab countries regarding Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region and its continuous interference in their internal affairs.
(With AP)


Explosives-laden drone targets US forces at Iraq's Erbil airport

Explosives-laden drone targets US forces at Iraq's Erbil airport
Updated 15 April 2021

Explosives-laden drone targets US forces at Iraq's Erbil airport

Explosives-laden drone targets US forces at Iraq's Erbil airport
  • Kurdish region officials say drone was carrying TNT which it used to target the US forces
  • Erbil International Airport vicinity was also hit by a barrage of rockets in February

ERBIL: A drone dropped explosives near US forces stationed at Erbil airport in northern Iraq late on Wednesday, Kurdish officials said, with no immediate reports of casualties.
It was the first known attack carried out by an unmanned aerial drone against US forces in Erbil, amid a steady stream of rocket attacks on bases hosting US forces and the embassy in Baghdad that Washington blames on Iran-backed militias.
The interior ministry of the autonomous Kurdistan regional government, based in Erbil, said in a statement the drone was carrying TNT which it used to target the US forces. It said no one was hurt in the attack.
A group that Western and some Iraqi officials say is aligned with Iran praised the attack, but did not explicitly claim it.
A barrage of rockets hit the same US-led military base in the Erbil International Airport vicinity in February, killing a non-American contractor working with the US military.
Shortly before Wednesday's attack in Erbil, at least two rockets landed on and near a base to the west of the city that hosts Turkish forces, Iraqi security officials said.
Sirens at the US consulate in Erbil blared during the airport attack, witnesses said.
Turkey also has troops in Iraq both as part of a NATO contingent and a force that has attacked Kurdish separatist militants in the north.
The Iran-backed militias oppose both the presence of the United States and Turkey and demand a full withdrawal of all foreign troops.
The United States has sometimes responded with air strikes against Iran-aligned militias including on the Iraqi-Syrian border.


Turkey frees journalist Altan after European rights court ruling

Turkey frees journalist Altan after European rights court ruling
Updated 14 April 2021

Turkey frees journalist Altan after European rights court ruling

Turkey frees journalist Altan after European rights court ruling
  • Award-winning editor was jailed after writing politically-sensitive articles and columns critical of Erdogan and supporting Kurdish rights
  • Cassation Court’s Wednesday ruling overturned Altan’s conviction in the 2019 case related to charges of assisting a terrorist organisation

ISTANBUL : A Turkish court on Wednesday ordered the release of journalist and novelist Ahmet Altan after over four years in prison for involving in a failed 2016 coup attempt that he had always denied.
The Court of Cassation ruling came a day after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) demanded the 71-year-old’s freedom in a verdict that accused Turkey of violating his civil rights.
Altan’s lawyer Figen Calikusu told AFP that the writer was released from the Silivri prison on Istanbul’s western outskirts a few hours after the verdict was announced.
The award-winning novelist and newspaper editor was jailed after writing politically-sensitive articles and columns critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and supporting Kurdish rights.
The 71-year-old was arrested shortly after the putsch attempt as part of a purge of media organizations and accused of supporting the uprising by “disseminating subliminal messages to the public.”
He was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to overthrow the government — a ruling that was later quashed by Turkey’s top court.
But the case was re-examined and he was sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison for “knowingly supporting a terrorist organization” that was involved in the 2016 coup attempt.
“Very happy to hear Turkey’s Court of Cassation has just ordered the release of novelist Ahmet Altan after more than 4.5 years in jail,” the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur Nacho Sanchez Amor tweeted.
“Will be even happier after seeing him enjoying fully his freedom and all charges dropped. Hope all other (ECHR) rulings will be applied too.”
The Court of Cassation ruling came as Erdogan mounts a charm offensive aimed at mending torn relations with the European Union and building a new rapport with the US administration of President Joe Biden.
EU leaders highlighted Turkey’s deteriorating human rights record during a summit in Ankara last week.
Biden’s White House has also made human rights a much bigger issue in US-Turkish relations than it had been in the former administration of Donald Trump.
Turkish officials argue that the courts are independent and not swayed by politics or Erdogan’s whims.
But critics accuse Erdogan of stacking them with supporters during the sweeping purges that followed the coup attempt.
Western observers have thus been watching the case of Altan and some other famous prisoners for signs of Turkey’s diplomatic intentions and future political course.
Perhaps the most celebrated case involves civil society leader Osman Kavala — in custody without a conviction for nearly four years and re-arrested after being cleared of all charges in 2019.
Altan was also briefly freed and cleared of all charges before being almost immediately rearrested in 2019.
The Court of Cassation ruling on Wednesday overturned his conviction in the 2019 case related to charges of “assisting a terrorist organization.”
He had turned to the ECHR for help in 2017 after calling the charges against him “grotesque.”
The Strasbourg-based rights court on Tuesday found “no evidence that the actions of the applicant had been part of a plan to overthrow the government.”
It ordered Turkey to immediately release him and pay him 16,000 euros ($19,000) in damages for violating his rights to freedom of expression.
“Deprivation of liberty, in particular continued detention, must be based on reasonable suspicion,” the ECHR ruling said.
The ECHR “found that the applicant’s criticisms of the president’s political approach could not be seen as an indication that he had had prior knowledge of the attempted coup,” it added.