In Iraq, a Ramadan game called Mheibbis brings even Sunnis and Shiites together in peaceful competition. A ring game traditionally played between neighborhoods during the holy month, Mheibbis has offered men the opportunity to break Baghdad's tension and offer messages of unity and brotherhood — even between rival sects.
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Now to Baghdad and a story that challenges the perception that all Sunnis and Shiites hate each other. Some do, but in many areas they are neighbors, classmates and coworkers. In the past, at least, they have intermarried. NPR's Alice Fordham found them competing in a hard-fought Ramadan game.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: There's a kind of serious hilarity to this scene, as people get ready to play the game of Mheibbis. We are here, in the garden club in Jadriya in Baghdad in the afternoon. It's during Ramadan, but it doesn't seem to be being very strictly observed. There's quite a lot of cups of tea being drunk and cigarettes being smoked. And the men are getting into white robes and lining up against crimson and orange silk curtains as they prepare to split into two teams and play this game of deceit.
ADEL AL QAISY: (Through translator) Honestly, I spent 50 years playing this game.
FORDHAM: So says Adel al Qaisy, the leader of one of the teams.
ADEL AL QAISY: (Through translator) This game is only in Iraq - not in other Arab countries. Since the Abbasi Empire, it's a heritage and we maybe will become more and more, more years - it's just Iraqi specific game.
FORDHAM: Qaisy explains Mheibbis, this traditional Ramadan entertainment. From a team of around 30 men, one is chosen to hide a ring in his hand. All 30 then assume faces of stony indifference as the captain of the other team tries to guess who's hiding it. If he guesses right, his team gets a point. And how many points do you need to win?
QAISY: Eleven - maybe 13.
FORDHAM: Eleven, maybe 13?
QAISY: Maybe 13, maybe 16, maybe 21.
FORDHAM: Well that's clear. Qaisy moves off to join in the manly singing and dancing that's a big part of the preparation to play.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in Arabic).
FORDHAM: The opposing team leader, Abbas Tabra, comes to sit with me. He says they used to play at night outside, but these days a bomber might attack their noisy crowds. He is fed up with the sectarian violence that has become a lethal part of life here.
ABBAS TABRA: (Arabic spoken).
FORDHAM: We don't have this thing, he says. In the ordinary neighborhoods, we don't have it. I'm Sunni but my nephews, my uncles are Shiite. In fact, the game today is between men from a Shiite-dominated neighborhood called Qambar Ali and a Sunni one, Zayona. The guys say they quite often invite a neighborhood from the other sect over to play as a kind of Ramadan gesture of goodwill.
RAED ABBAS: (Arabic spoken).
FORDHAM: This man, Raed Abbas, is watching the game. He's from a Shiite area and says they go over to Sunni areas for friendly games.
ABBAS: (Arabic spoken).
FORDHAM: It's a message of unity - of brotherhood, he says. There's even an elegant man with silver rings on his long fingers who's a commander in the Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army. He tells me that these games are 100 percent a chance to show cross-sectarian brotherhood - second only to supporting the national soccer team.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Arabic spoken).
FORDHAM: A couple hours after the allotted time, we're ready to start the game. A master of ceremonies in an embroidered hat recites a poem of welcome. To pick who goes first, a coin is flung in the air. The ring is hidden, and abruptly, all that exuberance disappears. Thirty faces immediately assume the kind of aggressive nonchalance you wouldn't sit next to on the bus. Our team leader, Adel Qaisy, moves up and down peering into the men's eyes. He eliminates as he goes, gets down to the last few guys and then...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Arabic spoken).
FORDHAM: He gets it wrong - one points to Qambar Ali.
FORDHAM: But the games go on all night. And they might be a good chance for reaching out. But as one competitor, Sadeq Abu Zahra, tells me, we're still merciless.
SADEQ ABU ZAHRA: (Arabic spoken).
FORDHAM: He says of course - they're wars.
ABU ZAHRA: (Laughing).
FORDHAM: Alice Fordham, NPR News, Baghdad.
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