Finding people playing card games in the Arab world these days is as ubiquitous as finding falafel stands; in other words, they’re everywhere.
Arabs adopted their love of playing cards from the Chinese who are believed to have invented them around the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century A.D. when the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang, Princess Tongchang, was seen playing the “leaf game” in 868 with members of her husband’s family from the Wei clan.
Two hundred years later, playing cards made their way into Egypt. We know that because fragments from the oldest surviving playing cards were found here and believed to date back to the late Fatimid, Ayyubid, and early Mamluk periods of the 12th and 13th centuries. Four of the five surviving fragments can be found in the Keir Collection, one of the greatest post-war collections of Islamic art, now hosted by the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas Texas; the other fragment is at in the Benaki Museum located in Athens, Greece. Interestingly, playing cards were once exported from Cairo, Alexandria, and Damascus but ceased after the fall of the Mamluks in the 16th century. Though the rules of the games they played have been lost to the ages, they are believed to be plain trick games without trumps.
Now, more than 700 years later, you’ll still find Arabs playing cards in their houses, their cars, their local cafes and even in their offices (for as the Arabs say: “غابَ القِطّ لَعِب الفَأْر”/ “ghab alqit laeib alfar” / “When the cat’s away, the mice will play”…usually tarneeb or trix). Speaking of tarneeb and trix, what are these and some other card games that Arabs have been playing for the last few centuries?
Tarneeb was created by Arabs hundreds of years ago, yet it’s still the most popular card game among the Arabic speaking countries (and for some strange reason, Tanzania) today; however, trying to explain the rules and how to play tarneeb in just a few sentences of a website blog is nearly impossible. In fact, there are actually whole websites devoted to the subject, so let’s just start with a relatively simple explanation: tarneeb is popular tricks card game played among four players divided into two teams, using a standard 52-card deck of playing cards. Though tarneeb is fast-paced and high competitive, game play can last for hours.
Another one of the popular Arab card games is baloot which may or may not be related to the French card game Belote. Whatever the case, you will not find anyone in the Gulf countries who doesn’t know how to play baloot. And with the advent of downloadable apps and games to your smartphone, there is no IOS or Android device that doesn’t have this digital card game installed on it.
Also known as hand, the conquian card game is the Arabic edition of the Rummy; in fact, many countries of North Africa still call it Rummy as conquian and Rummy basically follow the same rules. Mostly popular in the Levant region, you can also find people playing it in other Middle Eastern countries, especially the Gulf. Though it’s has slower game play than tarneeb, once the game gets going, neighbors living miles away will know who’s playing and where they’re playing hand because of the loud, excited voices. Incidentally, this is usually the first card game that Arab kids learn, which means playing leads to memories of happy times spent with the family.
The trix card game (also called tricks or trex) has started to gain popularity in many houses and dorm rooms of the Middle East. Perhaps the French game Barbu is the closest card game to the modern version of trix, where the king of hearts can also determine your fate. Indeed, the kings play a very big role in this game as they decide which “kingdom” or cycle get’s played.
These four games are the most popular games throughout the Middle East region, and if you would like to learn to play them, thanks to modern technology, you can find a variety of games available for download to your smartphone to get you started.
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