Walking inside a local Egyptian coffee shop, an ahwa, you instantly hear the almost synchronised clacking of dice on a wooden platform, the shouts of men in triumph or the groans of failure. The sound of many stones being shuffled and thrown resembles something near to an aggressive physical competition rather than a board game. It is a soundtrack of any ahwa will have this.
An ahwa is where you can find Egyptians post working hours, during lunch breaks or at any random time of the day. The community ahwa is to older generations what social media is to young Egyptians. The inclusivity of the ahwa in people’s lives is illustrated in the popular Egyptian dictum for the unemployed, “sitting in an ahwa.” Politics are discussed, jokes are shared, sports watched and, most importantly, an endless competition is ongoing between the local tawla players, a tradition started by the gamers from yesteryear.
Each ahwa is claimed by residents of the area as their own and in a recent trend all ages can be found within the coffee shops. Men visit their favourite ahwa with the expectation to find the usual company, and they are seldom disappointed.
Older generations built their communities around tawla. Small units of men sit around a table watching the competitive match between two of their acquaintances. The severity of the situation is apparent on their faces as they know that a reputation is on the line. Each group has an expert who they hope to someday dethrone. The years spent on tawla is epitomised through the players who have deciphered every strategy available. Every possible combination of the dice is preemptively considered and every move by the opponent is identified. For an amateur its hell to have all of your moves predicted and preempted, for an expert it is par for the course to anticipate every possibility.
Backgammon or tawla is one of the oldest board games in the world, with historical records showing it being present in Persia in 3000B.C.E. It is played using stones called ishat in Egyptian Arabic and the pieces move according to the roll of two small dice. A player wins by removing all his pieces off the board before his opponent manages to do so. Many variants exist such as a’ada, mahbousa or wahed w’talateen. In Egypt, Turkish and Farsi names are given to every sequence the dice generate, for example a dice combination producing a 5 and a 6 is called shesh beesh while two 6’s are called dosh. Yak,do,seh, gohar, bang, and shesh are the names of numbers in Farsi that are used by everyone playing tawla in Egypt. The reason behind the use of Farsi numbers is unknown however it may be related to the game starting in Persia 5000 years ago.
In the small alleys of every city of Egypt an ahwa can be found and in every ahwa it is almost certain you will find a tawla board. Recently, even high-end cafés are striving to attain gaming licenses to provide tawla for eager gamers. Women who grew up playing tawla at home and do not have the privilege of going to a local ahwa, still mostly a male affaire, are now finding opponents at cafés.
The distraction and relaxation produced by a good game of tawla provides an ease to the stressful life Egyptians face every day. Time spent in the local ahwa down the street is almost a necessity to many Egyptians and it is considered a way to make the days pass easier. Husbands temporarily flee their homes and unemployed youth find a temporary respite of the endless rounds of searching for a job by rolling the dice and triumphing. Even if these victories are small, the complete engagement, the use of finely honed skills and the participation of the patrons of the ahwa all provide a moment of joy and relaxation that are by no means insignificant considering the pressures of society.