Saturday, September 1, 2012

Saturday Diary / The importance of playing card games - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

On the last Sunday in May, as the sun set on my second day in Pittsburgh and all that is warm and hopeful about weekends faded, I watched through my small bathroom window a tablecloth being laid.

Maha, as I later learned was her name, short and silent, draped a white sheet over a flimsy plastic table, then placed an ash tray on the table's edge and hung a yellow workman's lamp from a clothesline above.

The formality seemed out of place. There were no signs of ceremony in the house, and the back porch where Maha made her preparations barely had room for chairs.

Through my single-square-foot bathroom window, above a toilet wedged so close to a radiator I???d decided the day before that the bathroom at work would have to serve my needs for the summer, I watched Maha smooth out her tablecloth like the prince of Forbes Avenue was waiting out front.

And then, just before 7 p.m., that Sunday night, as on every Sunday night for 25 years, Ivan, Mo and Tony filed around the table to play cards.


As a child, I hated card games. The hours would go buried under jokers and kings, I feared, while the day's light was lost. "Wanna play outside?" I'd prod my younger brother.

But two years ago I went to Bani Na'im in Palestine and learned to play canasra.

Bani Na'im is a small, dusty village in the southern West Bank where biblical Lot is buried and where four Israelis were killed in 2010 in a Hamas drive-by shooting. Nearby, new homes sprout in lush Israeli settlements. In Bani Na'im, where seven families make up most of the population, women stay at home at night and the men play cards.

I'd gone to Bani Na'im during a year off from school to teach English and explore, and, at first, the town's card habit turned me off. For hours every night in a dark coffee shop, men sucked on hookah pipes under bushy black mustaches as they dealt hand after hand of canasra. The game seemed to embody much of what I found troubling about Bani Na'im: conformity to ritual, resistance to self-examination, exclusion of women.

Then one night, Muhammad, a university student, told me the story of canasra. The game had traveled from Brazil to Bani Na'im in the hands of a local resident who'd gone there on business. The people in Bani Na'im liked it because canasra rhymes with Manassra, Muhammed's last name and the name of the largest family in the village. It caught on, and the people had been playing it since.

In the hard, sparse space of Bani Na'im, canasra's story seemed like poetry. I'd seen how superstition could circumscribe opportunity in the town. Now, with the help of Muhammad's story, I saw how it could attach people to their most important values: family, community, intimacy dependent not on activity or ambition but simply on shared physical presence.

Bani Na'im's residents may have been missing out on opportunities for open conversation or self-enrichment when they huddled around cards. But they played because people before them had played. Because canasra rhymes with Manassra. In that loud, dusty coffee shop, I learned what worlds could open when I stopped asking where else I could be.


That first Sunday night in Pittsburgh, as I lingered over worries about new people, new work and faulty Internet connections, the card game next door steadied me. The smoke that rose from the porch, the coffee they cradled like an elixir, the tablecloth that said this game was more than a game -- all brought me back to Bani Na'im and reminded me that while I fretted, people played.

I went back to my bathroom window every Sunday night after that. Sometimes I watched the game in passing and other times because, in a moment of doubt that the pleasures of one week would have any permanence into the next, I felt I needed the view.

One recent Sunday, my last in Pittsburgh, I asked my neighbors if I could play. Ahlan wa sahlan, Maha said. You're welcome. She told me to return at 6:30 p.m.

From up close, the men's Arabic was softer against the green grass than I'd remembered it in Bani Na'im. The men's smoke rose from cigars and Marlboros, not the hookah pipes I'd imagined. I didn't play; I just watched and ate watermelon. But between rounds of konkan, an Arabic game, we talked.

"All they care about is partying," said Ivan, a Syrian, when I asked him if he ever talks to the Carnegie Mellon students who usually live next door. He'd opened a restaurant in Pittsburgh after coming to Duquesne to study Hegel and Heidegger. "No money in philosophy." Since then, he's been playing cards every Sunday.

"Why?" I asked him.

"It kills time. Don't bother anybody, nobody bothers you."

With that I left. I walked to Rita's in Squirrel Hill, where with fellow interns I paid allegiance to my own Sunday ritual. And when I returned, the men were still playing, their eyes down and their thick hands scattering cards as if Monday's rising sun depended on it.

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