The Game of Far Away Land

post 298/365


The chattering of women flows in the room as the soothing sounds of shells being thrown on a piece of velvet fabric drowns the noises. Children play as women gather around a small piece of hand-embroidered cloth. Barjis although a dying game, yet somehow it has managed to survive so far.

Barjis is a cloth board game, usually beautifully embroidered on a velvet piece of cloth, mostly in black, but sometimes white, with a four-armed layout and floral decorative motifs, and folds up, along with the game pieces, into a beautiful suede wallet. It comes along with 6 cowrie shells for count, instead of dice. Metal pawns move around four gridded rectangles on the board racing to the winning spot, located in the center and curiously named the kitchen (what other name could women give to the center of that game but the kitchen, proving again that it was created by women). The number of points is counted depending on how the shells fall on the platform. The game is for two players. They decide which columns are to be the home columns; these must be opposing one another and not contain a bange square (i.e. that marked with an oblique line: /). Each player’s bange square will thus be in the next column to the right. The winner of the game is the first to get all four pieces into the kitchen. A single upright cowry (dost) allows entry onto the board, whereas throws of 2-4 upright cowries are referred to by Arabic numbers and 5 is referred to as benj. A throw of 6 allows a double move; a throw where the cowries are upside down is referred to as shaki.

Barjis was an essential item in the “dowry” of the Beiruti and Damascene bride, until the mid-twentieth century. It was the common entertainment option for the women who used to spend their afternoons in the closed courtyards or Dar of the old traditional houses.

In earlier times the board was made at home and embroidered by the women themselves. The pieces are today usually made of metal but they were originally made of wood. They represent horses and soldiers. The players take turns to throw the six dice (wada), which are cowrie shells. The shells comprise two distinct sides, teeth and circles. Moves are determined by the combination of circles and teeth thrown. The object of the game is to move all one’s pieces round the board and into the kitchen (mutbakh) before the opponent. When the dice are thrown, the player moves according to the combination of teeth and circles: 6 teeth = bara
5 teeth and 1 circle = bange

It seems that the game originates from a non Arabic-speaking country as many of the names of the throws are not Arabic (e.g. dust, which allows a player to move eleven squares). The Aleppo names of the throws, that is, the scoring combinations are not Arabic, but completely comprehensible as Persian:

  • 1  yak (yek)
  • 2  dwa (do)
  • 3  ca (she)
  • 4 ghar (chahar)
  • 5 bang (panj)
  • 6 shesh (shesh)

With the alternative, more detailed Aleppo tradition noted above, however, the throw names are a mixture of Arabic (3 and 4) and Persian (2, 5 and 6), while in Lebanon there is an even greater mixture. Among the latter names, however, dost, bara and shaka are neither Arabic nor Persian.

dost ithnen thalata arba benj shaki (Lebanese version): These names are in general used by players, who will have absorbed them automatically when they learned the game as youngsters, unaware that they are real number names in Persian, or even in other languages. The Levanatine terms hal, dost/dust and bara above then are derived not from Persian numbers, but somehow directly from Indian ones. In his summary documentation of the spread and distribution of the well-known game of Pachisi, H. J. R. Murray refers to a form of the game current among the Arabs of Palestine under the name barjis, amalgamating it – on unclear grounds with the Spanish version, known as parchís.

The game is an import attributed to Ottoman times; the numbers used leaves us no alternative but the conclusion that the game arrived from the East. The dependence of the Levantine game on its Indian ancestor is in every way clear, despite the consistent reduction to two players, instead of the characteristic four.

Such specific details as (inter alia) the very name of the game, the highest possible score, the use of broken-backed cowries for dice, the piling-up of scores until the final scoring throw and the subsequent divisible use of the total, more than one possible point of entry, or the “lying-down” of pieces on their return up the central track, are readily paralleled in versions of Pachisi in many parts of India. There can be no doubt that the game has come ultimately to the Arab world from India.

The simple evidence of the Persian numbers confirms that the game must have come through Iran, the exotic names travelling with the game, exactly as, to cite obvious parallels, occurred with chess and the names of the chessmen, or with backgammon, shesh-besh, “six-five,” (where shesh is Persian, and besh Turkish), and the names of the throws.

Pachisi, an Indian game, is seldom played in Persia. The Persian name of the game is Pachîs or Pichâs, the latter evidently a corruption of the former, the original Indian word. On present evidence, then, we cannot know whether Pachisi, spreading westwards from India through Persia, reached the Levant and Palestine in the twentieth century, the nineteenth century, or even earlier.

This beautifully simple yet complex game has travelled along the Silk Road, from India, to Persia, to Europe and made its way to the Levantine world. It has managed although with some minor modification to adapt and survive. It is quiet astonishing how tales, food, and cultural custom survive not only from one generation to the next but travel longitudinally creating a network linking us humanity together, all of that is done through a simple game made out of a fabric, shells, and wood. That is the true exquisiteness of Barjis.

(pictures taken from the internet)

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