‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese

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Lebanese businessman Elie Kesrouwany, creator of Wasta. (Arab News photo by Firas Haidar)
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Customers play Wasta at On Board, Elie Kesrouwany's restaurant in Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut, is one of the few here that remain open. (Supplied)
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Lebanese businessman, Elie Kesrouwany, creator of Wasta. (Supplied)
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Inside On Board restaurant in Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut. (Supplied)
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Updated 24 November 2020

‘Wasta’ makes mockery of cronyism fair game for Lebanese

  • Elie Kesrouwany’s board game offers a satirical take on the country’s dysfunctional politics and nepotism
  • Inspired by the ‘thawra’ protests of Oct. 2019, the game features illustrations by cartoonist Bernard Hage

BEIRUT: In the Zero 4 shopping hub in Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut, Elie Kesrouwany sits at a table sipping his morning coffee, surrounded by stacks of board games. With Lebanon’s economy on the rocks and the coronavirus outbreak forcing stores to close, Kesrouwany’s business, On Board, is one of the few here that remain open.

Lying sprawled across the table is a deck of comically illustrated cards from his latest creation: Wasta.

The board game, inspired by the anti-government protests that swept Lebanon in October 2019, is an exercise in witty seriousness and black humor. The illustrations, by popular cartoonist Bernard Hage, highlight what many Lebanese view as the bane of their lives: corruption, clientilism and nepotism.

Elements of this entrenched culture have also been held responsible for the Beirut port blast on Aug. 4, when nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing more than 200 people and leaving 300,000 homeless.

“I wanted to criticize society, particularly present Lebanese society,” said Kesrouwany, who lost several friends in the blast. “We are in huge pain every day. My entire generation has been suffering from our present predicament and these warlords in the government have been there for years sucking the blood of this country.”

Wasta, which takes its name from an Arabic word for political and social influence or sway, is commonly used to denote an individual’s powerful connections used to rig opportunities in their favor.

The game was first released in June, two months before the port explosion, and sold out its first batch of 500 units in just two weeks.




Illustrations by popular cartoonist Bernard Hage. (Supplied)

It has been so popular, particularly among the Lebanese diaspora, that Kesrouwany is now creating an English-language version and an expanded second edition, with new illustrated characters to correspond with the country’s latest travails.

Kesrouwany, who worked as a librarian for 17 years before establishing his business, says he has long been a lover of these humble tabletop games — a vanishing pastime in the age of smartphones and gaming consoles.

“I began collecting board games in the trunk of my car and would go into coffee shops and offer games for people to play,” Kesrouwany told Arab News. “I then organized board game nights. It was a side gig at the time and one I was greatly passionate about.”

Kesrouwany was inspired to establish his own premises following a visit to London, where he encountered an avid community of board gamers. And so, on Dec. 22, 2019, at the height of Lebanon’s revolution — known in Arabic as the “thawra” — he opened On Board, a coffee shop for board-game lovers.

“It was my dream to create a game community in Lebanon open to all ethnicities and different religious affiliations under the umbrella of having fun,” he said. “It was an anti-sectarian space.”

It was during Lebanon’s coronavirus lockdown earlier this year that the inspiration for Wasta struck. Here was a creative and enjoyable way to speak out. “Having fun is a clever way to slip ideas into the minds of people that are hard to talk to,” Kesrouwany said.

Wasta players compete using points-weighted cards, each depicting a different facet of Lebanese society. Among the characters are the sectarian thug, the banker, the mother, the journalist, the soldier and the sheep (who blindly follow the government).

While the symbolism of each card offers a crash course in the different characters that make up Lebanese society, the genius of the game lies in the way the cards interact with one another when played.

IN NUMBERS

  • 89% Lebanese who reported corruption in government as a big problem in 2019.
  • 68% Lebanese who thought most or all government officials are involved in corruption. 
  • 28/100 Lebanon’s score in 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures public-sector corruption.

The starting player (obviously a Lebanese person) is the last person who managed to withdraw “fresh money” or US dollars from the banks. “This is a sardonic twist to the start, as recently the banks weren’t parting with US dollars anymore,” said Kesrouwany.

Since April of this year, Lebanese banks have forced customers with dollar accounts to withdraw Lebanese pounds at a fraction of the black-market rate. Now the Lebanese, ever creative in their response to sudden change and instability, must exchange their “fresh money,” when they have it, on the black market to get the best value, as the Lebanese pound continues to slide.

“The game is based on kicking other players out of the game and the objective is to either have the highest number or be the last man standing at the table. The most powerful card in the game is the Lebanese flag, which is number 8. So, if you have this card in your hand and the whole deck is done, then you win the game.

“However, on the card there is a small sentence that reads that if you throw the Lebanese flag from your hand, then you lose your dignity and are out of the game.”




Cartoonist Bernard Hage in his studio. (Arab News photo by Firas Haidar)

Some aspects of the game mirror Lebanon’s system of political patronage. “The player who has the sheep picks his political leader (another player) and he follows him blindly. And if that leader wins the game, the player that played the sheep also wins a round and gains a tarboosh,” he said.

When players win a hand, they win a tarboosh — the iconic Middle Eastern felt hat. The first player to get three tarbooshes wins.

There is even an “external political influence” card — another echo of Lebanon’s entrenched clientelism, which allows you to swap cards between players. “Because both players then have information about each other’s cards, they are now pitted against each other,” he said.

If you get the “political immunity” card, then you become immune to the influence of other cards. “This is a reference to how Lebanese politicians are abusing power today to hide away from law and justice because of their political immunity,” Kesrouwany said.

And of course, there’s the “wasta” card. “Wasta can illegally copy a card that was already played on the field. It’s like a cheat card.”

Given the in-your-face style of Wasta, some amount of backlash was perhaps inevitable. 




The view outside On Board restaurant in  Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers outside Beirut. (Supplied)

 “Bernard (the cartoonist) has enough guts to do whatever is needed through his art and relay the right message,” said Kesrouwany, who has also caught some flak. “It was troublesome for some people. I got some calls too, but I didn’t answer.”

As with so many other things in Lebanon, Kesrouwany’s board game injects charm and humor into an otherwise bleak situation, but with a kernel of hope.

“In the expanded version (created after the Beirut explosion), I focused on the fact that the game should still be fun and that makes people forget a little bit of the pain that they went through,” he said. “At the same time, the game needs to raise awareness, but always with some positivity. This is why I made cards representing the Lebanese diaspora.”

The new version does not go into detail about the explosion, the deaths, the destruction and the broken homes. “It was too painful — we Lebanese already feel like we’ve been going through a funeral for the past month,” he said.

“Lebanon is in a very messy situation now, but we will get through it and will overcome it with time by the sheer will to live.”

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


Egyptian festival celebrates Aragouz traditions

Updated 25 November 2020

Egyptian festival celebrates Aragouz traditions

  • The festival this year sheds light on the creative icons that inspired the aragouz

CAIRO: The second Egyptian Aragouz Festival has opened on Nov. 24, at the ancient Bayt Al-Sinnari, in Cairo. The aragouz is a traditional puppet figure dressed in red invented by Egyptians to ridicule situations comically.

Khaled Bahgat, a professor of theater at Helwan University and the founder of the festival and the Wamda Troupe for Aragouz and Shadow Puppets, said the festival is part of the initiative to preserve the Egyptian aragouz, after it was recognized by UNESCO in 2018 as one of the most important Egyptian artistic elements. He said that he wants the Egyptian art of aragouz to reach the world because it is an ancient Egyptian art.

The festival this year sheds light on the creative icons that inspired the aragouz.

The festival opened with a tribute to the great Egyptian creator Abu Al-Saud Al-Abyari in a reading of his story “Aragouz, Author and Idea,” which he published in 1953. Al-Aragouz was an important source of creativity for Al-Abyari.

The reading was followed by entries exploring how the art of aragouz shaped Egyptian comedy in the twentieth century.

The day closed with puppet performances of “The social media aragouz,” which reflected the impact of social media, directed by Ali Abu Zeid, and “The aragouz in the city,” directed by Nabil Bahgat.

On the second day, Reem Heggab will honor her father the late Egyptian poet Said Heggab, reciting one of his poems on the aragouz. This will be followed by two aragouz shows, “The Take Away,” directed by Mahmoud Sayed Hanafi, and “Aragouz, the Land of Myths.”

On Thursday, the theater department of the University of Alexandria will celebrate the aragouz with a lecture by Hany Abou El-Hassan, the head of the department, a workshop and a performance titled “Lorca and the aragouz,” directed by Nabil Bahgat and presented by the Wamda Troupe.

The performance honors the creativity of the Spanish poet and innovator Federico García Lorca, and will be held in the presence of the Spanish cultural attache.

The fourth day of the festival will honor the poet Fouad Haddad, whose son Amin Haddad will recite several poems from his father’s book of poetry entitiled Al-Aragouz. The poetry reading will be followed by a discussion.

Then there will be performances of “Aragouz Al Sima,” directed by Mustafa Al-Sabbagh, and “Al-Aragouz in Danger,” which deals with the greatest challenges facing the art of aragouz.

On the last day, the Faculty of Arts at Helwan University and the Department of Theater Sciences’ troupe will hold an open seminar with the department’s students to discuss ways to preserve the Egyptian aragouz.

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