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BEIRUT: In the Zero 4 shopping center in Antelias, a small town just 3 miles from Beirut, Elie Kesrouwany sits at a table sipping his morning coffee, surrounded by piles of board games. With the Lebanese economy on the rocks and the coronavirus outbreak forcing stores to close, Kesrouwany’s company On Board is one of the few here to stay open.

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

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

Elements of this ingrained culture were also blamed for the Beirut Port explosion on August 4, when nearly 3,000 tonnes of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded, killing over 200 people and leaving 300,000 without. -shelter.

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“I wanted to criticize society, especially current Lebanese society,” said Kesrouwany, who lost several friends in the blast. “We suffer tremendously every day. My entire generation is suffering from our current predicament and these government warlords have been here for years sucking the blood of this country.

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

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

Illustrations by the famous designer Bernard Hage. (Provided)

It has been so popular, especially among the Lebanese diaspora, that Kesrouwany is in the process of creating an English version and a second enlarged edition, with new characters illustrated to match the country’s latest struggles.

Kesrouwany, who worked as a librarian for 17 years before starting his business, says he has long been a lover of these humble tabletop games – a dying hobby in the age of smartphones and consoles. games.

“I started collecting board games in the trunk of my car and I went to cafes and offered games to people,” Kesrouwany told Arab News. “I then organized board game evenings. It was a parallel concert at the time and I was very passionate about it.

Kesrouwany was inspired to establish his own premises after a visit to London, where he met a passionate community of plateau players. So, on December 22, 2019, at the height of the Lebanese revolution – known in Arabic as “thawra” – he opened On Board, a café for board game enthusiasts.

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

It was during the coronavirus lockdown in Lebanon earlier this year that Wasta’s inspiration struck. Here’s a creative and fun way to express yourself. “Having fun is a smart way to get ideas into the minds of people who are difficult to talk to,” Kesrouwany said.

Wasta players compete against each other using point-weighted cards, each representing a different side of Lebanese society. The characters include 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 how the cards interact with each other when played.

IN NUMBERS

  • 89% of Lebanese who reported corruption to the government as a big problem in 2019.

  • 68% of Lebanese who believed that most or all government officials were involved in corruption

  • 28/100 Lebanon’s score in the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures corruption in the public sector.

The starting player (obviously a Lebanese) is the last person who has succeeded in withdrawing “fresh money” or US dollars from the banks. “It’s a sardonic twist at first, because recently the banks were no longer parting with US dollars,” Kesrouwany said.

As of April 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, always creative in their response to sudden changes and instability, must trade their “fresh money”, when they have it, on the black market to get the best value for money, while the pound Lebanese continues to slide.

“The game is based on kicking other players out of the game and the goal is either to have the most numbers or to 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 game is over, you win the game.

“However, on the map there is a little sentence that says if you throw the Lebanese flag out of your hand you lose your dignity and are out of the game.”

The designer Bernard Hage in his studio. (Arab News Photo by Firas Haidar)

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

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

There is even a “foreign political influence” card – another echo of clientelism rooted in Lebanon, which allows cards to be exchanged between players. “Because the two players then have information about each other’s cards, they are now opposites,” he said.

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

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

Considering the style of Wasta in your face, perhaps some reaction was inevitable.

The view outside Restaurant On Board in Antelias, a small town just 5 kilometers from Beirut. (Provided)

“Bernard (the designer) has enough courage to do whatever is necessary through his art and deliver the right message,” said Kesrouwany, who also caught a review. “It was embarrassing for some people. I also received calls, but I did not answer. “

As with so much else in Lebanon, Kesrouwany’s board game injects charm and humor into an otherwise bleak situation, but with a core of hope.

“In the extended version (created after the Beirut explosion), I focused on the fact that gaming should always be fun and that people kind of forget the pain they’ve endured,” he said. declared. “At the same time, the game must raise awareness, but always with a certain positivity. This is why I made cards representing the Lebanese diaspora.

The new version does not go into details about the explosion, deaths, destruction and broken houses. “It was too painful – we Lebanese have already felt like we have lived through a funeral for a month,” he said.

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

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor

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