Like chess, the checkered board features 64 boxes and each player has 16 pieces of ‘hatba’ (wood). Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: A 5,000-year-old board game sometimes called the “Arabic chess” is garnering special attention at ‘Sharjah Heritage Days’ (SHD) in the Heart of Sharjah.

Al Damah pavilion is celebrating the namesake board game popular in the Gulf and Arab world, and promoting it to a new generation of Emiratis and UAE residents.

The 18th edition of SHD, themed ‘Cultural Heritage Gathers Us’, is organised by the Sharjah Institute for Heritage. Preserving the UAE and the wider region’s heritage, including games such as Al Damah, is part of its mission. On the opening day of the festival (Saturday), Emiratis young and old gathered around the pavilion in the heritage area at Heart of Sharjah, one of the two venues in Sharjah where the three-week festival will run its course.

How is it played?

Both seasoned players and curious novices take turns at the board, in the game that could be described a cross between chess and draughts.

Like chess, the checkered board features 64 boxes and each player has 16 pieces of ‘hatba’ (wood). But unlike chess, the rules are different. The pieces may only move one square ahead, straight or sideways, or make alternate jumps between the opponent’s pieces, if gaps exist. The aim, of course, is to remove all the opponent’s hatba off the board.

‘Fun and strategic’

“It is a mind-game, one that is fun but also strategic,” said Yaqoub Yousef, a veteran Al Damah player from Bahrain who is at the festival to promote the game. “Al Damah is immensely popular in Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar and also in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. The Gulf countries have dedicated ‘Majlis Al Damah’ playing areas where players can compete and improve their skills. It took off in the UAE around 10 years ago. Today, we’re keen on passing it on to the younger generation to preserve the heritage of this brilliant leisure activity.”

Hundreds of events

With over 500 events and activities offering visitors an opportunity to learn about and experience the foods, clothing, handicrafts, dances and traditions of the UAE and the world, SHD brings together 29 countries this year. The three-week festival (March 20 to April 10) will be open to visitors from 4pm to 10pm on weekdays and until midnight on weekends.

Emirati folklore

A highlight of this year’s SHD is the eight Emirati folkloric arts and dances — Ayyala, Nuban, Andima, Razif and Rawahh, Harbiya, Liwa, Habban, and Daan — taking place in the Heart of Sharjah district and the Khorfakkan heritage area.

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A highlight of this year’s SHD is the eight Emirati folkloric arts and dances. Image Credit: Supplied

While instantly recognisable with its use of thin wooden sticks, most people are unfamiliar with the fact that Ayyala dancing is inscribed on UNESCO’s ‘Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’.

What is Ayyala?

Featuring two rows of men who dance facing each other, the Ayyala is guided through songs or poetry from a leader designated as Al Abu (father), while the men create a dual chorus, waving the sticks in a rhythmic fashion. Ayyala is also characterised by the artists who play special instruments in the middle of the dancers. While Ayyala dancing may seem uniform and standard in movement to a regular viewer, there are moves and nuances that form a narrative and story.