This article appeared in the Nov. 29, ’03 edition of The Economist


    As an aid to hunting Baathist fugitives, the Pentagon devised a poker deck featuring Saddam Hussein as the ace of spades. But America's sleuths might do better to borrow their methods from Iraq's own favourite parlour game, which is known as mahabis (rhyming with cannabis).

    It takes a rather large parlour to stage a proper mahabis match, so the game is often played outdoors, traditionally during the long nights of Ramadan. The object is to find a hidden mahbas, or signet ring. Two teams, each numbering from 50 to 250 and seated in rows, face each other, taking turns to conceal the ring. The team leader, or sheikh, starts an innings by passing in front of his own team. With a blanket covering his hands, he stops in front of each player. When the pass is done, all players remain seated with closed fists in their lap, but only one holds the ring.

    The fun begins when the rival sheikh approaches to scour the faces of his opponents. The sheikh can eliminate as many players as he wants, but he has only one chance to pick the exact hand that is holding the mahbas. If he chooses wrongly, his team loses a point and the ring stays with the successfully deceitful team for another round. The first team to lose 20 points loses the whole thing. Simple as the game sounds, the sheikh's task requires skill, cunning, a penetrating knowledge of human nature and immense powers of observation.

    Before the war, the government itself ran a national mahabis tournament, with the finals beamed live on state television. Iraq's current troubles have made it hard to arrange such a large-scale event this year, but in Baghdad, at least, rival neighbourhoods still tussle.

    At a youth club in the Karada district, local boys face visitors from Dora, across the river. Fadhil Abbas, Karada's burly captain, is all ferocity, nostrils blasting thick shafts of cigarette smoke as he stalks Dora's ranks. “You lot, out,” he barks, sending off 20 players. A few minutes later he has dismissed all but four, and they have scarcely settled down before Mr Abbas lunges at one of them, so startling him that he cries out as his tormentor triumphantly extracts the ring.

   The trick, explains Mr Abbas, is to understand that the eyes which stayed watchful, rather than relaxing, in the instant after he declared that only four players remained were the eyes of the ring-holder. Asked if his talents might be used for hunting down Saddam Hussein, he just grins and shakes his head.