The Games of Zagros: What does playing say about our sociality?

Games make up one of the main bridges that strengthen bonds and feelings of unity between peoples. As a method of self-expression, games have taken on different shapes according to different geographies, cultures and beliefs. Communities not only create strong societal ties within themselves in a playful manner through games, but also use these to share their culture with neighbouring communities and peoples. Kurdish games have a long history in Rojhelat (Eastern Kurdistan/Iran). At the heart of many games is a deeply-rooted sociality that is reflected in the richness and pluralism of the region’s history and culture.

One striking aspect of the games is that they do not belong to one section of society, but are played by children, women and men alike. For instance, the typical children’s game Çav Şirtonek or Veşartok (“hide-and-seek”) is even played by adults in some areas of Rojhelat. In all parts of Kurdistan, in Iran, and beyond, all communities play this game, which has a 700-year-old history and is usually played by 5 to 10 people. The purpose is to teach the child to be brave and self-confident when alone, to overcome fears of darkness and night, and to be physically strong.

The game heft kevir (“seven rocks”) is a popular game in Rojhelat. It creates a spirit of mutualism and requires one’s ability to aim, and react with speed, thereby affecting our cognitive activity as well. Four to six-teen children, typically between the age of six to fifteen, are known to love this game. It is interesting to note that all of these games value the importance of physical health.

In Rojhelat’s games, themes and tactics associated with war feature prominently. In a way, society prepares for its art of self-defence, while training and education itself physically. We can say that such games constituted the foundations for the activities that we currently refer to as sports. In the essence of the many sports activities that have been commodified and function in the service of markets today, we can trace remnants of old games.

To mention a few of the attributes of Kurdish games:

Most of these games involve many people. They are not limited to the members of a home, but involve people from neighbouring or nearby villages. This atmosphere creates strong social bonds among the players. Sê Qale (three towers) or heft kevir (seven rocks) are among these collective games that large groups participate in.

In Rojhelat, games often include rocks or sticks. More than 300 different games use stones in one way or another.

Another dominant theme is the warning of the community of potential attacks and dangers, such as in the game of Lion and Wolf. Neither the lion, nor the wolf represent negative characteristics. Rather, they stand for the ability to defend oneself and one’s community from threats. While exposing the dangers that confront society, these games also illustrate the strong relationship between nature and human society.

Characters and personalities that are disliked or criticized by society also play important roles in play scenarios. In the game Şah û Vazîr, the vazîr (queen) is being defended against the şah (king); a struggle is led to replace the king with the queen on his throne. We can read in this game the people’s willingness and desire to rebel against power at all times and to replace the tyrant with a person of their own collective choice. In other words, it should not be possible for everyone to occupy seats of power in such cheap manners; the decision-making entity ought to earn and deserve this position, must work, make an effort, and be loved by society.

The time for playing these games is also quite striking. Usually, the big squares of villages and towns are chosen as the sites of games. This way, people can watch. The most important features that these games bring to the forth are friendship, respect and unity among people.

Women’s and men’s participation in these games often depends on their age. In areas with less religious influence, there are a greater amount of games played by women. The structure or format of the games also varies according to different belief systems and ways of life. The role of women in Rojhelat’s games strikes out in particular among the Yaresanî people, in the region of Hawraman, as well as in Îlam and Urmiye. In these areas, apart from common games played by and among all members of society, there are also games that associated with women only. Kurdish women’s consciousness and experienced philosophies find unique and creative expressions in these moments. Such gams show that at its heart, society does not view women as weak, but rather embraces their participation in all spheres of life. Nobody had to play in the same manner or with equal physical strength. Everyone contributes to the game according to their ability. After all, joy and excitement in life are the most important aspect of these games. Most of the time, women contribute to the aesthetic beauty of this social phenomenon with their skilfully embroidered dresses. If women do not participate, but only watch certain games, they nevertheless beautify the moment with their songs and ululations.

In these regions, the games of Helokan/Çogan and Lion and Tiger are said to have been played only by women. Çav Şirtonek (hide-and-seek) is a favourite among little girls. Werîs (skipping) is a game that measures women’s strength and endurance. They do not measure their strength against men, but among themselves. This game is watched with great interest by friends, who clap and sing to give the skippers support and encouragement.

In the regions of Xorasan and Îlam, women support the games played by men with their songs, such as in the game Çogan (“stick”).

One of the real objectives of games is the development of children’s intelligence and mental development. At the same time, these games reveal everyone’s power, talent and creativity. Each participant gets the chance to demonstrate their own ability, while simultaneously recognizing an seeing the people around them. One learns to be conscious of oneself under different conditions and circumstances, a matter that resonates with social and political realities of Rojhelat.

In Kurdish society, games often entail demonstrations of courage. Because Kurdistan’s geography is rugged and wild, the difficult, but popular games reflect this harsh territory. Many of the games are created appropriate to the geographical mountainous conditions and to the harshness of winter. In historical documents, the games of Rojhelat are known as the “Zagros Games”. The nearly permanent state of war and pillaging in Kurdistan influences the nature and content of these local games. Self-defence is a main theme of these popular activities. Games that encompass war tactics are usually played at night. The darkness increases the excitement and thrill in the game. Other games interrogate one’s knowledge about nature, animals and societies.

The Kurds of Rojhelat are known to engage in their playful activities especially on joyful and celebratory occasions such as Newroz. When it is time to play, everyone leaves their home to participate in these public events. People, who had fallen out with each other, find ways of reconciling with each other during these gatherings.

The games are occasions for the people of Rojhelat to rejoice and have a pleasant time. This collective and social undertaking protects people’s morale and motivation despite the oppression and suffering that is imposed on the communities due to state violence. This is especially the case among the Lurî people. With games, human relations and bonds become stronger. In the same way that dengbêj culture has preserved Kurdish culture, history, and memory, games have played a similar role in protecting and keeping these alive. Due to recent technological advances, most of these games are no longer being played. However, game festivals and celebration are often organized in Rojhelat, where many of these Kurdish games are displayed in action. Even if limited, these events provide occasions for us to live our culture.

In this sense, like other cultural values that contribute to our collective sociality in such creative ways, these ancient game cultures ought to be protected and looked after. Across the region, beyond Kurdistan, there are clear overlaps and similarities among games. Often, the same games are played in different regions under different names. Aspects of the games may vary according to the regional context and conditions. Without a doubt, more research should be conducted on games. They should be kept alive in festivals. After all, games represent the hidden spirit of society.