This story was originally published by The Economist.
September 22, 2020
THE LEBANESE sense of humour is “as dark as a politician’s pocket”, says Bernard Hage, a cartoonist. In hard times—and there have been plenty of those in the past year—it can be a survival mechanism. Since last September the Lebanese pound has fallen by more than 80% against the dollar. Citizens have watched their savings vanish as banks have restricted dollar withdrawals and blocked overseas transactions. Government infighting has hindered international aid. Persistent power cuts have left homes and hospitals reliant on private generators; soaring food prices pushed many to the brink of starvation. Through all this, the robust Lebanese sense of humour endured. Then came the explosion.
On August 4th a blast caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate—a chemical used to make fertiliser and bombs—stored improperly in a warehouse in Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people, injured thousands and left 300,000 homeless. No one is laughing now. But “catharsis humour”, as Mr Hage calls it, has made a satirical board game called “Wasta”, released two months before the explosion, a surprise success.
The game’s first batch of 500 units sold out in its first two weeks in June and it has continued to sell—albeit more slowly—in the wake of the blast. Demand for the game from the Lebanese diaspora has been so high that its inventor is working on an English edition, as well as an expanded version. “I thought that humour was the best way of spreading a message,” says Elie Kesrouwany, a lifelong board-game enthusiast and the owner of On Board, a game café in Beirut, who designed “Wasta”. The game gets its title from an Arabic word denoting influence: how much sway a person has, based on who they know and can turn to for favours. It is used for everything from acquiring a building permit to finding employment to securing a restaurant reservation.
Inspired by the anti-government protests that began last October, the game’s humour is underscored by serious themes. Designed to be funny but also to make players think, it is meant to highlight Lebanon’s entrenched cronyism and political dysfunction, both of which played a part in the explosion. Players compete against each other using points-weighted cards that represent facets of Lebanese society such as the bank, the judge, the nosy neighbour and the sectarian thug. The starting player is the person who last withdrew dollars, an allusion to what Mr Kesrouwany calls “the biggest Ponzi scheme in the world”, which led to banks forcing customers with dollar accounts to withdraw Lebanese pound at a fraction of the black-market rate.
The winner is the first player to collect three tarboushes (hats) but it is the symbolism of the cards and the way they interact with each other that makes the game compelling. The “sheep” card allows one player to elect another as a zaim (a political leader) and win or lose the round alongside them, echoing Lebanon’s system of political patronage. The “external political influence” card allows the holder to pit two rivals against each other by forcing them to swap cards, while the “political immunity” card negates other players’ powers. The namesake “wasta” card is worth zero points but can be used to copy the power of any card played by someone else. “I wanted to show how dirty it was,” Mr Kesrouwany says. “But at the same time it’s a powerful tool.”
Some cards were inspired by recent events. The “sectarian thug”, for example, can force another player to discard a card. If that card is the “Lebanese flag”, the player is obliged to emigrate and automatically loses the round. But a “mum” card can be deployed to beat the thug. This rule refers to an incident in Beirut in November when sectarian clashes were ended by a “mother’s march”, in which hundreds of Muslim and Christian women took to the streets together to warn against a return to civil war. “When I made the judge, I gave him 6.5 power. The mum was 7,” Mr Kesrouwany says. “Because the judge is scarier than the bank but not as scary as your mum.”
Mr Hage provided humorous illustrations for the cards: one depicts a mother brandishing a wooden spoon, another a sheep holding a political placard. Years working as a political cartoonist have made him an expert in black comedy. “It’s definitely the DNA of the Lebanese humour,” he says. “Whenever we are facing any sort of crisis or trouble what we do best is laugh about it and I’m still trying to decide whether it’s a good or bad thing.” He hopes that “Wasta” will “push people to form their own political opinion”.
The artist compares the mood in Beirut after the explosion to New York after the September 11th attacks, when Time magazine ran a story headlined “The Age of Irony Comes to an End” and Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of “Saturday Night Live”, asked Rudy Giuliani, then the city’s mayor, for permission to be funny. “Humour always plays a critical role after atrocities or after dramatic or sad events like this,” Mr Hage says. “After we’re done with grieving, we will laugh again.” In the meantime, “Wasta” offers a brief window of escape, allowing players to battle among themselves without losing sight of who the real villains are.