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Deadly Dice

by Don Pinnock / Illustration by Colwyn Thomas / 25.03.2013

It was more than a matter of luck and numbers. In fact it was downright creepy. But I’m jumping ahead, so let me first explain. Tangier Old Town is a difficult place for a westerner. Everything seems strange: the souks crowded with men in hoods and dresses, the narrow streets of the kasbah, youngsters offering everything from ancient treasure to hashish. My buddy and I were new to North Africa and our first reaction was paranoia. Were we going to be robbed at knifepoint? Poisoned? Kidnapped?

We rented a room for a few diram and went off nervously to find something to eat in the Souko Chico, the little souk. The eyes of swarthy men in jellabas followed us from pavement coffee shops (owned by men obviously plotting to steal our bags while we were away from our room).

On our first day a policeman approached us, introduced himself as Abdsalaam, and offered to sell us some high-quality kief (hash).

“No thanks!” I blurted, stepping back from him, amazed that he could think we could fall into such a silly trap. He looked hurt.

After a few days both of us were really uncomfortable about the sheer alienness of the city. People either treated us as potential sources of income or ignored us completely. But always there were the eyes following us from unmoving heads in coffee shops.

Quite by accident we discovered the Almohad Coffee Shop. Its entrance was a single door in a white wall with a small sign above it. I stuck my head inside and was delighted to find a square, open courtyard surrounded by cool verandas. Hooded men sat round tables drinking Turkish coffee at near-mud consistency or glasses of sweet mint tea.

All conversation faded as we entered, but soon buzzed back to life. So we felt emboldened to sit down and order some tea. At almost every table the customers—all locals—were playing Ludo.

Over the next few weeks the Almohad became our local refuge. Admittedly nobody spoke to us, but after a while nobody peered at us from hooded eyes either. And the mint tea was delicious.

Then one memorable morning a large, Taureg-looking man marched up to our table and babbled something in Arabic. Was this the moment of attack? I called the waiter over to translate.

“He has challenged you to parchesi.”

“What’s that?” I asked, imagining a duel with matching pistols.

“That game,” he said, pointing at a Ludo board.

I must confess I’d been silently contemptuous of all these grown men playing a child’s board game. Ludo, in case you don’t know, consists of a board with four ‘dens’ in which you place four coloured counters. It takes a dice throw of six to get a counter out, after which you chase your counter round the board until you get to ‘home’ in the middle. The first person with all four counters home wins. As board games go, it’s rather silly.

The size of the man, however, didn’t seem to brook refusal. I nodded, and as my buddy and I stood up so did the entire coffee shop, as if by pre-arranged signal. It was spooky.We were ushered into seats opposite each other, and two Moroccans filled the other two opposing seats. The waiter informed us that parchesi was played in teams, so we had to home all our eight counters to win. It was the best of three games.

The rest of the customers arranged themselves silently round the table, some even standing on chairs to get a view of the board. There was something very odd going on, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

To cut the game to a short sentence, we won the first and they won the second. In the third, decisive game, when they looked set to win, I sent one of their counters back to its den and the player couldn’t seem to get a six. He eventually did, but by that time both his buddy and mine were home. I was in the home slot and he was gaining fast.

I ended up one place from home and the tension in the coffee shop was electric. Every time I rolled the dice the entire audience yelled the Arab equivalent of “three!” It was a smart call, because a three bounced me out of home, requiring that I throw either a one or a two to win.

After I got four threes in a row my buddy and I suddenly twigged why all these grown men played Ludo. It had nothing to do with sending counters home. It was about controlling our minds and influencing the dice. This was more than a test of psychic power: we were playing for our very souls.

I threw 17 threes in succession. Each time, the room yelled “three” and we yelled “one” or “two.” By then the hair on the back of my neck was stiff with fright. All logic and statistical probability flew out the top of the courtyard.

Our opponent was one throw away from home. I tossed the dice and my buddy and I yelled “one.” It spun on its a corner for an indecently long time and landed with one facing up.

The room erupted. We were carried shoulder high round the coffee shop, then outside into the souk. Everyone was yelling, but the only word I caught was “parchesi.”

We spent another month in Tangier. Perfect strangers invited us to meals and kids in the streets would waggle their thumbs in the air and shout “parchesi.” It appeared we’d trounced the local psi-wrestlers. A comment by the waiter at the Almohad Coffee Shop seemed to clear it up: “We Arabs like people with strong minds. The dice told us you were not just tourists.”

“What would have happened if we’d lost?” I asked.

His reply was a masterpiece of Arab inscrutability: “Maybe you would then not have been able to ask that question.”

*Illustration © Colwyn Thomas.

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