Playing marbles on the roof

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

We were not stepping towers reaching the heavens like our Babylonian ancestors at their time-honoured ziggurat. We were only moving the army patrol up the mountain slope and down on the village' roofs.

Playing marbles on the roof


Reserve officers were required to join the army for six weeks every year. It was intended to be an intensive update, but that gradually turned into routine practice.

In my first annual call after ending the compulsory service, I found myself with a colleague in the far, far away. 

We were almost skiing in an iced time with a brigade positioned near Mout remote village on the steep mountain strip protruding into the northeast border.

As he was an anatomy lecturer in the College of Veterinary Medicine, the first comment of my colleague was, "we don't need Formalin to preserve animal tissues here".

It was early December; our arrival has occasioned confusion to the snow. It resumed harder and harder until it was white night. The snow grew taller than a short person. We needed Eskimo genes and all the blankets in the camp, but we obtained only four each.

The Mout brigade was tasked to stabilize the area against the occasional Kurdish insurgents hit and run military activity.

At the same time, the brigade was protecting the Kurds refugees from the other side of the border.

It was typical: night rebels at the Iraqi border are morning refugees at the Iranian side and vice versa.

The Persian and the Mesopotamian Kurds were switching borders in those intermittent fighting seasons.

The witty part of the term was watching, from a distance, adult refugees in Mout camp, playing marbles to spend the days of their empty life. They were wearing their traditional clothing consisting of muted earth tones baggy pants, which is called "Sherwal" (or Shalwar), comfortable wide trousers but tight at the ankles, together with short tight velvet jackets over striped or plain shirts.

The outfit was completed by a sizeable cloth-made sash tied around the waist. They also wore turbans wrapped around their heads. Some of them put thick coats made of sheep's wool.

We couldn't see the traditional dagger tucked into the large sash, probably because it wasn't allowed at that place and time.

As all homes built along the mountain slopes, they were practically playing marbles on the home's roof of each other.

There were occasional quarrels for losing in the game; a marble knocked from the marble's ring or wasn't knocked out of the line.

It was hard to know the rules of this children game as it varies from region to region, and making up a game on the spot wasn't unusual.

Now and then, arguments between them would indicate that the men were in disagreement and were playing for keeps, which means winners keep, losers weep.


The scene wasn't affection for old-fashioned games or purely sentimental. Human intelligence is intensely social. Through bonds with others, they survived because they shared food, caring, and even aggression. These skills and habits are called Machiavellian intelligence (MI).

Children developed MI through games like playing marbles since ancient times when they used sheep's knucklebones that were also used in divination. As they grow up playing marbles, children develop manual skills and intelligence (or MI) until they understand social settlements.

People need tools so that they can drive objects. When they manipulate the game's rules and bluff each other to enhance their gain, it is called Machiavellianism, a personality trait that means deception skill, the ability to be manipulative, and an ambition to use whatever means necessary to be a winner.

The favoured Individuals would be those who could use and exploit others in their social group without causing disruption and potential group splitting resulting from direct aggression. The manipulated individuals may co-operate in their misery.

Without realizing it, the refugees followed an age-dependent style and a complex system of rules and a code of marble's laws.

In some countries, young Shepperd play marbles while ranging their sheep. They shoot the marbles over rocks and brushwood aiming for the small holes they made on the ground. The stones, twigs, and clumps act as negotiators help or hinder reaching the target. It is, again, social-environmental interaction, where the tools (marbles) that included the surface of the roofs also played with the refugees.


Mout brigade used to set night traps against the armed Kurds crossing the border from the Iranian side.

Most of these traps were not helpful because villagers themselves were alarming the rebels, motivated either by fear or secret involvement in their cause.

In both cases, they were fighting for marbles in the daytime and perhaps something else at night.

While my colleague wasn't interested, I asked the brigade commander to join one of these night raids to live the experience.

I did join the professional officer, Captain Tariq, who commanded the patrol, marched in a particular pattern after midnight. He and I walked in the center between two small columns of soldiers in total black silence. The infantry platoon was equipped with its standard light weapons and communication radio.

By dawn, a tight siege was implemented, and the force was positioned over the roofs of village houses.

The soldiers searched the homes, walking or jumping from one roof to another.

There were only drawn marble rings and lines—no marbles left on the roofs or insurgents inside the houses.

The raid's failure was likely because the informer's tip was not as crystal as a marble.

The night next, the friendly captain Tariq invited us to his tent celebrating the birth of his first son. I found that we have lived in the same neighbourhood in the capital Baghdad.

Tariq was happy knowing that the baby was born on 31st December but thinking of registering the birth on the day after, 1st January. He said; it would be better off for the kindergarten within a few years.


After the six weeks, we resumed our civilian lives with good memories about captain Tariq, Mout, and the marbles.

Eight months later, when the first gulf war erupted, national TV coverage showed the country's president decorating, with golden medals, army officers for their bravery in one of the battles.

That was the last time I saw the decorated Captain Tariq alive.

He was killed in one of the following battles. Sadly, he wasn't given a chance to worry about what could go wrong in the registration of his son in the kindergarten.


*Image from



Submitted: November 05, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Ali Al-Zaak. All rights reserved.

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Though the poems are written originally in English, in this book, the author successfully and with great care transfers the beautiful Arabic rhythm, rhyme, and musicality to English quatrains. Many quatrains comprise entire poems, while others are part of

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