By the end of May, schools in this part of the world slam their gates shut too, before the brutal summer crawls into the classrooms and indiscriminately claims the souls of both innocent and mischievous kids alike. They take to the streets in droves, shedding their beige uniforms of submission and conformity. Jumping down a flight of stairs in a leap or two, or climbing down the drainpipe from my bedroom window, I sneak my way to one of the shaded alleys that sprung from Al Mina Street, like the skinny legs of a giant centipede. While my folks nap in the blast of a Parkinson’s inflicted pedestal fan, I keep cool by running into the relative wind of my perpetual motion.
AL-Mina Street, 1958Tartous, where I grew up, and its scrawny backstreets are no longer what they used to be. They are filled with cars battling to park or to pass through. The broad sidewalks were heartlessly cleaved to make room for more asphalt, so that more cars can battle for a parking space or for their right of passage. Children of Tartous, unlike those of most of Syria today, are lucky they haven’t lost their homes yet. They settle down with whatever electronic device they’re hooked on, shut off the bland reality of their presence, and play in a space and time that exist until their devices run out of charge, or the power goes down, inevitably. If they make it through the raging war that is consuming the country, they will grow up without memories. These are the lucky ones, of course. I can’t even write about the others.
Forty years ago, in an alley behind my home by the sea, a bunch of motley boys with scraped knees met every afternoon, when their shadows outgrew their bodies, and played Assa wa Da’as (العصا والدأس). Amazingly, I have not thought about this game since I was a teenager. During all of these years of living in the United States and/or in Tartous, the similarity between Baseball and Assa wa Da’as never struck me until I saw those young girls playing in that Nebraska field.
It was late at night when the softball game was over, but I couldn’t sleep until I got to the bottom of it. What was that game we played, and who invented it? How did it make it to Tartous and become such a fixture in my growing up years, then entirely disappeared as if it never happened? My Arabic search on Google only brought frustration. Assa means stick (or bat), Da’as means absolutely nothing, but that’s what we called the game in Tartous. I have no idea whether it was played in other parts of Syria and/or the Middle East in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, but it could’ve. If you, the reader, have any pertinent information, please share it by email or in a comment on this post.
Assa wa Da'as (Bat and Tipcat)I needed an English word for Da’as, which simply is a short 4” to 6” wooden stick, chamfered (or tapered) on both sides. If the da’as is struck with the Assa (bat) on its tapered edge it is propelled into the air; and once airborne, it’s hit hard, again with the bat, to cover the longest distance possible. Finally, I struck gold on Google; our backstreet Tartoussi game was invented in the 17th century in Britain and is considered, along with Rounders, as the origin of modern-day baseball. It even has a name: Tipcat!
Tipcat, according to most sources, was very popular in Great Britain starting from the 19th century and in North America and the colonies from the early 20th century. It’s a street game played under different rules, all made up by kids to accommodate for their local topography and street layout. In 2005, Ron Hughes of Birmingham wrote about his memories as a boy in WWII People’s War - An archive of World War Two memories - written by the public, gathered by the BBC: “Other times we’d play Tipcat. Do you know what that is? You needed a small piece of wood, about 4 inches long by 2 inches, chamfered at both ends. You put this on the road and then tap the pointed end with a bat saying: ‘tip, tip, CAT!’ On ‘cat!’ you hit the pointed end really hard and spun the small piece of wood up into the air. As it flew up, you hit it hard with the bat and sent it flying off down the street. Or if it was me, I’d hit it straight into a window. I learnt to run fast playing that game!”
TipcatI don’t think I ever broke any windows but I still remember our rules of the game, vaguely. Tartoussi Tipcat was played by 2 teams of an undetermined number of players each. One batter from Team A approaches the home base, which was made up of two rocks the size of cocounts, where the tipcat lay perched in between. He will then place his bat underneath and flip the tipcat up and away. Fielders from Team B will try to catch it before it hits the ground, and if they succeed, the batter is out. If the tipcat does fall on the ground without being caught first, a fielder will “underarm-pitch” it from the spot, in an attempt to strike the home base (either or both rocks). The batter has to defend the home base with his bat. If the tipcat strikes the home base, the batter is out. If the batter intercepts the tipcat with his bat, or better yet, hits it away, the game continues. Now here is where my memory begins to get a little sketchy, but I’m still very close to the essence of the game we played. The batter taps the tipcat with the bat and hits is as hard as possible to cover the longest distance. This action is repeated 3 times, after which he will call the number of leaps it will take him to cover the total distance from the tipcat’s last position to homebase. The captain of the fielders will either allow the batter to go for it or accept to take the challenge (himself or one of his fielders) in a fewer number of leaps. If he allows the batter to go ahead, the latter makes the jumping leaps and if he succeeds to cover the distance in the declared number of leaps or less, his Team A is credited by the called number. If the batter fails, the points are awarded to Team B. On the other hand, if the captain of Team B accepts the challenge, he or one of his fielders attempts to cover the distance by the lesser number of leaps he challenged with. If he fails, the full original number (points) are awarded to Team A. If Team B makes it, they earn the points instead. The two teams then reverse positions. That was one hell of a competitive game and probably explains the scraped nonhealing knees.
We played this game for hours on end. We obviously didn’t think much about its origins or who brought it to town. Based on the online research I conducted, I’m inclined to believe that a returning expatriot teeanager, most likely from North America, brought it back and taught the other kids how to play. I don’t have enough to go on, under the current conditions in Syria, to seek answers from other cities. I can’t put an exact timeframe about the Tipcat’s earliest emergence in Tartous, but I estimate it to be around at least the late 1920’s since my father remembers playing it in the 1930’s. The British didn’t occupy Syria, and I couldn’t find evidence that the game was played in France. Accordingly, I’m omitting the possibility that the French introduced it here. It’s all conjecture on my part, of course, but I think I have presented the most plausible explanation.
Recently, Fares, my boy, joined me in watching baseball. As soon as he grabbed the complex rules, he began to enjoy it. The Yankees are already his favorites, since he likes New York as a city he’d never set foot in, and since their uniforms are “cool”. Until he goes to the USA one day, he won’t get a chance to play baseball, I don’t think. “Next time you’re there, get me the Major League Baseball 2K12 for the PS3.” He said. I told him about the Tipcat his grandfather and I played but he offhandedly dismissed it. “Nah, just get me the real thing”, he said, “ I saw it on Youtube and it’s so real, it’s realer than real.” As long as we have electricity, I thought, and a roof over our heads. ‘Tip, tip, CAT!’