Tipcat of Tartous

The European Football (soccer) season came to a close at the end of May. From then until the first week of September, a 53-year-young boy would go crazy without a day-to-day sport spectacle to watch. Fortunately, there are the occasional whatchamacallit tournaments and various competitive track and field events. Yet, these competitions don’t provide a reclining-seat jockey with enough sustainable action to keep him, or his Martini glass at least, sweating. Not unless it’s women’s tennis, but alas, there’s never enough of that. This is when baseball comes to the rescue, and just in the nick of time. I’m a baseball fan, and I look forward to a long and lazy summer of idle involvement. You see, I don’t really care who wins the World Series. As long as these big overpaid athletes keep chewing and spitting, scratching themselves and hitting the occasional ball, I’m happy. I’m not absolutely certain if I’m the only one in Tartous who follows Major League Baseball on television, but it pretty much could be the case. A few nights ago, I stumbled upon the NCAA Softball Women’s College World Series. Washington was playing Nebraska in a very tight and competitive game. I remembered the one time in my life I actually played baseball. It was 1978, in a park in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois with a bunch of college kids. I batted a few times and got a hit or two, but then I had to pitch. I wish I didn’t, as my very first throw knocked the batter (a very nice girl I knew) unconscious after it smacked her straight in the head. I smiled, despite myself, for the wonderful ride down memory lane this mental keepsake had put me on. But then, I remembered another game, one I played much earlier right here in Tartous, and for a brief moment I was a kid again, grinning from ear to ear.

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, 1958
Tartous, 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!

I 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!’



Ken said…
All the enjoyment came from chewing and spitting, scratching....My Oh My and then you talk about ladies Baseball, what does this mean, some sort of code talk. Anyway I hope you enjoyed the game :-)
Gabriela said…
I think most of the streets of the citites we grew up in are no longer what they used to be.
I read an article last week, where a 39-year old journalist said that the streets around his current home, the same he used to live in as a teenager, might be his district but never his neighborhood. After reading you tonight, you conveyed me that same feeling.
Unknown said…
What an interesting game. Oddly, since we have so much British influence here in Canada, I've never hear of Tipcat. I can see why baseball would make you think of it. I love to play baseball but watching it on TV is not my thing. I do hope you enjoy it though. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. Great post as always.
Abufares said…
It was code talk indeed, lol. If I'm confined to watching baseball, I might as well express my preferences to whom I'd rather be watching. I've followed the Major Leaguers for years but never been inspired. I watch one College Women game and my creative juices filled a cup or two, making me thirsty and forcing me to compensate... with a martini or two :-)
Glad to see you here, Ken!
Abufares said…
This is absolutely true, but it is a matter of extent and scale.
When I returned to Lafayette, Louisiana 15 years after I graduated from college, I found out that it had changed tremendously. It had gotten larger, and this is inevitable, although to me personally it is regrettable. However, what happened to Tartous (and many smaller and larger cities in developing countries) was that it mutated into a freakish, cancerous conglomeration of urban sprawl and blight. In the process, all character was lost and nothing remained to identify the city that is the only birthplace I will ever have. My loss is tremendous, and I'm only one person. The collective social loss to its original inhabitants is immeasurable.
Abufares said…
Well, if you happen to learn anything about Tipcat I'd love to hear from you. I agree that baseball is more fun to play rather than watch, and I wish I could :-)
I want to add something here that is a little unrelated to your comment itself but rather inspired by my previous reply to Gabriela. It's not a fault of you that I'm verbose so don't feel guilty, please.
When I wrote: "The collective social loss to its original inhabitants is immeasurable." It made me think about "many" of the North Americans" I met who hold a grudge toward immigrants. Not you, eh!!! I know you too well, lol. I always resented the xenophobic attitude of anti-immigration right-wingers, especially since they themselves are the descendents of immigrants. More disturbing still, are first or second generation immigrants who vehemently and chauvinistically oppose immigration. Buggers!
I want to make my stand on immigration clear. Perhaps I should write a post about it, but at this point in time, I'm unstoppable and have to continue my babble.
Tartous has changed mostly because of internal migration from rural areas to the city. I do not resent this socially natural movement. In fact, I think it enriches the mosaic of any city, not just mine. However, what I don't like to happen here in Tartous, in New York City or in Kingston, Ontario is for the original inhabitants, those who were born and raised there to feel pushed out, cornered and their collective "culture" eradicated. A mosque in a little town in Saskatchewan by "new comers" shouldn't offend anyone, but building this across the street from a 100 year old church and taking up all the free public parking five times a day so that a church goer stops attending mass because he or she becomes too inconvenienced, is what I am totally against. Am I making sense??? It wasn't about mosques and churches in Tartous but the net effect is just the same.
Thank you for letting me express myself in this little spot that is inherently yours :-)
Unknown said…
Yes, you make yourself very clear and I understand your point of view. The big thing we're battling here in Canada is not so much a physical tug of war over culture but rather a social one. The ones who immigrated first are trying to accommodate those who came later but not lose their own traditions at the same. We still haven't quite got the balance right. There's a lot of resentment... Whether legitimate or motivated by racism I'm not sure. People don't deal well with change especially when it seems to erode the familiar. That is just natural. Lol! I'm not sure if that will make you feel better or not but I think I'll stop here except to say if I learn more about Tipcat I'll let you know.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Abu fares you have brought up memories that is long faded , I remember grog up in a village in Tartous (Hababa) on the road between tartous snd derkiech after bemlke playing it from time to time , I vaguely remmber two types one where is the base is one rock and the others were two rocks, I ALS remmebr that catching the stick is like baseball (out) , but not much details , I am pretty sure if you take a ride into the countryside you will be able to know and document more details, thanks again.
Your neighbor Gassan
Abufares said…
Thank you for your feedback. I'd like to know the time frame if possible. When did you play Tipcat?
I was up there only yesterday, on that beautiful road to Dreikish. I made a detour and went down the valley to Saeen Gharbieh and had lunch. Beautiful country! I hope we can somehow, miraculously save it, while we maintain our honor and earn our freedom.
Anonymous said…
We lived in Hababasyria between 1975-1984 . I also enjoyed your post and pictures from عين ساعين الغربيه , I still recall walking from Hababa to the نبع swimming aa, in regard to what is happening , places last and people don't , I remmeber how people drained the sewer into the river basin and claimed land for farming.
ehden said…
Abu fares

Originally I come from Ehden. In winter as you know we lived in Zgharta. I remember as a kid in the 60's we played a game similar to the one you mentioned above in our old neighbourhood. I remebered hitting the smaller stick on the edge and then trying to hit it away. By the way I was there recently for a cousin's wedding. the neighbourhood is now full of "old" people, many have gone away and it's not the same. it's a bit sad but i can't change it. I only visit every few years. and I'm the only one from my family who visits. keep your spirits up , when this is over I will come and have lunch with you in Tartous or meet in ehden
Abufares said…
Thank you for the followup. Yes, the land remains... It has survived for millennia and will continue to :-)
Abufares said…
Glad to see you here. I have no doubt whatsoever that heaven can't be any prettier than Ehden :-)
I'm very glad to know that you played this game too in Northern Lebanon. This at least broadens my horizon. The game evidently wasn't restricted to Tartous. I look forward hearing from readers from other areas as well.
Thank you for dropping by.
Unknown said…
I grew up in Antelias, Lebanon and in the 80s (during the civil war) we used to play this same game. We called it Ta22a & 2ibri طقّةوإبرة
My mother is from a small village in Syria called Al-Bayda near Misyaf. We spent our summers there and my brother and I introduced the game to local kids. It was a big hit :-)
Abufares said…
Thank you for your feedback. It's so nice to reminisce about our childhood memories. When I think about the young generations in a country like Syria today, I can't but feel sorry for them.
I really appreciate your sharing this information with me and with whoever happens to read this blog,
Helen Topor said…
I was fascinated to read your comments on Tipcat. In the migrant centre where I grew up in rural Victoria, Australia, we played Klipka (probably a corruption of Tipcat?) during the 1950s and 1960s. It was a variation on the game you describe. I have included the Syrian name you provide, and a description of how we played the game, in a book I'm currently writing on traditional games played by the migrant children.
Abufares said…
Thank you for your comment, Helen. I'm actually very glad you found this old post of mine and that you'll mention the Assa wa Da'as in your upcoming book. Once published, please drop me a note by email abufaresATabufaresDOTnet.

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