Saturday, January 29, 2005


Dr Majeed

We keep hearing stories of professionals being attacked, kidnapped, threatened or simply killed all the time in chaotic, free-for-all Iraq. Knowing the intimate details of such incidents frequently makes them even more senseless or incredible.

Dr. Majeed is a specialist doctor in his mid-fifties. I have known him personally for years. He is extremely competent, dedicated to his profession, well known and an authority in his field. As a person, he is caring and compassionate, completely secular, non-sectarian and apolitical. After the invasion, senior government positions were up for grabs; many of his colleagues approached one political party or another with an eye on a senior job; he never did. He went on with his work more or less as before.

He usually only sees patients by appointment; However, due to the difficulties in communication and transportation, his clinic usually swarms with people… people reporting results of tests, people asking about a replacement medicine to one that is unavailable, people from the provinces, etc.

A few weeks ago, I heard that Dr. Majeed was shot by someone who broke into his clinic, so I went to see him a few days after the incident. The following narrative is taken from his own account.

He was seeing a patient in his surgery when the door was pushed open; he saw a young man whom he knew as a patient of his for a number of years. As soon as he entered the room, the young man pulled out a gun and fired three shots in succession at Dr. Majeed from a distance of less than 4 meters. As soon as the man pulled the gun, Dr. Majeed jumped to his feet in reflex. He received two bullets in his abdomen and one in the palm of his left hand.

The young man turned and left. On his way out he stopped and fired two shots at the receptionist (probably because his knew him). There were about 20 people in the waiting room. Some of them overpowered him and took the gun away. Some of those present volunteered to take the man to the police. He is now waiting for trial.

His story to the investigating judge was that he was insulted by the receptionist, so he lost control of himself and did what he did. Well, that was a pretty weak story, since there were more than 20 witnesses to the fact that he did not have a word with the receptionist on his way in.

The man is in his early twenties, a second-year college student. Dr. Majeed knows him rather well and assured me that he believed there was nothing wrong with the man's mental state. He also believed that he was not a religious fanatic of some sort. He has no grievance or grudge against Dr. Majeed and was always on the best of terms with him.

Dr. Majeed still has no clue as to why he was shot or who might be behind it. His son, who is a young doctor, and a close friend of my own son, was of the opinion that they should get the word out that Dr. Majeed was making plans to leave the country. Dr. Majeed didn't agree. He thought that if someone out there is determined to have him killed, that would only incite them to implement their plans in more haste. He believed that he had escaped certain death… but has no idea what to do with his life next.

Can you make any sense of this?

A few days ago, the good doctor took his family and left the country.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Criminal Freedom

We hear a number of stories of killing and kidnapping in Baghdad every day. I will only outline three separate criminal incidents (that I know to be authentic) from this week’s harvest, to give a taste of what it is like to live in Baghdad these days.

Humanitarianism in Kidnapping

An elderly person of the Khanchi Baghdadi family was kidnapped several days ago. He had a heart attack in captivity during the negotiations for a ransom.

The kidnappers stood to loose their bargaining chip. They suggested replacing him by one of his sons so that he can have proper medical care… and so it was!

Queue Quarrel

If you drive by any gas (petrol) station in Baghdad, you can see several armed men – some in uniform, some in civilian clothes (private security guards hired by the station’s management to augment the police force).

A few days ago, near the entrance to such a gas station in a busy district of Baghdad, a dead man was lying on the street. He was covered with a blanket but you could still see his gray hair.

Having waited all night in the queue, a group of men in a car wanted to jump the queue and go in ahead of him. He refused and there was a quarrel. They simply shot him and drove away.

He was covered with the blanket he used to keep him warm during the long wait through the night.

Kidnapping Fools

Last Friday, someone I know was kidnapped. He was abducted by three men at gunpoint, right in front of his house. His family and friends kept calling him on his mobile phone. The following day, someone answered. He said that they represented the resistance and the man will be killed because he collaborated with the Americans, working as an interpreter. He was told that the man had nothing to do with the Americans or any other party. He was a businessman. The kidnapper said that they would check it out and kill the man if he was. They would send him in several pieces to his family. If he was “innocent”, the family would have to give a donation to the resistance! It was immediately obvious that this was a criminal gang.

The poor fellow came from Basra. He had no kin to speak of in Baghdad apart from his wife and two daughters. His brother-in-law took charge of the contact with the kidnappers. Slow, painful negotiations with the kidnappers, sprinkled with foul language, followed. They asked for $ 140, 000 or 14 “dafters” (notebooks) as the bundle of 100’s is now commonly known in Iraq.

At one stage, the fools forgot to switch off the telephone at the end of a call. The brother-in-law was able to listen to their conversation for almost half an hour. He found out several things about them: There were 14 people in that gang; he captured a few first names. One of them was a police sergeant. Their hideout was in a district just south of Baghdad called Abu Disheer. One of them was the brother of the floor tile layer working at the kidnapped man’s new home!

Yet, there was nothing the family could do about it! They couldn’t go to the police; the sergeant could have collaborators at the station. It is well known in Iraq that criminals had infiltrated the new police force in large numbers. [I must add that the force does have some decent people in it who try to do a good job.]

During the negotiations, the ransom went down to $10,000. The brother-in-law mildly (perhaps recklessly) hinted to some of the facts that he had discovered. They broke off all contact.

Last Wednesday evening, the man was beaten up badly, they extinguished three cigarettes on his forehead, “bagged” him, put him in the trunk of a car… and then released him in a deserted street in Baghdad.

Police Force

When will all these phenomena come to an end? I don’t know. Perhaps never, completely. But a start can at least be made when the police start going after criminals. So far, they are not interested. They seem to be more interested in going after “insurgents”.

Even when they take some shy steps in this direction, they are firmly put in place by stronger forces of reality.

Some time ago, a gang was caught red-handed and locked up in a police station in Baghdad. The following morning – and in broad daylight – the police station was attacked by a very large group of armed men, some of whom were positioned on the roofs of surrounding buildings. Within half an hour, the police force was cornered and all those imprisoned were released. They simply over-powered the police. Enforcement wasn’t sent… probably for fear of an ambush!

Saturday, January 15, 2005


Sharing Grief in the Countryside

[This is the second post describing the Iraqi Fat-ha reception where one goes to pay respect to the deceased's kin. Please read the previous post for basics. Again, I will only describe the men's reception. I doubt if Riverbend or Rose have seen the inside of the women's reception in the countryside!]

The basic social function of the country Fat-ha is the same as that of the city; only the setting, the execution and the "feel" are all rather different, reflecting the nature of the country folk in their difference from city people.

The Fat-ha is generally conducted at the deceased's house or one of his or her closest kin. Special "tunnel" tents are erected for the purpose. These are basically steel frames, speedily erected by a gang of young men. The space they make after erection is about 3m wide and about 20m in length. This space is filled with rows of plastic chairs facing each other along the length. They call such a tent “bait” [= house].

The number of such tents depends on the number of expected visitors, reflecting the social status of the hosts. One such tent may be sufficient for a simple peasant's Fat-ha. At the other extreme, an important person's reception may require more than a dozen such tents.

Iraq is full of places where everything a Fat-ha needs is rented. People in the country usually have a good supply of young men and pick-up trucks. Everything may look extremely chaotic to the casual observer: people yelling, people going back and forth, people shouting their arguments, tractors with scrapers preparing a flat, clean clearing, etc. If you happen to observe proceedings, you would think they would never get it done! But somehow, the whole thing could be set-up in a matter of a few hours, sometimes to be ready when people come back from burial.

Black banners announcing the Fat-ha are used to a lesser extent than in the city. The actual announcement of death is usually made by firing guns. People hearing the reports, knowing that there is no scheduled wedding in that household, immediately assume what has happened! The grapevine, which is even more efficient than that of the city, takes care of letting everybody know. Relations who live long distances away usually hear the news within the following day!

In city Fat-has, people usually go by themselves or in small groups of a car load of friends or family. In the country, this does happen but generally visitors from outside the area or from different tribes usually go in larger numbers, sometimes exceeding 100 people! Social politics are a more important consideration in country Fat-has.


The minute you reach the car park, you can tell that this is a different affair from the city. A few teenagers usually supervised by an older young man, direct you and keep an eye on your car. It would shame them if something happened to it or was stolen from it in a busy Fat-ha with so many people coming and going.

Just outside the tents, several people in charge of reception welcome visitors and direct them to the tent that they would fit in best! These people may not be distinguishable to the inexperienced eye from other clusters of men scattered all over the yard leading to the tents in small groups, discussing things!

If you are somebody important in their eyes, then the hosts, and others, having been given warning by the car-park boys, or one of the outside "clusters" will leave their place and come and welcome you in. The higher your status, the larger the number coming out for you. Usually this has little to do with wealth. If is not uncommon for the entire assembly to come out to welcome someone really important to them such as a tribal chief or an important tribal delegation!

Once inside the tent, some people don't shake hands, much like in the city… for a variety of reasons -one of them being not wishing to shake hands with an adversary or an enemy! If during this round such an "enemy" is encountered, he simply does not stand up and is ignored by the newcomer! But generally people go around the whole tent and shake hands with everybody. You have to start with the people on the right and go counter-clockwise. It is almost insulting to go the wrong way around. This rule is always meticulously followed in the countryside. Some city people unaware of this can cause some confusion going round the wrong way!

People stand up as you approach them, shake hands and usually exchange pleasantries. For an important guest, the whole tent may rise for this hand-shaking tour! Country folk (or Urbaan) are much more exhibitive of social status than in the city.

Once seated – again, according to status, like in the city you would loudly announce the "Fat-ha". Most people in the country don't just use the word but put it in a sentence like "May God bless you, al Fat-ha" or "May God have mercy on your parents, al Fat-ha!".

Then the usual "Allah bil Khair" follows.

Koran readings are the same as in the city but more frequently from a recording. The volume is usually louder, due to the louder noises made by people. Nevertheless, it is usually drowned by the noise!

In the city, water is always served before coffee; in the country, the opposite is more frequent. Cigarettes are less frequently served, but tea usually follows water. It is more common to tip the coffee server if he is a hired professional coffee master.

After this ritual, you can go and shake hands with people you know, change seats, sit down with various other people and discuss thing (frequently loudly). If you are important to them, one or more of the hosts will come and sit next to you and keep you company, the higher your status is, the more senior the host.

The duration of your stay depends on the time of your arrival. Visitors usually stay between half an hour and an hour. If you stay to within an hour of lunch- or dinner-time, you will find difficulty getting away! The hosts may give you a difficult time!

After the meal, you would hear a few people saying "al Fat-ha" and then reciting the verses on the deceased's soul.

Now you are free to leave! Unlike the city, very few people announce their wish to leave by saying "Fat-ha" aloud. They just get up, shake hands with the hosts and leave. Again, if your status is high enough, some of the hosts will accompany you to your car; and again, the higher the status, the larger the crowd!

Fat-has in the country last all day long for three days. Until about some 20 years ago, most used to last for seven days – many people still retain the 7th day and the 40th day tradition by a gathering of relatives and friends over dinner. They are much more exhausting affairs to the hosts.


One of the most fascinating things to see in the country is called A’ratha [Literally: parade!]. This takes place when a really important personage, such as a major chief of a large tribe, dies. Other clans of the tribe and other tribes from far away places come in large numbers. They get off their cars and go into the Fat-ha carrying large tribal banners [as large as the European Trade Union banners!]. They sometimes fire some shots in the air en route.

A small group of 20-30 people of the hosts go out to meet them. Once at the entrance, with the two groups facing each other, a poet accompanying the procession says a few lines praising the deceased… and his own tribe of course! Another poet from the dead man’s tribe is there and he has to respond immediately in kind [Old hands have a store of ready lines. They sometimes simply change the names, but this trick is readily detected.] The sharpness and quick wit some of these people in responding to implied statements and “wrapped” insinuations is truly amazing by any standard.

A’ratha is seen more frequently in the south where people are closer to older customs. Even then, they only happen once every few years.


Lunch is served after the noon prayers and dinner after the dusk prayers. If there is no nearby mosque or a Husseineyyah, people just pray on a wide span of rugs prepared by the host. Sunnis and Shiites pray together. Sunni and Shiite prayers are identical, there are only small differences in posture (Shiites leave their arms at full length at their side, Sunnis cross their chest with them). Ten years ago, perhaps a quarter of those present took part in the prayers. Nowadays, the figure is closer to three-quarters.


Meals are served three times a day. Breakfast is served to relatives who come from far and stay over-night, sometimes for three nights! Cooking is normally done by men, supervised by an older man or woman. People who can afford it hire professionals.

Foldable steel tables appear from nowhere carried by an army of young men. Within a few minutes all tents have tables erected in the aisles. The same army of young men then fill the tables with food, again in minutes. The meal is always the same: steel plates filled with fried rice (sometimes with bread underneath), with chunks of lamb on top, bread and water.

Most hosts rarely eat with the guests. They just hover around behind them checking that everything is satisfactory. They normally go inside the house to eat during the lull of visitors after the meal.

The army of young men, now armed with towels, soap and water canisters, pour water for the guests to wash their hands in a corner outside the tents. The tables are cleared and then removed with the same speed. Tea is always served afterwards.


The whole affair is so much less solemn than the city Fat-ha. The hosts are full of welcoming sentences (and sometimes even smiles). It is usually considered unbecoming to show grief, especially if the death is of natural causes, unless you are too old to worry about social considerations. But there are many exceptions of course. If the death was violent and the murder is un-avenged, then you are more likely to see anger in their eyes!

Women are the reverse. Their wailing is much higher than city women. There is also a great deal more chest beating and tearing of clothes! It seems as if countrywomen somehow compensate for their men's lack of display of grief by showing more of it!

Naturally the cost of this affair can be rather high. This is never a problem. Close relatives contribute towards the initial cost. People always pay money when they go to a Fat-ha in the country. They call it "Wajib" – duty! Someone carries a notebook and people sign their names and the amount they pay. Country folk are very particular in referring to that notebook when going to someone's Fat-ha… but there is usually a norm. The end result is that the Fat-ha usually does not cost the hosts much! People who contributed toward the initial expenses may then have their money back. If not, it will come back to them some other day. It is more like one gigantic cooperative.

There is virtually no difference between Sunnis and Shiites in country Fat-has. If you didn't know the people, you couldn't tell the difference. Small differences are due to area and geography rather than sect. Even then, the differences are minute. The above description would hold almost anywhere in the countryside in Iraq.


I have always seen Fat-ha as an excellent exercise in social "therapy". Being so busy with planning, preparations and taking care of guests somehow lets people pass through the initial shock period by being busy with others (for women, also crying loudly with others). You are given no time to sit quietly in a secluded corner with all sorts of sad and "loss" feelings. Your loss is shared by so many others… in public. By the time all the activities are over, the loss would have been psychologically accommodated!

The Fat-ha, to me, is a victory of life over death.


Putting a face to it

Several times in this blog, I have referred to tribal gatherings in the countryside. It occurred to me that people may not be able to visualize my descriptions; a picture may put a face to it all, so I fished this one from my old album to illustrate.

The photo above shows such a gathering. The man in the foreground demonstrates how a well-behaved person consults with an older man. The older man, Hajji Taha, is not a tribal chief; he is just an old and respectable person.

Saturday, January 08, 2005


Sharing Grief in the City

I have referred to "Fat-ha" several times in this blog and simply explained it as [A reception of three days' duration where people go to express condolences to the deceased's kin].

The Fat-ha is such an important facet of social life in Iraq that I think the subject may be worth some detailed description. This may also be useful to the many young Iraqis who were born or raised abroad… if one day they may come back home!

Fat-ha is more of social event than a simple expression of condolences! It is used to express solidarity, show the extent of social connections, the more important or well-connected or richer the deceased or one of his or her close kin, the larger and the busier is the Fat-ha. People who take their social obligations seriously may visit several Fat-has a week! You can make amends by going to someone's Fat-ha. You can make a statement by not showing at a Fat-ha.

The Fat-ha is the same whether the deceased is a man or a woman. Two separate receptions are conducted for each Fat-ha, one for men and one for women. Women's Fat-has are different than men's. Perhaps Riverbend or Rose could post something on the subject. Christians frequently follow the same custom where men and women sit in different parts of a hall annexed to a church.

Fat-ha is the Iraqi corruption of the word "Fatiha" – the first and probably the most-recited verse in the whole of the Koran. It is recited in deaths, weddings and several times in each of the five daily prayers! It roughly occupies the same place as the Lord's Prayer. Simply stated, it says:

In the name of God, the Mercy-giving, the Merciful! * Praise be to God, * Lord of the Universe, * the Mercy-giving, the Merciful! * Ruler on the Day for Repayment! ** You do we worship and You do we call on for help. * Guide us along the Straight Road, * the road of those whom You have favored, with whom You are not angry, nor who are lost!

In this post, I will restrict my description to the city Fat-ha. I hope I can describe the Fat-has in the countryside in the next post. Fat-has in first-generation immigrant communities are more like country Fat-has.

As I said before, the Fat-ha is a reception of three days' duration. It usually starts on the day following the death.

Announcement is usually through newspapers and black banners about 1m by 4m distributed at busy road junctions of the city (that is why Baghdad is always full of those black banners). The ever-active Iraqi grapevine takes care of spreading the word.

The venue is one of four places depending on a number of factors: In the house or garden at the house of the deceased or one of his sons, on the pavement outside the house, using a make-shift "tunnel tent" (called chaadir) or in a hall dedicated to the purpose annexed to a mosque or a Husseineyyah.

Duration: usually 3 hours in the early evening 5-8 or 6-9 pm, except for Ramadan where it starts right after breaking the fast. At present, it is becoming increasingly common to have it in the afternoon…2-5 or 3-6 pm to give people time to get back home before dark or soon after. For first-generation immigrants from the countryside, the reception is usually all-day long.

Protocol: Just outside the entrance to the hall, several young men stand in a row to greet visitors. You walk into the hall, you say "al Salam Alaikum" (May Peace be upon you) to the hall in general (some raise their right hand in salute while, or instead of, saying the words). Some of those nearby answer back with similar words (something like: Alaikum al Salam). You don't shake hands with anybody. You may be directed to a seat or may be left to find a seat in a position of your liking.

Before, or immediately after, sitting down you loudly say the word "al Fat-ha". You quietly recite the Fatiha verses. The verses are also recited by those who hear your announcement. When someone finishes his recital he wipes his face with the both palms as a sign that he has finished. Non-believers just make the motions!!

A Christians visiting a Muslim Fat-ha crosses himself and recites a prayer before sitting down.

People around the newcomer would then say: "Allah bi Khair" where he would respond with the same words.

The deceased's close kin receiving people, usually 4 or 5, sitting close to the entrance, stand up and don't sit down again until this procedure is complete.

All the time, the Koran is recited by a professional reader or from a recording in a loud enough level to drum the quiet murmur of noises usually present. In principle, people shouldn't talk while the Koran is being read, but in Iraq, you can see people talking to those next to them in hushed voices. It is not uncommon to see the odd smile. Extremely religious people are generally angered by that but there is nothing they can do about entrenched social habits!

Only three items are served: Water, Arabic coffee (a tiny amount, about a teaspoonful, black, really concentrated stuff without sugar, served in special cups that are only used for this purpose – perhaps more details of the coffee ritual in a future post) and cigarettes. On the third day, to signal the last day of the Fat-ha, rosewater is sprinkled from a special canister into each new guest's hands.

People usually stay for about half an hour. The duration of the stay and the number of times you go to the same Fat-ha in the three days is a function of the closeness to the deceased or his kin.

To signal your wish to leave you say "Fat-ha" aloud again, recite the verse and get up. The "receptionists" stand and you shake hands with them (junior first, senior last) and say your words of condolences.

Before the 1950's Fat-has were usually of 7-day duration. Up to the 1950's there would be dinner at the end of each day of Fat-ha. In the 1960's, 70's and 80's, there would be dinner on the third day only. Nowadays, dinner is rarely served in city Fat-has.

This is only a short glimpse of the Iraqi city Fat-ha. It applies to both Sunni and Shiite Fat-has. There are in fact tiny differences that can be detected only on the last hour of the last day, but these are not of much significance. In my next post I will briefly describe the Fat-ha in the countryside.

Saturday, January 01, 2005


Poetry Chase

Poetry is so central in Iraqi people's sentiment and disposition that any glimpse of Iraq would be incomplete without some mention of it.

For centuries, poetry was the first religion for many people. People's collective wisdom, their history and heritage, their values and ideals, their pride and achievements are all preserved in poetry lines.

The poetry I refer to is the classical form. Modern free-form poetry is a relatively "new" development, only about a hundred years old. Classical poetry has a very rigid format: each line is in two halves of equal length. The second half of all lines (plus the last word of the first half) end with the same sound. All halves of all lines rigidly follow the same rhythm and meter.

I find classical Arabic poetry a joy that unfortunately will never be fully shared by non-Arabic speakers. The music is in the words themselves, and that can never be translated. You can only translate the meaning, leaving the poem cold and dry and almost without spirit. The other problem is the slight variation in the shade of numerous words that cannot be matched easily in other languages.

This kind of poetry reached its peak of craftsmanship just before the emergence of Islam. They had a top-7 (some say a top-10) poems. Some claim that those were hung on the walls of Kaaba, Abraham's House of God, which was, and still is, the most sacred of their shrines.

All poems, regardless of theme, start off with a few lines either describing the poet's love idol or the ruins of her people's dwellings – almost always. This tradition was broken and ridiculed by Abu Nawas, one of the most famous poets of the Abbasid's period. He said something like:

The wretched seeks some ruins to solicit…
… And I go and ask for the town's tavern!

People, particularly in the countryside and the desert have truly astonishing capacity to remember poetry (and other things!). I have met people who can remember 50 lines of a poem after hearing them once. The rhythm and the music in the words of course help. I once met a Bedouin who in the course of an (extended) evening must have recited several thousand lines of poetry, covering almost three centuries of his tribe's and region's history… all without any shred of objectivity!

Islam frowned on poetry. Poets were generally regarded as people who do not do what they say (They usually do exaggerate, for artistic effect). Yet, when a famous poet converted to Islam and read a poem before Prophet Mohammed, the Prophet bestowed his cloak on him. This was a cherished relic for many Caliphs and ended up in the possession of the Ottomans. Poetry would not die! The touching poems of a famous poetess mourning her brothers who died in the cause of spreading Islam are still remembered.

For long centuries, the rules of poetry strictly adhered to were unknown, yet never broken! One day, 1250 years ago, one notable plilologist (whose name was al Khaleel) was walking through the market place in Basrah. The pounding sounds of the copper-beaters sparked a thesis in his mind… and he "discovered" and formulated those rules. All poetry fell into 16 main categories, which he called "seas". The secret was in the rigid sequence of consonants and vowels following in a particular order. Each "sea" had its own unique order. He gave names to those seas which are retained to this day. A magnificent feat! Incidentally, that gentleman had two lines that sometimes come to my mind when I read comments from some readers of my blogs. They say something like:

If you knew what I was saying, you would have forgiven me…
…If you knew what you were saying I would have blamed you.

But you know not what I was saying, so you blame me…
…And I know that you are ignorant, so I forgive you.

In the centuries that followed, and with the rise of Islamic civilization, poetry reached new heights. There were some truly magnificent poets in Damascus, Baghdad and elsewhere. There were so many of them – hundreds. But the shining stars among them were only a few dozens! They reflected numerous facets of moods and attitudes – the warrior, the thoughtful, the dreamer, the reflective, the boastful, the religious… and of course, the decadent!

The Decadent of Baghdad in 750 was the famous Abu Nawas. He was extremely fond of women and wine and made no secret of it. He was (and still is) the hero of many popular "decadent" jokes. His poetry had a distinctively sweet musical tone to it. A street on the riverbank in Baghdad was named after him. Appropriately, that street was the center of the outdoor bars of Baghdad up to the mid 1970's. That street is on the other side of the Tigris from the Presidential Palace (now known as the Green Zone). This was a reason for its decline in fortunes even before the present religious revival.

My personal favorite is someone called "al Mutanabbi" (which literally means: The one who claimed to be a Prophet) who lived in the first half of the 10th century AD. He was relatively terse on love poems, but he truly exemplified all that was noble, soaring and proud in the human spirit. Many people found him, and many still find him, too arrogant. He took liberties with metaphors and broke new grounds. No other poet anywhere was the focus of so much debate and controversy for 10 centuries. But he had a way with words that to my mind is unequalled by any other. He could say so much and capture so many things in so few words! Many of his words have been enshrined in popular proverbs that are still used today. A true genius. I hope I can sometime post something about him.

But after Islam, poetry generally became the second religion in Iraq (and in many other places). During the last century, politics took the second place. Poetry became third. During the last 3 or 4 decades, it lost more of its status.

But there are still many corners where love for poetry still lives on.


I can still remember those poetry matches in Baghdad where, in a coffee house for example, people (ranging from a daily-wage laborer to a university professor) would have what was known as "Poetry Chases": The chase is usually run between two people. One contestant would start with a line of poetry. The opponent would have to come up with a line that starts with the same letter as the last one of the previous line. Some letters are difficult and there was a great deal of skill and memory involved. Usually onlookers would act as arbitrators. I haven't seen such a match in decades.

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