Can a card game help to imagine a decolonised Palestine?

Photo: Countless Palestinian Futures
Zena Agha sits down with the creators of card game ‘Countless Palestinian Futures’

“I sometimes feel like there’s a barrier to entry on Palestine,” says Danah Abdulla, a Palestinian-Canadian designer, educator and researcher, and one of the creators of Countless Palestinian Futures (CPF), a conversation-based game. At its heart, CPF “aims to stimulate the imagination” around the what, who and how of building a decolonised Palestine. Sarona Abuaker, a Palestinian poet, artist and educational outreach worker who co-created the game with Abdulla, elaborates: “The game tries to offer a space for people who aren’t well-versed in critical theory, for example, to participate. It allowed us to take a subject that’s generally considered ‘off-limits’ or even criminalised in different ways and make it generative and fun.”  

CPF comprises more than 70 different questions, grouped under six unequally weighted themes, with each printed on an individual card. Some are framed as immediate and urgent, while others take a medium- or long-term perspective on what a Palestinian future might entail. The questions range from “What would be done with the apartheid wall?” to “What would the impact to surrounding Arab countries be if the majority of their Palestinian [refugee] populations left?”

I first play Countless Palestinian Futures at the Mosaic Rooms in London in October 2021. It is the game’s debut outing in a public forum, and its radical potential quickly becomes apparent. It feels especially pressing because the British establishment has long resisted open and honest discussions about Palestine.

Just before we begin playing, about 20 of us, predominantly Palestinian, congregate around one long table, complete with rolls of paper and markers for writing, drawing and doodling. Though the game can be played in many different ways (between two people as a conversation or as a larger group), in our case we split into two groups of ten, with Abdulla and Abuaker facilitating.

The expertise in our particular group varies widely. In a workshop setting, this might lead to a de facto hierarchy of individual contributions – and contributors – dictating its dynamics. But in the context of gameplay, no ideas are off-limits; everything is open to exploration. Towards the end of the game, we turn over a card to find ourselves confronted with the question of future land ownership and private property. Should Palestinians prepare to restore land rights as they were before 1948? For returning refugees, who decides what gets built, where, and by whom? 

Abuaker explains the rationale behind the question. “It raises really important questions around themes of transformative justice and abolition. What does it mean to demand someone redistribute their own wealth? What do we do if they refuse to do that? What happens when values of sanctuary and non-oppression are not followed or practised? This is a big issue now with the neoliberalisation of Palestine by Palestinians today.” 

In our group, there are different attitudes towards wealth and the wealthy. As the discussion turns to the issue of Palestinian elites, a quiet member of the group, who speaks little but has been doodling throughout, draws a guillotine in a blue felt-tip pen. We pause, then unexpectedly find ourselves in a discussion around revolution, armed struggle, the safety of home and the limits of control over capital.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about decolonisation and Palestine, but playing CPF is still an exhilarating experience. Using the simple medium of play, Abdulla and Abuaker help our group to recognise how unattuned we are to its usefulness in sketching out radical futures in Palestine. Perhaps this is because decolonisation is normally such a “serious” subject for which something as apparently light and frivolous as play is anathema. It might also be because none of us have played a game quite like it before. CPF feels like an invitation to collectively depart from the Palestine status quo and to imagine another world for a little while. For two short hours, the burden of the past and the well-earned scepticism of the present don’t dictate the potential joys of the future. 

Afterwards, I ask Abdulla and Abuaker why they chose the medium of play, as opposed to other imaginative forms such as books or pieces of art. Abuaker believes that the game allows its players to engage in “a form of world-building”. In this sense, it is the ideal vehicle to discuss what the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland looks like in practice. “That’s ultimately what return invites us to do: it allows us Palestinians to think about what it means to create a home despite our fragmentation. It allows us to ask what homemaking from a distance looks like.” 

The right of millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to their homeland is a cornerstone of the game, just as it is for the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation. But though return is necessary to the decolonisation movement, it is just the first step of many. As Abdulla highlights: “The game plays with the question of what happens beyond the statement ‘Palestine will be free’.” She thinks of the game not as a sweeping political statement, but rather as a “minor gesture” – “a localised, subversive act”. In other words, “an act that shapes the world on the way to changing it”. Abuaker agrees that the focus on local conversations can help to sidestep some of the narrative traps associated with the right of return. “It can feel like we are overstepping sometimes, especially when we’re not physically in Palestine.” 

I do feel some discomfort when I play the game. I find myself asking what right we have to discuss certain topics. For Palestinians living in exile, what is the value of having these discussions at all? These thoughts have occurred to Abuaker too. “The game provides a humble space to think about these questions,” she stresses. “You see how awkward people can get and the tensions that discussing them can bring out. You feel people brushing up against each other, and you see their frustration. As a facilitator, you want to make sure conversations keep opening up. You need to get comfortable with that subversiveness.”

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Abdulla and Abuaker to each select a question for us to play out together. We draw out a stack of cards, pick a category, place the question on the table between us and take a moment to think. Suddenly, we are imagining futures.

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