The History of Rummikub: Vignettes from my local shop

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A blue and white tile floor with a curving pattern and black and orange text above.

The History of Rummikub by Idil Galip

Rummikub is a 4-person game played with 106 tiles, somewhere between the card game rummy and mah-jong. It’s a loud game, as the tiles are usually made of hard plastic and make a satisfying sound when they’re mixed. The game was invented by a Jewish man from Romania called Ephraim Hertzano as a work around a gambling ban, since playing card games were forbidden in Romania during the 1940s. Rummikub is one of my favourite games.

A bootleg Rummikub set sits in a dusty corner in my local shop, alongside a tangled mess of Nargiles, Turkish teapots and other eastern Mediterranean artefacts. I’d buy it but thinking back to that time at the pub when my friends refused to play backgammon with me, I realise it’s quite unlikely that they’d be up for a game even more exotic and tedious. Knowing I can’t give it a home is torturous, and so is witnessing its unending plastic existence and the customers’ general indifference to it. I imagine a better future for this set of Rummikub: its tiles all set up nicely on a round outdoor table, sunflower seeds in bowls ready to be prised open, slices of watermelon getting sweeter as they sit, and a pungent Citronella candle to ward off those pesky mosquitoes. A family sat around the table impatiently, the air thick with historical Rummikub rivalries. Here’s where the Rummikub set deserves to be, among kinfolk, not in this inconspicuous corner of a Southside shop, overlooked and lonely.

 

In Turkish, Rummikub is called Okey. It’s a fitting name, as things always felt perfectly “okay” when we were playing Rummikub: my grandparents, my mum and I. Throughout my somewhat transitory childhood, I managed to find a sense of stability in objects and rituals, like this game. Sadly, I haven’t played it in a while. This was probably the result of several things. We lost our best player, my grandpa, to leukaemia several years ago. I moved to Scotland and haven’t seen my family in over a year. That house where we played the most memorable games of Rummikub has been sold. The Citronella candle doesn’t burn so bright anymore, and Edinburgh’s always rainy.

its tiles all set up nicely on a round outdoor table, sunflower seeds in bowls ready to be prised open, slices of watermelon getting sweeter as they sit, and a pungent Citronella candle to ward off those pesky mosquitoes.

It’s funny, how my parents usually know that it’s raining in Edinburgh before I do. They are avid weather app users and will provide daily weather reports during our WhatsApp calls. My mum will exclaim “it was so warm today in Datca; we couldn’t leave the house to even go to the beach!” She’ll then follow the exclamation with a timid and consolatory tone, telling me that they’ve already checked the weather for me, and “well yes… It will be raining all week in Edinburgh.”

These interactions may be familiar to some. Maybe they remind you of the baroque photo filters your auntie uses on her profile pictures, or the insanely saturated Facebook memes and cheesy inspirational quotes that make the rounds in family WhatsApp chats.

Calls and messages mediated by various instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Viber are a must for families which are separated and scattered across cities, countries, and continents, like ours. When distances are great and traveling back home is difficult, people can rely on internet messaging applications for synchronous communication. This synchronicity brings a sense of familiarity and warmth that is akin to ‘offline’ interactions one has with friends and family.

But it’s also where people like me go to when they don’t know where to go, looking for things that they don’t need, in search of things past..

Although digitally arbitrated interactions can be visually stimulating, they can’t mimic corporal presence. Co-presence during communication is comforting for many people. I think we can all agree that in general, getting a hug from a loved one is more satisfying than receiving a text message. But when physical proximity is unattainable perhaps due to distance or because of a pandemic, or both, we keep mementos and repeat familiar rituals to remind ourselves what it felt like before everything. Here, in this state of mind, ordinary objects can evoke the strongest of emotions. Seeing a bottle of your mum’s favourite olive oil at your neighbourhood shop can prompt a sudden flood of tears, at a time when you can’t feel the warmth of her embrace. Unexpectedly seeing a Rummikub set at your local shop can send you down a Proustian rabbit hole.

This episode of the dusty Rummikub set, beyond triggering a memory overload, also alerted me to the peculiar role that our neighbourhood “ethnic” shop plays in my weekly routine. My trips to this particular store have become a tactile coping mechanism. After a call with my family, I’m always drawn to this place: it’s a place where I can see, touch and smell objects that remind me of home. It’s a clumsy attempt at connecting the missing link between their voices and presence. With these trips, I try to substitute the Rummikub set, or a bottle of olive oil, a bar of Daphne soap or any other silly thing for their company. Every trip ends with me going home to my partner and playing show and tell with the strange array of products I’ve brought back with me. He humours me and listens to my bizarre tales about baby biscuits, rolling pins and preserved vine leaves, comforts me when I start feeling overwhelmed by the unspoken feelings these trivial stories communicate.

This shop is a place of business, where stocks get replaced, aisles are cleaned, and money exchanged. Certain items take me down a winding path of reminiscence here, the hustle and bustle of the shop melts into the background and I realise I’ve been staring at this Rummikub set for too long, making the rest of the shoppers a bit uncomfortable. This is my cue to leave the premises and go back home, where I can spend as much time as I like googling the history of Rummikub.  

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A photo of the author Idil Galip wearing a black shirt and leather jacket.

Idil Galip is a writer and doctoral researcher. Her work focuses on digital culture, art, and practice-based research.s @idilgalip 

www.idilgalip.com

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