BEIRUT: Mondays and Thursdays are busy days for the Sbeity Bookshop in Karakol al-Druze in Beirut. With just a few hours until the lottery drawing, customers are piling in at a rate of several a minute to buy tickets in hopes of winning this week’s $3 million jackpot. Many greet the man behind the counter, Mahmoud Sbeity, who has run the shop for 20 years, by name.
Sbeity says his regulars include both rich and poor, but the majority of customers who stopped by this particular Thursday were older men, many of whom say their children are grown or live abroad and they consider the lottery a form of entertainment. Although technology now enables players to submit their numbers by text, many of the customers appeared to value the opportunity to socialize.
“I always come to Mahmoud to play ... every Monday and Thursday,” says Mohammad al-Mugharibeen, 76, a retired customs official who sticks around to make small talk.
“I like to play because my children are abroad,” he adds.
Another regular who would only give his last name, Makarem, 84, says that he started playing the lottery when he quit smoking, replacing one habit with another.
Bilal Tayarra, 24, a rare young face among the crowd, says he just started playing two weeks ago “for fun.”
“Some people are addicted, some just want to have fun, some do it for the money, and some do it as a means of validation, to say ‘I won,’” he offers by way of explanation.
Sbeity says that over the 20 years he has been selling lottery tickets, he has noticed a clear correlation between the overall economy, which is related to the security situation, and the number of people willing to risk their hard-earned money for a slight chance of riches.
“It’s hope. They’re buying hope for a few thousand [Lebanese pounds], and every week they get to renew it,” he says, waxing philosophical.
One customer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, has a slightly more pessimistic take on this phenomenon.
“Why do people play the lottery? Look at this country. The politics are tired, the country is tired,” he says. “I have two children working in the Gulf because you can’t buy a house for less than half a million dollars.”
And what would he do if he won?
“I’d stop playing,” the man says, adding: “After I buy a house for each of my children.”
But while some see it as a harmless pastime or a way to keep hope alive in a bleak economy, the hobby can easily veer into addiction, with some customers spending hundreds dollars a week on tickets.
After the man who refused to give his name leaves, Sbeity admits he comes in several times a day, sometimes buying five or 10 tickets at a time and often using numbers he saw on random objects like car license plates.
Nadine Moussa, an occupational therapist and the clinical coordinator at Skoun Addictions Center, which offers treatment for gambling addiction, said addiction can be classified into pathological or compulsive addiction, and problem gambling.
Pathological gambling is rooted in impulse control, she said.
“It’s all they can think about and all they can do,” she explained. “There is always an excuse to gamble.”
“Problem gambling is any behavior that disrupts your life,” she clarified. “Whether they can no longer afford it or it’s taking time away from their loved ones, anything that becomes disruptive has crossed the line.”
Moussa advises anyone who suspects a loved one might be struggling with gambling addiction “not to preach or lecture,” and to avoid accusatory “you are” statements.
“Bring up the signs and symptoms in a gentle way,” she said. “You can say ‘I’ve noticed you don’t have a lot of money on you.’”
Moussa said expressing anger by shouting or cutting the gambler off financially could make the impulse to gamble stronger, noting that strong family or community support is important to recovery.