Hands-up! You’ve been smoking!

By Sami Moubayed
Photography by Carole al-Farah, Photo-editing by Ibrahim Aladdin
Forward Magazine, Syria

Yesterday at the popular Rawda Cafe next to the Syrian Parliament, an elderly man walked in to sit at a corner he has reserved for himself, for nearly 40-years. Back then in 1970 he was 30, while the cafe itself was approximately 30-years old. He took out a cigarette as he has customarily done for the last four decades, lite it to inhale strong tobacco, then to his complete amazement was approached by one of the waiters who politely said; “This section is now smoke-free Sir. You have to extinguish your cigarette. If you want to smoke you have to sit in the courtyard!” Grumbling the man walked out with tail between his legs, speaking to himself and saying: “What is left of this life if one cannot smoke a cigarette anymore at any place he desires or has been used to for so long!”

It has been very amusing I must say, watching society prepare itself for the smoking ban that went into effect yesterday, on April 21, 2010. Hours before the ban was implimented, while seated at one of the coffee shops in Damascus, I said to a friend, “Say farewell to an era; the argeelah craze that took over Syria since the mid-1990s, is finally coming to an end!” Back in 1996, only a handful of cafes tolerated Turkish pipe smoking in Syria. Ten years down the road, it was difficult to find a venue in Syria that does not provide Turkish pipes—not to forget the door-to-door service, known as “arageel delivery!”

The new law, passed six months ago by President Bashar al-Assad, says that any indoor café or restaurant with no open ceiling will not be able to serve Turkish pipes, or tolerate the smoking of cigarettes, pipes, and cigars. That applies to all pubs, lounges, and the hundreds of cafes that have mushroomed all over the Syrian capital in recent years. No more cigar chomping at the Piano Bar in Old Damascus or at the lounges of the Sheraton Hotel and Four Seasons. No more argeeleh & tea over a good game of cards at the Orient Club. No more smoking in the crowded corridors of state-buildings, or in any government-related territory.

Venues with a concrete ceiling that nevertheless has openings throughout it; can permit smoking provided that the percentage of the smoking zone is relative to the percentage of the openings in the ceiling. Those penalized will pay up to 5,000 SP ($108 USD) per smoking violation, while venues owners breaking the law will pay up to 40,000 SP (870 USD) per penalty. A special police will be charged with roaming the streets of Syrian cities to track down anybody breaking the law while a 4-digit “hotline” has been created, linking citizens to authorities so they can ‘report’ any law violator. An official receipt for those who are caught smoking has already been published in official periodicals, and is posted on this blog. Repeated violations can lead to prison for ordinary Syrians and complete discharge from government service, for state employees.

It must be noted that several companies in the private sector have already started paving ground for the law, granting a salary increase or hefty bonus, to those who stop smoking at will. In addition to government buildings, smoking has been banned in cars, buses, trains, aiports, schools, universities, prisons, cinemas, and all sports facilities.

Will the law really go into effect, and how serious will the “smoke police” be in implementing it? Those who have seen the experience succeed in Europe are optimistic that the experience can easily be copied in Syria. Although there is a lot of resentment from smokers—who claim that the new law infringes on their basic rights as citizens—many predict that this resistance will fade away in no more than 2-3 months.

Will the Syrians manage to give up their long-held and cherished smoking habits, where for as long as anybody can remember, they have gone to cafes for a strong cigarette—Hamra tawila (Syrian made cigarettes), imported Marlboros, or a good apple-flavored Turkish pipe, topped with a challenging game for backgammon?

A question, waiting for answers…

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5 Responses

  1. Nice piece, there’s a typo though: “to those who stop smoking at wll.”

  2. Thank GOD for this new law. Forget the infringement on people’s right to smoke, for so long now I had to argue that I, as a non-smoker, have the right to breath fresh air. To which the response was always “go stand/sit someplace else”.

    This is a great move on President Bashar al Assad’s behalf, the amount of second hand smoke in the last few years has been unbearable. Perhaps people will now focus on a healthier lifestyle as well. The long term benefits will also appear in the next few years, I’m sure.

    For now I’m just happy to be able to go to my favorite cafes in Damascus and enjoy some clean smoke free air. Also, not having to see young “stylish” mothers smoking a Turkish pipe next to their new born babies will be a happy sight indeed.

    Tarik Tadmori
    BS Arch, LEED AP+

  3. In London it was astonishing how quickly the debate died away — almost overnight, as I recall, and even smokers would say that it was nice now being able to sit in a cafe or restaurant and not breathe smoke all night.

    However, it did lead to a sad loss of business for the Arabic cafes up and down the Edgware Road. My family and I would go every weekend to the Cafe du Liban and I’d often have an apple shisha to round off the meal. No inhaling and only once a week wasn’t, in my view, going to be bad for me. Sadly, the Cafe closed down and though it was redeveloped into something else, it lost all its old character. I heard from the owner that many other cafes were badly affected by the smoking ban.

    So, overall, it’s much better, but there are aspects of the ban that have been unfortunate.

    I hadn’t been aware that use of the Turkish pipe only became widespread in Syria as from the mid-1990s. I have only had the good fortune to visit your country once, in about 1997 (and it’s still in my Top 3 countries in the world — which always surprises people here!) and pipe-smoking appeared very prevalent then.

    I enjoy your blog and always tune in. Keep up the interesting stories.

    Best wishes
    Jolyon Patten

  4. Alhumdilelah! Finally, the non-smoker’s turn to enjoy going out. No more imposed headaches!! If you fully understood the complete detrimental effects of tobacco on health, you would laud President Assad’s wise endeavor to diminish this habit. A healthy nation is a more productive nation. Everyone wins! And if you’re still not convinced, think of the financial savings estimated at about USD 250,000 over 30+ years. But there goes my dream of opening the only non-smoking coffee shop, up in smoke! Now to enforce clean air policies on the chugging trucks and buses for a truly smog free atmosphere.

    Wishing you the best, good health and financial gain!
    Patricia Tadmori

    (Bless you, Tarik, for defending the babies!)

  5. Though I’ve been a smoker my entire adult life, i have always supported and respected smoking bans.. Even back when they didn’t exist, i always believed that certain protocols must be followed by smokers and that we should never smoke around non-smokers… I urge anyone who’s a father to a young child, husband to a pregnant wife to support this great initiative by our government and respectfully follow it… For us smokers, maybe this is an awakening to give up this nasty habit especially now that we’ve become “second class citizens…” Thank you Sami Bek for the blog…

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