Damascus, the largest city and capital of Syria, has seen the light, just like the Apostle Paul (then known as Saul) had when he was on the road to that place. No shining light this time, not unless you call the righteous shining lights.
In the shadow of the storied Umayyad Mosque, at the heart of Damascus' old city, one of the last classical Arabic storytellers takes to his throne in the Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop. Rashid Hallak, better known as Abu Shadi — it means "father of Shadi," a common affectionate reference to a man's eldest son — appears here almost every night.It seems like the righteous in Syria tore a leaf out of ASH UK’s book of myths regarding the devastating consequences of smoking bans on the hospitality industry, whether it be pubs, cafes, bingo halls etc, and swallowed, hook, line, and sinker there [ASH’s] self serving propaganda, worthy of Hitler himself.
He may not perform much longer, though. Syria has a new indoor smoking ban, which took effect April 21, and it threatens to hasten the end of the hakawati, the storyteller who relates such stories as tales from A Thousand and One Nights.
Syria is mostly a teetotal country and predominantly Islamic so the meeting places that we in the UK take for granted, pubs, clubs, and bingo halls are substituted by a vast array of cafés. It is there that the old and the young gambol their free time away over a glass of [Arabic] coffee, a chat and a cigarette or hookah.
So what can Syria’s business community expect of their future development when just two short months into an indoor smoking ban? Especially the hospitality industry. We already have seen above what this pernicious ban has done to the ancient custom of the storyteller, who’s craft has been handed down, from father to son, over the centuries:
He may not perform much longer, though. Syria has a new indoor smoking ban, which took effect April 21, and it threatens to hasten the end of the hakawati, the storyteller who relates such stories as tales from A Thousand and One Nights.As a child, many years ago now, I was enthralled by the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, still am, and whenever old movies of one of them are re-run I am an avid watcher, read the books too. You are never too old to go back to your childhood. But I digress.
Fewer people are coming to the cafe, or they come but they don't linger, because they can no longer enjoy a water pipe while they listen, says Fady al-Rabat, 17, who is training to run the 300-year-old cafe. It has been in his family since his great-grandfather bought it.A story that publicans and the hospitality industry as a whole here in the UK know all to well but keep sticking their fingers in their ears whilst singing lalalalalalala, while they face bankruptcy.
"People still come to hear him," he says, "but they leave afterward. They don't stay around."
That means less revenue to pay the storyteller.
To walk to the Al-Nawfara is to take a trip back millennia in time. The city's covered market, Souq al-Hamidiyya, situated between the new city and the Umayyad Mosque, boasts scores of clothing stores, ice cream parlors and knick-knack shops for tourists. The ancient mosque, an important religious site for Muslims, sits next to the overflowing stalls of the spice market and towers over the rest of the old city.As in this country, a premises outdoor space is at a premium and not many venues have the luxury of a patio, beer gardens, or permission to put tables and chairs out for their smoking patrons on the pavement due to one local government edict or another. Nor do we have the clement weather for businesses to do so if they could.
Al-Rabat expects the Al-Nawfara, on a leafy street behind the mosque, to survive the indoor smoking ban because it has tables spilling into the street, where smoking is still legal.
The new law makes it illegal to smoke at indoor cafes, restaurants, bars and other indoor public venues. It also strengthens enforcement and increases fines under previous, narrower smoking restrictions.As of 2008* waiters in Syria make around £25 a week.
For smoking at an indoor cafe, fines are stiff for this country, where per-capita income was $4,490 in 2008. A smoker can pay a fine equal to $44, and the cafe owner can be hit with a $550 fine.
Nearly half the waiters weekly income, if he is caught smoking inside his place of work, even if it is away from the food that he works with, would be taken from him by force. Can he afford such a burden, can he afford to lose his job over such a misdemeanour? Can his employers afford to lose their livelihood if they don’t enforce the ban? Can any business afford this type of coercion, whether they agree to it or not? Where have we seen this type of intimidation before?
And what about workers outside the hospitality industry in Damascus?
Smoking has long been illegal on public transportation, but now drivers say they can no longer flout the law. Many still smoke cigarettes, but now they are careful to tuck them into the palms of their hands, hiding them from the view of police.
One driver, Ibrahim Hassoun, 26, says he works 12 hours a day and cannot afford to pull over for a smoke.
"I can't smoke now in public," he says, "because I have to pay fees if someone from the government catches me smoking."
I mentioned earlier about the Hookah and it’s role in Syrian society:
The ban collides with Syria's water-pipe culture. Water pipes, also known as hookahs, are the chief reason to visit coffeehouses for many people.But the righteous anti-smoker is not having that, is he/she:
Water pipes "are not a tradition here in Syria that we have to live with and we have to protect," argues Bisher Daaboul, 40, who is on the board of the Syrian Society for Smoking Cessation. He notes water pipes have been in fashion only since the 1990s.And then they (the righteous) find reason to cry for a smoking ban, the same crocodile tears we have heard the world over…too many people are doing it:
According to Daaboul's organization, 60% of Syrian adult males and 30%-40% of females smoke in some form.That sounds a good reason to ban everything, doesn’t it.
We all know success can take some people by surprise but even the smoking ban in Syria took Bisher Daaboul and his Syrian Society for Smoking Cessation to the dizzy heights that even our own ASH would be jealous of:
The Syrian Society for Smoking Cessation opened its doors in 2004. Daaboul admits that the ban exceeded even his expectations.Now, come on Bashir, you didn’t think you did it all on your own now, did you?
"It was beyond our ambition to have such a ban implemented in Damascus," he says.
The new ban carries extra weight than previous laws because it came as a decree issued directly by President Bashar al-Assad, a physician.Oh, and the very least you could have done Bashir was to give a very big hat tip to the imperialist British, we had a hand in making your righteous wish come true, Arabian nights style:
Who said the British Empire was dead eh?
If there is a god please save us from the self righteous.
*On researching this piece on the internet I was surprised to find out that Syria was a SOCIALIST country but I can’t, for the life of me, understand why I was so surprised given that they have just implemented a Hitlerian smoking ban. Here is BBC report on Syria circa 2008.
Main source for this blog here.