For Syrians, butting out is hard to do

syriasmoking_382141gm-e1.jpgButt out

Syrian men read the newspaper and smoke a traditional waterpipe at a cafe in Damascus

Damascus – Even as Syria is opening up culturally and economically, it’s closing down in another area: smoking.

In October, the country’s parliament passed an anti-smoking law restricting the sales and marketing of tobacco products and prohibiting smoking in public places. For a country as hooked on tobacco as this one, that’s a draconian measure.

It’s hard to think of any other place with which smoking is more closely associated. It’s popular among young and old and with women as well as men. Some 60 per cent of adult men smoke, as do 23 per cent of adult women.

While neighbouring Iraq is worried about the infiltration of insurgents and the smuggling of weapons across its frontier with Syria, Damascus is concerned about the massive amount of contraband cigarettes brought into Syria from Iraq. The French brands Gauloises and Gitanes are among the most heavily smuggled products across the Syria-Iraq border.

More than cigarettes, however, are covered by the smoking ban that commences in April. The narghile, or water pipe, also is being prohibited in public places and, to many Syrians, that is a national travesty. More than 20 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women are regular narghile smokers.

And while people may be able to nip outside to have a quick cigarette, it’s pretty hard to lug a narghile outside.

Cafés such as the al-Rawda thrive on the narghile trade. It’s an old downtown café frequented mostly by men who come to play cards, or backgammon, sip small cups of sweet black coffee, talk and smoke narghile. Decent ventilation keeps the cloud to a minimum, but the sweet and acrid smells of the different scents of tobacco being used is like breathing in a fruit salad.

It’s an unforgettable aroma, and a very pleasing one, even for a complete non-smoker like me.
The owner of al-Rawda told Syria Today, an English-language magazine, that he’ll be able to cope with the new law by designating the café’s courtyard as the smoking area, and all the enclosed spots around the sides as non-smoking. But it’ll be sad to see the atmosphere change, he said.

Nouri Eskandar, 71, has been a regular at the al-Rawda since moving to the capital from Aleppo two decades ago.

A composer of Syriac religious music (he was the first person to write down the music of the Syriac Orthodox faith, a music that had been passed on orally), Mr. Eskandar prefers his cigarettes to the water pipe, but treasures the atmosphere of places such as this.

“A lot of the changes taking place today are positive,” he said, “especially opening up to other cultures.”

“But I worry that we may lose our traditional Syrian character before we know it.”

All the news that’s fit to omit

It takes a while to put your finger on it, but one of the things missing from Damascus’s café life is newspapers. There’s no real reading culture in Syria, not as you’ll find in Beirut, Cairo or Jerusalem. People here sit in cafés empty handed; corner stores sell cigarettes and chips, but no newspapers or magazines. You have to look hard to find either of them.

One of the reasons is undoubtedly the heavy hand of censorship that was, until recently, predominate here since the early 1960s. When people couldn’t read much worth reading, they didn’t bother, and fell out of the habit.

Things are definitely looking up in the reading department, especially for English-language readers. There now are two monthly magazines in English, both surprisingly informative, and, as of this past week there now is an English-language newspaper.

But despite the liberalizing of all the media, the heaviest censor’s hand may be the one that’s self-administered.

A professor here told the story this week about how a producer and reporter from Syria Television had called on him for an interview just prior to the May 6 holiday called Martyrs Day. This occasion marks the 1916 execution by Ottoman authorities of a group of Syrian nationalists.

Mindful that Damascus has been very keen on developing new ties with Turkey after several years of estrangement, the television producer came up with a novel way to address the history of Martyrs Day.

“Could we talk about the holiday without mentioning the Ottomans?” she asked the professor.

“You want me to talk about the execution of Syrian nationalists without mentioning who killed them?” the professor asked. “I’m afraid that can’t be done.”

In the end the spot ran on the news just fine, Ottoman reference and all. “It was just a case of a nervous producer trying to anticipate what her bosses wanted,” he said.

No quarter

Of all the areas in Damascus undergoing change, the Old City is going through the most, and of all the areas inside the walls of the Old City, the old Jewish Quarter is undergoing the biggest transformation.

Once home to about 3500 Jews, the community now numbers fewer than 40. Many of the old homes now house Muslim or Christian families (the quarter stretches between the traditional Christian sector around the Church of St. Paul and the more populous Muslim area around the Umayyad Mosque). Many other of the Jewish homes remain vacant, their doors and windows boarded up or otherwise secured. One house still displays its Hebrew-inscribed lintel over the front door.

Most of the Jewish community left the country in the 1990s after then president Hafez al-Assad made it easier for them to emigrate and take their wealth with them. (Until then, it was possible to leave, but only with substantial limits placed on how much money or valuables they could take along.) Most of the community turned up in the United States, mostly in Brooklyn, New York. Some went on to live in Israel..

The Quarter’s former Jewish school, built only a few years before the departures, now has an Arab owner and it sits mostly empty, people say.

Around the corner from the school is the most dramatic change. The building that once housed the community’s principal synagogue is being beautifully renovated as Beit Farhi, named for the Jewish financier (and adviser to the Ottoman sultan) who lived in it almost two hundred years ago. Overall, the 25,000 sq ft of the original mansion will become a boutique hotel.

Across the narrow road from Beit Farhi is the Talsiman, a gem of a hotel built four years ago from the renovation of two other spacious Jewish homes. Its 17 rooms look out onto a spacious central courtyard.

Everywhere you look in the Jewish Quarter, construction is underway: galleries, restaurants, as well as more small hotels, are being built. In another decade, the Jewish Quarter will be a destination of its own — made possible, ironically, by the exodus of its original inhabitants.