You can smoke pretty much wherever you want in the Middle East. The guy making your sandwich smokes. Gas station attendants smoke. The 85-year old lady who mends your clothes smokes. Six-year olds smoke. Last fall in Beirut, I even saw a guy smoking a cigarette as he boarded an international flight. So when the Lebanese government passed a ban on smoking indoors in public spaces just over a month ago, most people here were skeptical.
But the ban has largely been observed. It's surprising because Lebanon is in many ways a country with only the outward appearance of being a functioning state. Daily power cuts are the norm here, with poorer areas of the country receiving only a few hours of electricity per day. Snipers frequently prowl neighborhoods of the country's second largest city, Tripoli, and disputes between families are often settled with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. During deadly street battles in Tripoli this summer, fighters and civilians said that the neglectful state was just as much to blame for seething tensions in the city as sectarianism and spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria were.
Local paper An-Nahar last month published a satirical cartoon of masked, AK-47 wielding gunmen roaming freely while the big hand of government pointed an accusatory finger at a man with a nargile water pipe. As the popular Lebanese website Blog Baladi noted just before the law went into effect, "I don’t see how Shisha cafes will be able to implement such a law, because it’s like asking night clubs or pubs to stop serving alcohol or playing music. By putting this law into effect, you are indirectly asking them to close down their business and fire their staff, which is easier said than done."
It's hard to argue against a ban on smoking in public spaces in a country like Lebanon, where the rate of lung cancer among men is nearly 16 percent per 100,000 cases. But the question is what will happen to the small, decades-old cafes where people gather to talk politics, play backgammon, and smoke nargile. There are hundreds of cafes in cities and villages across Lebanon that serve only water pipes, tea and coffee.
The ban states that establishments caught breaking the law can be fined as much as $2,700. Some private citizens have even taken to acting as vigilante enforcers, patrolling neighborhoods looking for violators.
I found myself at a tiny café a few blocks from the American University in Beirut this week where the owner (who asked that his establishment not be named) proudly explained that he had beaten the ban: "Not only does the government not enforce [the ban], but I get many police who come here to smoke while they are working." He pointed to two uniformed officers smoking nargile and watching the news in the corner. "This law will not hurt the big places. Only small businessmen like me will suffer if they start enforcing the new law," he added.
The slightly upscale Tasty Café, in Beirut's Hamra district, has adjusted to the ban by constructing a large outdoor patio. A waiter told me, "We are fine here, look at how much space we have outside," before adding grimly, "but unfortunately, the small places where I like to smoke will be out of business very soon." On any given night, the young and affluent flock to bustling Tasty to indulge in a cloud of fruit flavored smoke.
Around the corner from Tasty, an old man named Abu Hassan sat in his hardware store chain smoking cigarettes with a handful of friends and customers.
"What are they going to do, fine me for smoking while I cut keys?" he asked. "I have worked this way my whole life. They don't enforce anything else, so why should I believe that they will stop people from smoking? Everything in Lebanon has its price," he said defiantly.
Winter is coming, and the rain and cold weather will effectively kill many small nargile cafes when smokers can no longer congregate on sidewalks and in parking spaces for hours on end. But the repulsive high-end nightclubs and bars, regularly written about in the bi-annual "Beirut Is Back!" feature stories, will do just fine. Many clubs figure bribery into the daily cost of doing business.
Meanwhile, desperate politicians are pushing for amendments to allow designated smoking areas in hotels and restaurants. A nearly 50 percent drop in tourism this year has decimated an already foundering sector of the economy, and pressure is on to act fast.
The ubiquitous nargile cafes in Lebanon have another couple of months to figure out a way to survive the colder months. For now everyone is stuck with an open-air smoke out on the streets of Beirut.