Out of the depths

May 14, 2010


I finally remembered the password to my previous blog, and I rescued a few posts that I particularly liked — narcissist that I am. This is one of them, from June 11, 2006:

I WAS SITTING the car yesterday, waiting. I ran the windows down because sun was bright and the temperature was rising. It was windy – no doubt, you noticed that. The wind blowing through the car was simultaneously chilling and cleansing. The sky was brilliant, decorated only with racing puffs of moisture. I checked the cassette to see what CDs the usual driver had stored there. “La Boheme.” I put it on and concentrated to see how much of the opening dialogue I could decipher. What can you say about Puccini? Although he once sued Al Jolson, claiming that Jolson had filched the first few chords of “Avalon” from a passage in “E Lucevan le stelle” – specifically, “O dolci baci. O languide carezze.” The court thought that whatever reprehensible things Jolson might have done in his life, this wasn’t one of them.
DOWN AND ACROSS the street was a bar. On this bright, blue, breezy day, the dark room was crowded. One man, with a belly the size of a St Bernard, came out onto the sidewalk, sat on a high stool, put his foot up on another, and lit a cigar. He carefully arranged the stools before he sat down. He does this often. Whiles away a bright spring day in the darkness of that bar and comes outside to smoke, sitting on one stool with his foot up on another. One by one, others joined him from inside the bar, including two women and a boy who looked to be about 10. He hugged one of the women in a way that suggested she was his mother. A man pulled his car into an adjoining parking lot and walked toward the gaggle of folks outside the bar. The boy ran toward him – sort of the reverse of the father and son in the parable. The man exchanged a few words with the woman, took the boy with him to the car and drove away. The woman watched them until they were in the car, and then she turned back to her friends. One by one they went back inside. The man with the belly got up and carefully put the stools back in their places. He was the last one to disappear again into the darkness, leaving behind the wind and the sun and the clouds and the sky.


Got a match, effendi?

October 14, 2009



I’m glad Peter Lorre wasn’t around to see this: The president of Syria has banned smoking in public places. President Bashar al-Assad did this by decree, so at least that characteristic of Syrian life has been preserved, but will Syria be Syria without smoke-filled cafes? Assad is a medical doctor, so he is very conscious of the harmful effects of smoking and of exposure to second-hand smoke.

I’ve never been a smoker, so these bans are irrelevant to me from that point of view, and I’m sufficiently convinced of the health risks to believe that the practice should be confined to the great outdoors or to strictly private places. Still, I can’t help feeling a twinge of melancholy over the loss of atmosphere — hazy as it was. No such decree has been imposed on my landsmen in Lebanon — not that any one in Lebanon pays much attention to decrees. The last figure I saw indicated that more than 53 percent of Lebanese adults are smokers and that they suck ’em down at the rate of 23 a day. When we visited there at the end of the Clinton administration, we couldn’t calculate which were more ubiquitous in Lebanese hands — cigarettes or cell phones.

alice-wonderland-caterpillar1As long as President Assad is messing with the ambiance in and around Damascus, he has also imposed sharp restrictions on the use of the argileh, or hookah. Give him credit for chutzpah — if I may use that term with respect to Assad; popularity of the argileh is on the rise, especially among young people.

Not only that, but the president isn’t going to tolerate little Syrians sitting around mimicking the images they might see in old movies and getting the idea that there is something dramatic about taking a long drag, slowly exhaling, squinting through the blue haze and demanding of some quivering lackey, “Did you get the information?” Assad has also banned any candy or toys made to look like tobacco products – and tobacco advertising.

Hey, a little arbitrary rule never hurt anybody.

vietato_fumareCorriere della Sera is reporting today on a bill in the Italian legislature that would, among other things, require cigarette manufacturers to insert in each pack a leaflet identifying specific substances, including metals, that are present in the products and that may cause cancer. The bill also would ban on the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18, require retailers to ask customers for IDs, and prohibit smoking in schools, including secondary schools. Smoking in schools is already illegal, but the law in that regard is widely ignored – something those familiar with Italian society won’t find surprising.

This bill is part of an ongoing government campaign against smoking in Italy, about 32.6 percent of men and 20.7 of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are smokers. The newspaper reported that the average starting age of smokers is 13, but seven out of ten smokers start when they are 12.

94px-italian_pack I can’t help thinking of a man whose last name was Romeo (pronounced ro-MAY-oh) who used to frequent my grandfather’s grocery store. Mr. Romeo was blind and made his way around town with a cane. We used to keep a stock of these little Italian cigars that only he would buy. But I don’t know where else he would have bought them, given his circumstances, and I don’t think he would have had much reason to live if he couldn’t smoke them. Heaven only knows what he was inhaling, but we wouldn’t have recognized him without one of those little stogies in his mouth. They stunk like hell, but they gave him a certain panache.

This story also reminds me of Nicola Mariano, our back-to-back neighbor, a man who had only one arm. He used to smoke De Nobili tobacco in his pipe. We had a similar relationship with Nick in that we stocked that tobacco just for him. Most people in their right minds wouldn’t have smoked that stuff even in those  days before smokers were officially designated as lepers. But Nick wouldn’t have been Nick if he didn’t wile way a summer  afternoon sitting on the bread box in front of our store, with that reeking pipe between his teeth, making wisecracks at our customers as they came and went.

My paternal grandfather wasn’t a smoker – at least, not while I knew him. One of the things he left behind was his army handbook. That would be the army of King Emanuel II, in which Grandpa served between 1906 and 1909. One piece of advice that the handbook offered the dashing young soldiers was that “lo smoderato fumare danneggia la salute” – intemperate smoking damages (one’s) health. By now we know that even moderate smoking can be lethal to the smoker and possibly those around him, but we would have had a hard time convincing Mr. Romeo and Nick, both of whom died in their 90s, and enjoyed themselves whilst they waited.

Got a light?

March 29, 2009

funny-no-smoking-signThe federal government’s April Fool’s joke on smokers will be the largest increase ever in the tax on tobacco. As of Wednesday, the federal tax on a pack of cigarettes will go from 39 cents to $1.01. There will be comparable increases in the tax on other tobacco products. Not that they’re a cynical lot, but cigarette manufacturers, anticipating that this tax increase will have a negative impact on sales, raised prices a few weeks ago to make up for their expected losses. This is all for a good cause. The government’s object is to raise $33.5 billion over 4 1/2 years to finance an expansion of health insurance for children. Those who campaign to discourage smoking hope this tax increase, particularly in the midst of a recession, will inspire some people to reassess their priorities and give up the habit.

The connection between smoking and health insurance for children may seem obvious, but it is in fact selective. There are plenty of things that are potentially damaging to children’s health – carbon emissions and some fast food, for example – that the government could tax more heavily to finance the insurance program. Tobacco is the most convenient target, because the nation’s significant shift away from smoking has given smokers the aura of lepers; no one will come to their defense. This is hypocritical, because the same government that depends on tobacco as a safe source of revenue, the same government that makes manufacturers warn their customers that the product might be lethal, the same government that bars cigarette advertising from radio and television, in effect sanctions the sale and consumption of tobacco products by not prohibiting them by law. Smoking is a legal activity, but government would rather impose what amounts to a punitive tax on folks who smoke – which doesn’t include me – than make a serious effort to finance health insurance and other necessary programs by eliminating chronic waste in the federal budget.




The Daily Star in Beirut is running an ad on its web site for hookahs and tobacco. If I’m not mistaken, that’s Barbara Eden in the ad. It certainly doesn’t look like any Lebanese women I know. I guess the agency figured that since “I Dream of Jeannie” is still in vogue in the United States – well, it’s one of the series that gets re-run ad nauseam while better ones stay on the shelf – then Barbara would be a good image for this campaign. I’ve been told that my grandmother, Selma Aoun, whom I never met, smoked a hookah, which the Lebanese and Syrians call something like arghille. (I have pictures of my grandmother; she looked more like Salma Hayek than like Barbara Eden.) Another common Arabic term for the water pipe is shisha, which evokes one of the materials a person might smoke in such a device. I have never smoked more than a few cigars, but I have always envied the image of the smoker. Not the crowd I recently saw huddled outside the back door of a restaurant in Morristown, but the thoughtful pose of the Edward R. Murrow. I have always wanted to place a Meerschaum between my teeth during a conversation and nod from behind the blue haze as though to say, “Hmmmmm. I’ll have to see what Spinoza had to say about that.” According to family lore, my grandmother’s arghille had several pipes, so that she could share it with her visitors. I fantasize about getting out that fez I bought at the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and squinting through the smoke at two or three men in dark glasses as we plan the raid on Aqaba. Of course, even if I could sit cross-legged on the floor at my age, I couldn’t get up without assistance.