Lebanon's cafe culture crashes: Smoke-free zones become punter-free
Lunchtime business at Hamra’s Zawaak cafe isn’t just down, it’s non-existent. “We’d normally have around nine or 10 tables at this time,” manager Jad Tayeh says.
The cafe is known for its nargileh and Monday was the first day of the full implementation of Lebanon’s ban on smoking at indoor public places. With only three outdoor tables, customers just aren’t bothering to turn up.
For Tayeh, the ban represents a threat. “The government must do something – this law is unfair,” he says. He’s worried for his own job and that of his staff: “No customers, means no money, which means no jobs.”
Around the corner at sister restaurant Ka3kaya, the definition of “outdoors” is being loosely interpreted. The law states that three walls constitutes indoors, but the cafe’s nargileh and cigarette smokers have merely been pushed to the glass-fronted entrance area of the restaurant. It’s still quieter than normal, and smoking customers say they’re not sure what they’ll do during the wintertime.
“For the moment we’re going to smoke outside, but I think in the winter it’s going to cause problems,” says 24-year-old engineer Shaila Sarrouh. “Places like this are made for nargileh. People come to smoke. So maybe they should make an exception for these places,” Sarrouh adds. Nargileh has been the biggest point of contention between business owners objecting to the new law.
In Antelias Monday evening a group of local restaurant and nightclub owners gather at a news conference to call for exceptions for nargileh cafes, after around 350 people held a protest against the law earlier in the day.
“On the economic side, it will be a disaster because the restaurants depend on nargileh for profits,” says spokesman for the group, Abdelrahman Bandakji, who owns the Petit Cafe chain of restaurants. He says that while the law will not impact his restaurants – which have large outdoor areas – in the summer, during the winter he might have to lay off up to 25 percent of the 600 staff he employs at his restaurants, as it gets too cold for people to stay outside.
There is some skepticism, however, about whether the ban will hold up that long. “I think it will be four or five days, and then it will change” Tayrh says, believing bars and restaurants will start being more relaxed about the law.
There are already gaps. Taxi driver Abu Jamal is happy for people to smoke in his car, although he knows the risks, and is following the regulations when it comes to himself. “Now, if I want to smoke, I have to pull over and stop the car,” he says, but is nonetheless willing to proffer his own cigarettes for his passengers to smoke.
In Tripoli the ban is being enforced for now. In one cafe the owner is pleading with a long-time customer, who is insistent on finishing his cigarette, on the grounds that “everyone is doing it.”
“Please take it outside and the coffee’s on me today,” the owner tells the man, telling him he can’t afford to face the minimum LL1.35 million fine owners face if caught contravening the ban. “Just be patient until it dies down. You know nothing in this country is implemented for long.”
Prevalent among smokers and business owners is the view that a government that can’t provide its citizens with electricity or control high-level crime shouldn’t be outlawing smoking.
In the face of Lebanon’s most headline-grabbing problems, cigarettes seem a trivial concern, despite the fact smoking is the country’s biggest killer – responsible for around 3,500 deaths a year, according to NGO IndyAct.
“When there are no noxious fumes from electricity plants and when the government prohibits burning tires, then I will stop smoking in closed spaces,” says Sidon resident Ahmad Mosri. Nearby, smoke rises from a fire in the city’s notorious dump. “The smoke from the burning dump is equal to millions of cigarettes,” says a passing taxi driver.
In Antelias protesters hold signs reading “Is such a law more important than social security or kidnappings?” In Beirut’s Gemmayzeh district bar owners are a little more prepared to accept the ban, despite sharing concerns about its impact on business.
“We’ve already taken all of the procedures,” says the manager of one bar, who like other owners requested anonymity when commenting. “We cannot ignore it – especially in Gemmayzeh. They have their eyes wide open [focused on us]. Not because of the smoking thing, but many things before,” he says. With vigilant local residents, evading the law will be difficult, he says. He says the potential for corruption with regard to the ban is, like many other sectors in Lebanon, rife, but he believes other bar owners are unlikely to let it pass by.
“There are gonna be some exceptions. This one knows someone in the ministry and so on,” he says. “If this happens, it’s going to cause a lot of problems. Once you’re an owner of a place, and you see all of your customers go somewhere else – where they are smoking and nobody is saying anything – that’s going to be a big problem.”
The ban does have some support in some quarters. In Hamra Monday evening the American University of Beirut was hosting a range of outdoor entertainment to celebrate the ban. Meanwhile bartender Zak Mallak, says he is happy the ban has finally come into force.
“I’m really happy about it,” says Mallak, who has been bartending for two years, and is also a smoker. “As a bartender I spend nine hours inside the bar, and there are maybe 10 ashtrays in front of me. I feel like I smoke half the cigarettes of the people smoking in the bar, because they blow the smoke toward me. I don’t remember the last time I was able to smell something.”
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