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April 19, 2014 | 19th Nisan 5774

Smoke

What need have I of frankincense that comes from Sheba
Or fragrant cane from a distant land?
Your burnt offerings are not acceptable,
And your sacrifices are not pleasing to Me.
-Jeremiah 6:20

The other day I was to meet someone in Sachnin, and he suggested we meet in a coffee shop on the main street. Sachnin’s main street is the highway passing through the village, along which is a long strip of commercial buildings, somewhat a jumble of everything from building supplies to bridal dresses, all with broad unpaved parking lots in front. This coffee shop is relatively new, near the end of town. Behind a glass front is a large, spacious room furnished with leather armchairs around low tables, an open kitchen in the corner, a blaring TV, and a counter of nargilas (hookahs) lined up. And scattered groups of young men enveloped in a haze of sweet nargila smoke that I brought home with me in all of my clothes. It was sort of a weird take-off on the traditional Middle Eastern coffee house, with its low stools and the clacking of backgammon dice and dominoes all the sleepy day long – with Sidney Greenstreet presiding at a corner table. Many restaurants provide nargilas – and many teenagers buy them to use for social smoking. The fruit flavored tobacco, and the myth that smoke bubbled through water is somehow cleaned of its nasty components, make nargila smoking seem more benign than cigarettes – though in fact, the nargila produces more and denser smoke – and includes the smoke from the charcoal in its cup that keeps the tobacco alight.

Flashback: when we arrived on aliyah, to Ben Gurion airport in August of 1990, we were among a small handful of immigrants from the United States, arriving together with hundreds from the Soviet Union. We were ushered into a special waiting room for our immigration paperwork to be processed – the five of us and a few planeloads of new arrivals from Russia and the Ukraine, all of whom seemed to be smoking continuously. The air was thick with a sour, acrid smoke which to this day my children remember distinctly as a traumatic welcome to their new land.

While smoking somehow feels like an ancient Middle Eastern custom – the ubiquitous nargila, the huge percentage of Arab men who smoke cigarettes – it is of course no older than Columbus, who brought tobacco from the New World to the Old. It seems to have become as central to Arab (male) culture as coffee. In sabra culture, too, smoking became important; while passing around the nargila may for some represent a way of integrating into the “native” culture, I suspect that the widespread smoking of cigarettes, especially in the army, arises from different motivations – social, macho, relief of tension. And as good egalitarians, by us the girls smoke in equal measure.

Interestingly, in a culture in which smoking is so taken for granted, Israel has made and continues to make clear progress in the direction of protecting non-smokers from other people’s smoke. The first major step was already over 20 years ago, when smoking was prohibited on buses, and the prohibition took. Today, my guess is that smoking statistics have not dropped much, but public consciousness of the rights of non-smokers to travel, eat, shop, and work in a smoke-free environment has developed over the years to the point that it is not really a subject of controversy – even taxi drivers ask “do you mind if I smoke?” Immigrants and visitors often joke about how Israel seems about 10-20 years behind North America in cultural trends – but I think the lag is shrinking, for better or for worse; and in the area of non-smokers’ rights, we have come a long way, baby.

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