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I smoked with Arabs – and lived

13 March 2014, 19:55

Well, you know me: I never tell a lie. So let me rephrase: I passively smoked with Arabs – and lived.

Quote: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story – Mark Twain

Now this might not sound like such a big deal, but have you ever been close to a smoking Arab? (No, Sakkie, I’m not talking about an Arab who has smoke coming from a fuse under his dishdasha – just before he makes a premature departure to the Land of the Seventy-Two Virgins.) I’m talking about an ordinary, tobacco smoking, Arab. They are the real scary ones.

Some years ago, plucked hither and zither by the fretful fingers of fate, I found myself in an Arabic country – “advising” their army’s technical personnel. At that stage, I had already quit smoking for several years. But my Arab students soon shocked my rehabilitated lungs out of hibernation.

These guys never stopped smoking. I was convinced that they even smoked in their sleep and under the shower. I have no idea what type of tobacco they smoked; suffice to say it smelled extremely vile – like smoldering camel dung mixed with burning sugar. I shall forever associate Arabs with the smell of sweet, smoldering, camels.

A typical Arabic gentleman would be dressed in the long, usually white robe, traditionally worn in the Middle East. This robe is called a dishdasha. On his head he would have a shumagg, which looks like a towel, but is, in fact, a large dishcloth. The dishcloth is held in place by one or more oversized O-rings, called *ogal. And he would be smoking. Nonstop.

Forget the old saying: “Where there’s smoke there’s a fire.” It should be: “Where there’s smoke there’s an Arab.”

My Arabian lecture room was like the Twilight Zone. I sensed that the students were there, but I couldn’t see them through the smokescreen that they had generated with their pipes – or hookah – also known as a water pipe, argileh, or shisha. As hubbly bubblies, it has become quite popular with our own youth, right here in the Arse of South Africa (RSA).

I have a fair understanding of most European languages, but Arabic is definitely NOT my forte, so I had to make use of an interpreter. My lectures would normally start with the greetings: As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you), and wa alaykum assalam (and peace be upon you also), being exchanged. And then the fun would begin.

My interpreter, Mansour Saleh ibn Tariq ibn Khalid al-Fulan el-Hashem, was what the Boere used to call, an: “oorlamse skepsel.” (He was much too clever for his own good. And he had his own ideas of what I should be teaching his countrymen.)

I would say something like: “The optical sight of the cannon’s Laser Range Finder should be kept clean and dust free, at all times.”

And Mansour would interpret to the students: “Achgg gha, rahach. **Gggh aggchag ghagga! Gghag (PBUH) haram ahaggabad, ach agg? ***Shukran jazeelan.”

Which means: “All right, you chaps. The infidel says he can almost see you! Let’s make some more smoke, shall we? Thank you very much.”

And they would raise the level of toxicity in the air to the very limit of human endurance.

Then, always around midday – just when I started to think that they must surely die from smoke inhalation – they would hit the deck, and perform an ancient breathing exercise – while facing the tobacco factory at the Kaaba in Mecca – 1225.12km away; heading 160.76 degrees.

Within a couple of weeks, I started to feel right at home. I had developed a very respectable smoker’s cough. And I became quite good at making Arab sounds. I could go: “Gha yahaggabad grahach ghag haram gggah,” thus clearing the phlegm from my congested throat, with the best of them.

My clothes smelled of smoldering camel dung and burnt sugar, and I had a constant headache. (I even took to wearing a wet dishcloth and an O-ring on my head, to counteract the effects of nicotine poisoning.)

I was proud of my achievement: I had smoked with Arabs, and lived! My lungs had withstood the ultimate test. I felt like Lawrence of Arabia.

So, last week, it came as a shock to me when I learned that the Jordanian Ministry of Health had decided to enforce a law, banning smoking in public places. In a country where smoking is a national treasure, this is a major catastrophe.

Al Jazeera reported that among Jordanian toddlers, 15.6 percent of girls and 27.1 percent of boys, smoked shisha. The average sisha/argileh session lasts one hour, and is said to be the equivalent of smoking a hundred cigarettes.

Awni Khateeb, the owner of a building supply store, visits the same coffee shop almost daily to smoke argileh. He estimates that he smokes three times a day for four hours each time, and spends about $456.25 to $723.54 per day on his habit.

Awni opposes the ban: “Where will I go to smoke argileh?” he asks.

Well, I’ll tell you, Awni. Definitely not near me!

I’ve quit smoking Arabs…

*ogal – Arabic, meaning: O-ring

**gggh – “g” and “ch,” pronounced like the guttural Scottish “loch,” or the German “Bach”

***Shukran jazeelan – the Arabs copied this from the late, great, Elvis Presley: “Shukran. Shukran jazzeelan.” Meaning: “Thank you. Thank you very much.” And then Elvis left the building to have a smoke outside.

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