There is something old fashioned about smoking. Call it fatalism, obstinacy, wilful blindness to the consequences. Or you might choose to call it, as I do, a mixture of de mode existential ennui and rosy - or rather hazy - nostalgia. As a diehard consumer of this most consumable of poisons - actually, to be honest with you, a die-never inhaler of noxious gas - I can vouch for the abiding lure of a world view in which lighting up was neither offensive nor really very wrong.
A world view, you might be shocked to realise, that lives happily on in much of the Arab world, and to which - despite my better, bronchial judgement - I have every intention of continuing to subscribe. It changes nothing that warnings are now printed on even the one fil packets of premium tobacco-flavoured congealed dust and wood shaving mix wrapped in low-grade writing paper better known as Cleopatra Supers; horrible, matter-of-fact sentences that sound like decoded alien messages: "Smoking is a principal cause of lung cancer and death." No, it changes absolutely nothing.
Nor does the growing awareness - among a growing community of reformed smokers, mainly: sorry health freaks with nothing better to do than complain about pollution, if you ask me - of the benefits of relatively clean, nicotine-free indoor air. In the Qahirah Sahirah, or Magical Cairo it is sometimes called, people are still sucking on their Supers as frantically as ever, and for most real-world men, at least, the expression "a glass of tea and a cigarette", the tea referring to a strong, sweet brew of tea flavoured congealed dust and wood shavings, remains a defining and recurrent feature of the day. Let them predict our death as they will, I say. There is no way on earth we are giving that up.
Not until you have left Egypt, really, do you realise that such an approach to smoking is but an aspect of your own blissful backwardness. (Not that the realisation changes anything, mind you.) Since my first visit to Dubai some five months ago, I now have repeatedly caught myself sweating uncontrollably, and cursing under my breath, as I took my second-class citizen place in the blindingly hot open air wondering, who on earth should ever want to leave the third world? It is a rhetorical question, of course. But there is depth to it.
As per any sensible standpoint of the post-empirical world, I will readily concede that smoking is among the most futile and obstructing habits ever adopted by humanity. Smoking kills, indeed, but who wants to live in the absence of the opportunity to do it? "What are you going to do, though," my editor asked, pointing out that, sooner or later, anti-smoking attitudes and laws would sweep the Arab world, too. "Are you going to be the last man standing?"
"Yes," I said, reflexively. And it was true, too.