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Cleopatra and the Marlboro Man, a smoking couple

Smoking is so much part of the Egyptian culture that journalists find offering a cigarette a good way to break the ice with a source they are trying to interview.

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Cairo and step off the plane is the smell. A mixture of sand, exhaust and metal, the stench of the city of 25 million or so is intimidating. After spending four days on the Red Sea coast and breathing too much clean air, I was supersensitive to the odour, and the pollution that hung like a curtain over the city was so heavy that it knocked my sinuses senseless and I was sick for a week.

When I went to see a doctor, his main piece of advice was "avoid smoky areas". I think he realised how ridiculous his statement was, because we both burst into laughter at the same time. For in Cairo, the smoke follows you right into your home. Besides the pollution, Cairo is a heavy smoking culture. Men begin smoking at a very young age - you can see boys as young as 10 or 12 sharing cigarettes and they will continue until they're smoking a pack a day by the time they are 20.

While the habit is less prevalent among women, it definitely exists and girls will experiment with it in private or in cafes with friends, many preferring to smoke shisha. One cafe owner downtown once told me his main customers in the day were girls on their way to university or school. Far enough away from their parents and the gaze of their neighbours, they sat together with their friends to inhale the flavoured tobacco through the centuries-old contraption.

In fact, smoking is such a tourist attraction in Egypt that people come from all over the world to taste the flavourful shisha and buy their own to take home with them. Smoking is so much part of the culture that journalists find offering a cigarette a good way to break the ice with a source they are trying to interview. Cab drivers will automatically offer a male rider a cigarette if they're about to light up, and it's rare to find a cab driver who doesn't have a pack of Cleopatra cigarettes and a lighter resting above his steering wheel.

As well as a tourist attraction, shisha has become a fashion statement. Once something only men smoked in the alleyway cafe while waiting for their wives to cook dinner at home, today wealthy businessmen and their children smoke it in upscale cafes, foreigners look for the best flavour to try, and women smoke it unabashedly in public, something that would have been unheard of just a decade ago. And in restaurants, it's almost impossible to find a place that is non-smoking, or at least that has a non-smoking section. So the smoke follows you everywhere.

That's why, when I heard reports that the government was trying to ban smoking in public places, it was impossible to believe. Nevertheless, there were reports that police busted cafes in busy quarters downtown and in the Khan el Khalili bazar, forcing cafe owners to put away their shishas, though sure enough, after the police were out of sight, the shishas came back out for the locals and foreigners to enjoy.

Tobacco is cheap in Egypt just as it is in many developing countries - a pack of Marlboros, one of the most expensive brands, goes for as little as US$2, while a shisha can be as cheap as $1. A cafe owner told me Egypt would suffer if smoking were banned, and especially if shisha smoking were banned. "What would you tell all those foreigners? Many of them come to my cafe just to smoke a shisha, to feel authentically Egyptian," he said.

Even with health warnings, high levels of hepatitis and the swine-flu scare, people don't seem to care - they continue to smoke that shisha. Some cafe owners tried to compromise by exchanging the regular pipe with a plastic pipe they called a "medical pipe" to make it seem cleaner, but it didn't really matter to customers; they were still coming to the cafes to smoke their shisha, medical pipe or not.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo

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