Friday, December 25, 2009
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Like God, I am regularly disappointed by the people of the Near and Middle East.
It comes as no surprise that people who want to enjoy themselves are the region's chief export, and that it attracts a pretty glum type of tourist. The only foreigners you see wandering around at their leisure are bumfaced women with short grey hair, their stooped and willowy husbands in sleeveless jackets and tweed hats, the occasional heretic-hunter, and members of the European Parliament.
This is a shame, as the Levant and its sandy hinterland preserve one of the chief joys now denied to most Europeans - two-fisted, bat-lunged smoking. If I were the tourism ministry of Syria, for example, I would ditch the posters of stylites, waterwheels and poetry-reading in favour of a large bucket of cigarettes with the words "And They're Cheaper Than A Basingstoke Bunk-Up" engraved thereon.
A poster campaign could follow, showing cheery moustachioed dads celebrating the birth of their masculine children with a smoke-in at the local maternity clinic.
Readers of this web blog will be familiar with both my enthusiasm for smoking and my admiration for the Turk - a square-headed pragmatist in a region of rat-eared madmen.
It is true that not even a Maoist can approve of everything the Turks have done along the pointy lance of their history, but on balance they've managed to dispense with religion, random hats, curly alphabets and tyrants with a higher degree of success than any of their neighbours to the south-east.
In the meantime they have given us ciggies, the assisted bath as a means of relaxation, and a prison system generous enough to accommodate all the whining druggies the West can spare.
I hope the broad-trousered Turk will defend his right to shroud the wine-dark
For next comes membership of the European Union, which would oblige the erstwhile Ottomans to hyphenate their moustaches and drink watery coffee from bowls.
One of my formative smoking experiences happened in
A literally purple passage in Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani once launched my drunken barque in the general direction of Stamboul. I've always been jealous of people whom Dirk Bogarde represented on screen, and none more so than Paddy.
In the great man's tsikoudia-laced reverie, as I recalled it, the Patriarch of Constantinople leads a restored Byzantine fleet up the
Vibrant and diverse, but not in a Whitechapel way.
In fact, Leigh Fermor wrote nothing of the sort, and his mild imagining of
My cherished copy of the oft-banned "Discerning Gentleman's Guide to The
Some enquiries among the tabacs maudits of
Little troubled the hush but the rush of bubbles through water jars, the thrub of thoroughbred hooves from the televised racetrack, and an occasional click of tongue on teeth as a favourite fell behind.
The smokers sat on a bench that ran around the room, leaving a carpeted expanse to fill with their fumes. I perched, and a boy scurried to my side with hookah, apple tobacco and a light. The recumbent Turks flicked glances my way, and were as reassured as I when the coals started to smoulder and heavenly vapours invaded my head.
Carpet-toters, sheep-shavers, wood-carvers and copper-rattlers plied the route from hookah to bookmaker and back, backgammon sets unfolded like odalisques in state rooms, back vowels brushed against labials, and everyone was very male.
The tea boy would poke his cropped skull through the door every 20 minutes and chirrup "çay?" He'd count the barely-arched eyebrows and return with a matching tally of steaming tulip glasses.
Except in my case. He'd make a special journey across the kiosk to me, and ask in elaborate Ottoman whether I would honour his urn with the slaking of my thirst. "Er, gosh, thanks, a pleasure - no sugar!" I'd stammer, turning all Joyce Grenfell as Brits do when confronted with Levantine flummery.
An hour passed pleasantly, then in came a group of students from the university across the square. Two young men in what a cad would call "Balkan preppy", and a couple of blondes who must have been among the city's avid Harpers readers. They ordered hookahs and began a loud conversation. Within 15 minutes the nargiles lay neglected, their plates serving as ashtrays for the Crusader's Malboro Lights.
There's a moment in Billy Wilder films when the character achieves self-awareness - rather like the machines in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Comade Garbo trying on the fancy hat in Ninotchka is my favourite.
Something similar happened in that Bosphorus fumidor. The artisans cast a cold eye at the Young Turks, with their pastel shades, pashminas, filter tips and chit-chat, then considered the taciturn Frank in their midst. I toked the smoke, drank the tea and firmly did not talk any talk.
The sign that I had been accepted in a conditional way came from the teaboy, the Mini-Mabuse of this Expressionist mime. He strolled over to the students and asked whether they would like anything else. Then he turned in the doorway and gave the rest of the room a casual "çay?"
Although I boast two eyebrows, this time one of them was among the silent chosen. Never ask me which.