DAMASCUS - The old man sitting on the sidewalk outside the Damascus municipality building took careful notes detailing my complaint. At times, he even finished my sentences as I talked about the coffee shops in the mall openly defying the smoking ban that went into effect barely three months ago.
The ban was issued as a presidential decree, the highest executive authority, and it went into effect on April 21. All businesses seemed to adhere well to it at first. One observer even commented that policemen, eager to slap fines on violators, “went home disappointed” that entire first month.
But now some businesses were trying to bend the rules. A pub might allow a group of customers to smoke in the back, but only away from prying eyes. A downtown coffee shop would open all its doors and windows so as to be considered “an outdoors establishment” just to allow customers to smoke, then close up everything and turn on the air conditioner.
Despite such daring attitudes, however, business owners still seemed cautious about getting caught. Fines could be in the hundreds of dollars (more than a day’s profit for some establishments) and could result in a complete shutdown of the business. So how could two coffee shops get away with flaunting their violation of the presidential decree so openly and so defiantly?
I went to investigate. The coffee shops were located in the middle of a food court on the bottom floor of a shopping mall that is smoke free, and no other coffee shop or restaurant inside the mall dared to do the same.
I asked the mall management how this could happen. “Management is not very happy about it, to be honest,” a mall employee told me. “But we figure if the authorities come, the coffee shop will be fined alone. Not the mall.”
I asked the coffee shop managers how they justified their daring behaviour. “We can do it because our place is open and the ceiling is high,” a manager at First Cup explained to me. (They are not open to the outdoors, only to the mall). The other coffee shop went further, claiming they had a “smoking licence”. Mall personnel said there was no such thing. When I asked the manager to produce this licence, he disappeared and ordered me a cappuccino. (The old man at the municipality found this particularly noteworthy.)
Days passed and nothing changed. I had lodged my complaint with the municipality and was promised to be “updated” in a week or so. Meanwhile, the coffee shops went on blowing smoke.
I wasn’t surprised. I had seen this sort of open flaunting of rules before in Syria. Just last summer, people were parking their cars in an unused portion of a one-way curved street. Some neighbours hated this and wanted to turn the parking area into a small park, while others enjoyed the extra parking. This triggered a chain of events that turned the area into a battleground for these opposing parties, each armed with high-up connections and the determination to have their way. The situation became so surreal that at times, the municipality would show up and build a bit of the garden, only to have seemingly the same people show up the following day to remove the building blocks.
This went on for several weeks, until eventually the anti-parking lot side won and managed to get a final ruling from the municipality for a garden.
I imagined something like this must be happening with the smoking ban. After all, while lodging this complaint, I came across offices inside the municipality building that were not compliant with the ban.
I was about to give up, and I did not even expect to receive the promised follow-up call from the municipality. But I was wrong. A few days ago, the call came early in the morning, waking me up.
“Ms Elass? You filed a smoking complaint against an establishment last week?” the woman said.
“Yes,” I said, confused. For a moment, I thought I must be dreaming. The Damascus municipality was following up on my smoking complaint? Perhaps I had fallen asleep too long and had woken up in, say, Switzerland?
“We would like to inform you that the establishment was fined and given a warning. They have a week to produce the paperwork they claim allows them to smoke. Otherwise, we will forward their case to the police.”
But I returned to the mall after that and found there was still smoke rising from those coffee shops. Clearly, I was still in Syria.
Rasha Elass is a former reporter for The National based in Damascus