Sheesha and rats

Published: May 25, 2012

The writer is author, most recently, of The Apricot Road to Yarkand (Sang-e-Meel, 2011) and a member of the Royal Geographical Society salman.rashid@tribune.com.pk

Action to shut down sheesha bars in Lahore has resulted in a legal battle between restaurant owners and the government. The restaurant, a private place, established by a private person with personal funds, offers the choice of either entering to avail the offered facilities or of staying away. The learned bench of the Lahore High Court, therefore, shot the case to pieces permitting the smoking of sheesha in private establishments.

Early in the current month, the Deputy Commissioner of Islamabad (‘the Beautiful’, using friend Kamran Shafi’s full title for the city in an article from this paper), was reported in The Express Tribune to have said that his administration would raise awareness against the use of tobacco.

In the middle of the month, suddenly and without any warning, a scourge not of Attila the Hun but of the city’s assistant commissioners descended on sheesha establishments in Islamabad. Each commissioner had in tow a bunch of the Islamabad sub-caste of the dreaded Punjab police. Customers using sheesha were arrested. Where owners intervened, they were not spared either and ended up with their clients in police stations. It was as if these people were hardened criminals engaged in a very grave crime. The whole affair of arresting and traumatising clients and cafe owners was straight out of the early Middle Ages.

The interesting thing is that this action seems to be aimed at selected mid-level cafes. A restaurant owner, whose sheesha-smoking clients were arrested on the veranda of his establishment, alleged that cafes of politically-connected owners in Saidpur and Islamabad as well as a five-star hotel that serves sheesha were spared. Even more interesting is the fact that the commissioners were not clear about the whole thing. For one of them, outdoor smoking was kosher while others insisted on a total ban.

Now, I am not a smoker; have never been one in all my years. I do not approve of it, but if someone is intent upon poisoning themselves, who on earth am I to prevent them? I do not understand what the administration means to achieve by this drive, but it does have one great triumph: it has successfully chased away the clientele of sheesha bars.

First, we chased away the foreigners living in Pakistan with our bombs and violence. They now restrict themselves to their clubs in the diplomatic enclave. Now the Islamabad administration does not want Pakistanis to be seen having a good time. Arrest anywhere is terrible, in Pakistan at the hands of the Punjab pulce it is a bloody nightmare, especially when a young woman is arrested by a scruffy, unwashed policeman. No surprise then that the restaurants of Islamabad, especially those serving sheesha, are now largely deserted.

I cannot imagine that the good deputy commissioner and his team have suddenly awakened to the curse of sheesha smoking without reason. Do they not see the myriad other banes that afflict this sorry land? Why, for example, don’t they concern themselves with the rampant bribe taking in the pulce stations?

I do not know it, but there is a niggling feeling that this whole sordid affair has a deeper meaning. Does someone connected well within the corridors of power have something to do with all this? Is this person hoping to set up an outdoor sheesha bar somewhere in Islamabad and is engaged in this ‘aggressive’ marketing campaign to draw away the clientele of the ordinary café to his/her business whenever he/she opens its doors? I tell you I smell a rat. And a mighty big one.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2012.

Reader Comments (17)

  • Nayab babar
    May 26, 2012 - 1:26AM

    I smell sheer idiocy and hypocrisy. As you very rightly pointed out, issues such as fixing bribery take preference. But lets forget the rampant corruption (and other government failures) for one moment. Why not start with banning smoking, or at least taxing it heavily as is the case in the ‘civilized’ west? Something which actually harms the users, because of it’s long-term use by the smokers. The sheesha on the other hand is not even close to similar consumption levels by it’s regular users (not saying sheesha ‘addicts’ don’t exist. Just mighty rare). The chronological order has been missed, and badly.

    Another point I’d like to raise is that as someone who doesn’t follow news, I had to find the hard way today when I went to have a nice time with friends combined with a sheesha. As a non-smoker of cigarettes (someone who quit some time back), the occasional sheesha helps me maintain my balance. So with their sheer stupidity, the moralistic superstars have not only managed to waste everyone’s time and the tax payers money in doing something irrelevant, but also managed to make their crusade counter-productive. If everyone loses, then who is the rat? The mystery of life isn’t it.

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  • What the...?
    May 26, 2012 - 2:04AM

    Well written article. But aren’t you assuming a bit too much in the last paragraph?

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  • Anonymous
    May 26, 2012 - 3:03AM

    Very well written!

    Restaurants and cafes are probably the only places available for outing, relaxing and socializing in a city like Islamabad. They now want to take them away and leave us with nothing.

    People have made huge investments and worked very hard to provide us with such places. These places contribute greatly towards the society, culture and economy of our country by providing employment, paying taxes, utility bills and other employer related expenses.

    Sheesha is being served and consumed almost everywhere in the world now so why ban it in Pakistan where a minor can easily get any tobacco item from the shops. Those things are more alarming and should be taken care of first if any efforts are to be made at all. Sheesha contains absolutely no tar and only 0.05% nicotine which is mostly absorbed by the water in the flask below. New sheesha flavors with 0% tar and 0% nicotine are also widely available now.

    Another issue is of 11PM deadline for all food outlets to be closed. A good number of people visit restaurants/cafes in the later part of the evening after getting done with their work or family commitments, closing at 11PM leaves them with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

    These issues if not resolved soon will no doubt result in a legal battle between restaurant/café owners and the government, as stated above.

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  • LionOfPunjab
    May 26, 2012 - 3:28AM

    Funny thing is in isloo, one can easily find pious muslim drinking ‘haram’ Johny Black uncle’s zamzan water, i wouldnt be surprised if the ‘ good deputy commissioner’ indulges in this ‘haram’ practice on the weekends aslo.

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  • @plarkin
    May 26, 2012 - 4:08AM

    This battle has been fought and lost around the world. About time Pakistan joined the ranks of civilized countries. Smoking is not allowed in any public place. This includes bars and restaurants. It doesn’t matter whether they’re private establishments or not. There are people who work there who should not be subject to disgusting second-hand smoke.

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  • Javed
    May 26, 2012 - 6:32AM

    Sir, as you said “Now, I am not a smoker; have never been one in all my years. I do not approve of it, but if someone is intent upon poisoning themselves, who on earth am I to prevent them?
    How about when many of them get lung cancer and demand government run hospitals treatment, who is going to pay for that? You and all the non-smokers alike. In the USA, in all public places and most restaurants, no one can smoke by law. In government buildings, you cannot smoke up-to 200 feet from the building just to prevent any second hand smoke.

    The people in Pakistan want the liberties of west but do not want to follow the law or care about public health like in the west.

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  • imran
    May 26, 2012 - 10:23AM

    LIVE AND LET LIVE this is what we should be working at.
    Our government instead of curbing n banning cigarettes (which in my opinion has a much higher user base) alcohol and other vices easily available all over pakistan are just trying to find new ways of filling their wallets.
    Getting to Mr javed’s comments, sir just to burst your bubble and to bring to your knowledge there are indoor shisha cafes in you beloved west (witnessed them myself in usa & uk).
    as far as people getting lung cancer and going to govt hospitals for free treatment, shisha smokers are usually people who can afford to spend, so i doubt they will ever go to govt hospitals for treatment.

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  • Nayab babar
    May 26, 2012 - 12:47PM

    For everyone supporting this silliness. They have NOT BANNED SMOKING. They have banned Sheesha. Big difference.
    a) Most major restaurants (not cafe’s) that serve sheesha, don’t do it inside the building, but have a space dedicated outside in lawn etc.
    b) I am a non-smoker, and I have plenty of smoker friends. If they decide to smoke in a non-enclosed space, they have every right even with me present there. The only time smoke should bother a non-smoker is in an enclosed space, and if that were the case I would support the non-smoker every single time. Let’s all give each other their due rights :).
    c) The above point is meaningless when talking about the Sheesha. The smoke doesn’t bother any non-smoker or non-sheesha smoker. But even if it did, it is still nonsensical to ban outdoors.

    Just follow the train of unbiased logic and the conclusion is fairly simple.

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  • Nasir Hamid
    May 26, 2012 - 1:22PM

    I dont get this country. Has anybody heard of the term to each his own? The government from a very long time has been trying to effect the dynamics of society and such bans can only have bad long term effects. If these things keep up we will become like Saudi where the only fun u have is enclosed within a compound.

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  • Rukhshan Haroon
    May 26, 2012 - 2:26PM

    “Quality” education will end sheesha smoking automatically in Pakistan, after all people will get to know it’s worse than a cigarette, on the contrary they have exactly the opposite thought , sealing a cafe on the spot will definitely force the owner to fight against the government because he’ll have no idea why they have taken such action(he doesn’t knows how harmful a sheesha is). This is due to lack of “quality” education. “Quality” Education will lead people to the sense of right and wrong ending into a peaceful society.

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  • irfan husain
    May 26, 2012 - 3:37PM

    Excellent piece that chronicles our slide into an increasingly joyless society.

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  • Musheer
    May 26, 2012 - 4:27PM

    Sheesha is the Arabic version of the local Hookah. Hookah has been in use in the sub-continent for centuries, especially in rural areas. Would the government now go after Hookah smoking?

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  • Anonymous
    May 26, 2012 - 8:04PM

    I don’t know the truth behind that but I agree that there may be something more than that as author is trying to say.
    Besides that I think smoking is harmful to health and no body should praise or protect that. I always wonder if mullah preach against and try to enforce that they can earn more respect what they are doing
    I am not exposed to cigarette smoke in 2 years out of country ,much , I am exposed to that in one month in Pakistan.
    Laws are implemented strictly and before that they are discussed at length and all stakeholders are invited

    Bus driver will stop bus if passenger smokes
    Bar owners are penalized if customers smoke there and not the customers.
    No one can smoke in closed public place
    In my city whole university campus, open and enclosed including their stadium,no smoking is practiced. This is not small town university but with enrollment of 64000 students.
    No body can smoke within 200 feet of hospital boundary.
    Smokers with kids smoke out of house.

    Laws have to be just and across the board
    Just recently state supreme court upheld the decision against bars that wanted to allow smoking in bar premises.

    Unfortunately in our country every new laws are made left miserable not facilitate the life of citizens

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  • Myrtle
    May 26, 2012 - 11:31PM

    Yes its true in Pakistan most habits gain abusive levels due to lack of maturity and literacy in attitudes… ppl world over smoke tho mostly to some degree of moderation, here a smoker is invariably a chainsmoker with lil regard to who is being effected by his habit. we r reluctant to change as we r too comfortable with all our bad habits..even in India Shahrukh Khan is facing a ban for smoking at a stadium…unfortuantely Pak youth is embracing the sheesha habit with too much gusto aswell! tsk tsk.

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  • Anonymous
    May 26, 2012 - 11:32PM

    We are always criticise in both way “positive and negative” We all claim that the health is the responsibility of the State. is it not???? Yes it is then why we forget. We should always appreciate the positive measure taken by the govt. for citizens. You quote that “I am not a smoker; have never been one in all my years. I do not approve of it, but if someone is intent upon poisoning themselves, who on earth am I to prevent them? ” if someone of our elder prevent us from bad things or habits then what is your suggestion ????? Same with State which are consuming lot of money Hospitals ” Only for Us” and i think it has rite to prevent us also…………..

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  • Waseem
    May 27, 2012 - 12:04AM

    If it was a RAT it would only be restricted to Islamabad and would never spread to LAHORE. Oh yeah it could be a double MOUTHED rat. You never know science and technology is advancing too much so may be there is one kind we really don’t know much about. I agree this has to be a RAT (a double mouthed one)

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  • Cynical
    May 28, 2012 - 6:28AM

    @Nayab Babar

    Well said, brother.Reasoning has never been a forte with the administration.

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