I’ve been living in Yemen for two weeks now. One of the reasons I have had difficulties adjusting to life here is because I’ve been trying to quit smoking. Few tasks are as hard in the Middle East.

Part of this is market dynamics: cigarette companies have responded to harsher regulations in the West, by expanding their products out here. Regardless of why it’s easier, I became a smoker again for a brief period, until an experience at the corner store down the street changed the way I view smoking altogether.

I was on my way home from class, and was craving a smoke. I went up to the store window, and said, ureedu dakhan— I want a cigarette.

A man in traditional robes took out a step ladder and asked me which one. I responded, kamaran, which is a local brand. I prefer to buy the local brands because I would rather my money stayed in Yemen.

I slid its round, orange head between my lips and massaged it with my tongue, quivering in anticipation of the nicotine that was about to rush through my constricted blood vessels. I spotted a store lighter hanging loosely by a piece of string and grabbed it, staring down the Kamaran shaft as I prepared to suck in the flame.

At first it was anti-climactic. The sparks sputtered impotently from its mouth. I sighed with frustration. Suddenly, the man yelled out to a child in Arabic, and the lighter was grabbed from my hands by a nine or ten-year-old. He successfully held a steady flame by my cigarette, and though I paused for a moment, I took the opportunity to light my Kamaran and let a stream of smoke dance with my exhaling breath. I stared down at a child smiling with a few gaps in his teeth, and an unmistakable look of admiration in his eyes.

The cigarette made me nauseous. Once it was done, I had no desire to have another. I wonder if that was it.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me, while in the grip of being a cowboy loner on the frontier as the Marlboro man promised me, that I was accepting a standard of masculinity as much as I was revitalizing it.

 

Photograph courtesy of the author