Turkish Smoke-Out

Will Istanbul’s way of life survive a smoking ban?

Photo by World Portraits/Alamy

One summer evening in Istanbul, I saw a taxi driver stop in the middle of the street and gracefully extend his arm out the window, lighter in hand. A young man ran over and lit his cigarette. The cabbie drove on. No words were exchanged in this urban ballet. Stopping your taxi to light a stranger’s cigarette wasn’t strange at all.

In Istanbul, people smoke as if they’re living in a Godard film. At the taverns, they smoke through dinner, eating mezes and drinking raki with one hand and stabbing ashtrays with the other; women eschew vanity for long drags of Parliaments; storekeepers flick ashes straight onto their rugs.

But just as tobacco once spread from Europe to the Ottoman Empire (thanks to “English infidels,” wrote one Turkish historian), another curse has blown eastward from the civilized West: the smoking ban, due to arrive in Asia Minor on July 19.

Can Turks follow in the footsteps of New Yorkers, Parisians, and the entire bar-loving nation of Ireland and abide a smoking ban? According to Elif Dağlı, head of the National Coalition on Tobacco and Health, 22 million Turks smoke in this country of 72 million, spending $20 billion annually on tobacco. They rack up $30 billion in health-care costs; 100,000 of them die each year of smoking-related illnesses.

Still, the addicted find deep cultural significance in their drug of choice. New Yorkers worried that a smoking ban would impede American binge drinking, and Parisians fretted that it would vanquish French café society. Istanbullus fear the ban will destroy vital mainstays of the Turkish community—specifically, the nargile (water-pipe) cafés and the teahouses.

The first installment of the ban, in effect since May 2008, prohibits smoking only in taxis, malls, offices, and the beloved Bosporus ferries, with mixed results. Cabdrivers began supplying customers with ashtrays so they could duck behind the seats and smoke out of sight. Aggrieved office workers puffed furtively out their windows.

On July 19, however, every enclosed establishment must ban all tobacco products or face 5,000-lira fines (about $2,800). This means that nargile cafés with no outdoor seating will likely shut down, diminishing a tourist attraction on par with the Hagia Sofia and the döner kebab.

Hundreds of teahouses, suffering from rising utility costs and the myriad effects of the global financial meltdown, have already closed in the past few months. Family-first and feminist types aren’t fond of these men-only sanctuaries, where the retired and unemployed while away their days playing backgammon, talking politics, and smoking cigarettes. But in this enormous, bewildering city, the approximately 15,000 teahouses serve as, among other things, “a university without professors,” according to Ahmet Turan Doğan, the chairman of Istanbul’s Chamber of Public Teahouses and Non-Alcoholic Halls. Surrounded by four portraits of Atatürk and two nargiles, Doğan, who hates smoking, doesn’t believe that the teahouse men will adjust to the new rules. “Of course we know what will happen to the teahouses,” he said ominously.

The Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi, in Istanbul’s old city, is a 300-year-old former madrasa now home to rug dealers and nargile cafés. On a Thursday evening in February, men and women—tourists, students, and middle-aged residents—enjoyed the elegant charms of the nargile along with their tiny cups of tea. The place was crowded and smoky. It seemed inconceivable that an all-out tobacco ban would strike in just five months.

Faruk Taş, the manager of Ali Paşa Nargile, dragged on a steady supply of Marlboro Reds. “Where are these people going to smoke?” he said. “I can understand banning cigarettes, but this is a water-pipe garden. This is in our culture.”

He motioned to a friend who’d entered his shop. “Ask him what he thinks about it.”

“Do you think the smoking ban will work in Turkey?”

“Of course,” replied the visitor, rather dismissively. Then he sat down and lit a cigarette.