Standing at the cashier in my local 24-hour shop the other day, I saw a similar but unique version of something I’ve seen many times before in the Gulf: A man asks for a pack of cigarettes – Davidoff – the pack’s nice. He pays his 7 riyals. The cashier produces the pack of cigarettes. The man picks them up, examines them, and upon finding a small dent down one side and a very slight layer of dust on the cellophane seal, tosses them back on the counter. “Old!” he says to the cashier, “no new?”
“No new,” comes the reply.
“Give money.” The cashier draws the customer’s cash back out of the till, and the man exits, cigarette-less.
What struck about this brief encounter was the way in which it illustrates one thing I have noticed about Saudi Arabia since I moved here – that is, the importance of appearance.
I’m assuming that the customer here was buying the cigarettes for himself. As a smoker, I know that being out of cigarettes is far worse than having them and not being permitted to light up. The potential for something to go badly wrong and then for me to badly need a nicotine hit is enough to make me start scratching at the walls. So, the guy’s out of cigarettes, and needs the safety net of a pack by his side, but the presence of a dent in the side of the pack and a dusting of sand overrides the screaming of his nerves? Man, if it was that easy, I would just quit!
The brand that I smoke, Davidoff Slim Light, has recently changed its pack. Where once it was a simple light beige with those fancy cut-off corners that people here seem to love – these are the most expensive cigarettes you can buy here, at $1.85 – now they’ve changed it to an explosion of pink roses, with a pink rose motif just before the filter on the cigarettes themselves. At least, those are the only packs they sell at the shop. I can’t think why they’ve started importing these packs, as it is rare indeed to see a woman smoking cigarettes in any Gulf country I’ve ever lived in. Shisha, yes, but cigarettes, no. Maybe they’re going for that niche market of smoking florists. Who knows?
Anyway, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have pulled me up on this: “Hey, you’re smoking women’s cigarettes! What’s up with that? Don’t you think it’s strange?”
My main argument is this: 1. It’s a cigarette. It contains nicotine. If it was in the shape of a dead cat and I needed a smoke, well, I’d probably go ahead and light up kitty by the tail. After all, the tobacco industry doesn’t call them Nicotine Delivery Devices for nothing. Do you smoke Marlboro red because it makes you a tough guy? All that shit about the Marlboro man? He doesn’t really exist. Smoking Davidoff doesn’t turn me in to a young, rich, intelligent male model with a yacht. The most attractive thing a cigarette will ever give me is cancer. 2. If I dressed you up in a dress and some make-up, would that make you a woman? No, it would make you a man wearing a dress and some make-up.
The importance of appearances here can not be understated. From the kid who takes out a loan 50 times his salary to get his hands on some beast of an SUV, to my colleague who’s just found the perfect cowboy-style hat to protect against the sun, but won’t buy it because he’s worried that everyone in his home village would lynch him if they saw him wearing it. Anything and everything gives the opportunity to lose face.
Isn’t it easier just to say, “You know what – screw it. It’s only a pack of smokes, and God damn it, I really need a fix” ?