BAGHDAD (AP) – Under the sign “Just to Go” and with a large bottle of antiseptic by his side, Mazin Hashim, 54, placed the pieces of charcoal that heated a hookah outside his well-known café in Baghdad.
He put up the poster to meet recent government restrictions on movement and meetings seeking to stem the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Once inside, however, dense columns of white, fragrant smoke invade the air as more than a dozen young people spend hours defying directives.
As the pandemic continues to spread, Middle Eastern governments cracked down on the region’s treasured traditions: no more weddings and mass celebrations; restrictions on the sale of qat, a plant with a mild narcotic effect that is chewed in groups in Yemen; no more afternoons among friends in the traditional coffee shops of the region and, most importantly, forbidden to smoke the beloved shisha, or hookah, in public places.
In a region where life tends to revolve around large families, community meals, and tribal norms, maintaining social distance can be difficult.
In Iraq, bugle calls twice a day remind the population to respect the veto of public meetings. But this has had little impact on the business of Hashim, a second home for 29-year-old Mustafa Ahmed, who goes daily to meet his friends and distract himself from the monotony of domestic life.
Even at the height of the country’s sectarian wars, he did not spend seven days in a row at home. Instead, he and his friends smoked shisha in Hashim’s cafe.
“It is normal for us to come here in times of crisis,” said Ahmed. “The only difference is that this time we are hiding from the police.”
The security councils exchanged by many in Iraq often contrast with global calls from experts to avoid physical contact and keep a safe distance from others.
The revered Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, Ali al-Sistani, whose opinion is respected by many, said that it was necessary to avoid handshakes, hugs and kisses except when taking “necessary precautions”, including sterilization, masks and gloves .
But Hashim acknowledged that his loved ones often ignore even these warnings. In Iraq, the custom is to kiss each cheek. This is why you have the antiseptic bottle nearby.
“Every time someone greets me, I quickly clean my hands and face,” he said.
At the end of Hashim Street, Tony Paulis, 60, said he tried to promote social distancing with a sign outside his barbershop. It has an “X” on an image of two men approaching to greet each other and a warning: “Please, just shake hands and don’t kiss given the current difficult situation.”
But the attempt was futile. “Iraqis are not afraid of the coronavirus, but they should be,” he said.
At least 40 people died in Iraq from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, which causes mild and moderate symptoms in most of those infected but can lead to more serious pathologies, such as pneumonia or even death, in older people and people with previous illnesses.
Coming out of a supermarket in the Karrada neighborhood of the Iraqi capital, with a kilo (two pounds) of oranges, Najm Abdullah Saad, 70, said the curfew was wreaking havoc on his marital life.
“Going out to smoke shisha every night was my escape route,” he said.
But smoking is not the only public pastime that has been affected by the coronavirus.
In Yemen, which has been in the civil war for five years, chewing qat is a daily activity that brings together groups to share gossip and debate.
Authorities in the southern city of Aden have banned qat markets to prevent the spread of the pandemic. But vendors have found ways to get on with their business, either with the help of the armed factions that control the city or on the outskirts.
In the north, controlled by the Houthi rebels, authorities said they plan to move the crowded qat markets outdoors and ban gatherings of more than eight people.
Applying these restrictions will be difficult since the country has busy markets in almost every city and town. Around noon, about 90% of Yemeni men come to them to buy qat, according to Houthi Health Ministry spokesman Youssef al-Hadhri. Markets will remain open as they only fill up for a couple of hours a day, he added.
“This is not dangerous,” he insisted despite growing fear of the devastating effect a coronavirus outbreak would have on the poorest country in the Arab world.
In Lebanon, the port city of Sidon, south of the capital, Beirut, is practically deserted. It used to be crowded with people who went to its traditional cafes, where the older men gathered to smoke cigarettes and play cards and backgammon. But these stores closed when the government ordered quarantine last week.
Qassem Bdeir, a fisherman, was meeting with a group of friends near a hidden part of the port, where they were discussing the situation sitting a meter away.
“We used to meet in a cafeteria after a day of work to talk and play cards. Now there is no work, and we steal these few moments to talk and feel sorry for having to be separated before going home to lock ourselves up, ”he said.
The coronavirus has also altered wedding plans, which are often an extravagant event with hundreds of guests.
In Beirut, Bassam Makki, 42, who owns a jewelry store, was finalizing his wedding preparations when the pandemic began. He and his fiancee had taken out a loan and planned a celebration for 130 people at a four-star hotel in Beirut. The party, scheduled for April 10, has been canceled.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to happen,” he said trying to smile.
But others have moved on with weddings.
Rawan Mohammed found a free estate in an agricultural area outside the Iraqi city of Dohuk for his liaison after the Kurdistan regional government closed wedding halls as a preventive measure.
“In principle we told everyone that they can come to congratulate us and take photos, but without handshakes or hugs,” he said.
The Associated Press journalists Zeina Karam in Beirut and Ahmad Mantash in Sidon, Lebanon; Maggie Michael and Sam Madgy in Cairo, Egypt; Ahmed al-Haj in Sana’a, Yemen; Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.