Under the sign “Take out only” and a tall bottle of antiseptic by his side, Mazin Hashim, 54, rearranged the coals heating a water pipe outside his famed cafe in Baghdad.
He put up the placard to satisfy recent government restrictions on movement and gatherings that are aimed at slowing the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Once inside, however, thick white plumes of fragrant smoke choked the air as over a dozen young men whiled away the hours in defiance of the directives, The Associated Press reported.
As the pandemic continues to spread, governments across the Middle East have put a stop to the practice of cherished traditions: No more massive weddings and celebrations. No more evenings spent mostly by men in traditional coffee shops across the region. And most importantly, no more smoking of the beloved shisha, or water pipe, in public places.
In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult.
In Iraq, clarion calls sound twice a day to remind people to adhere to the ban on public gatherings. But that has little impact at Hashim’s shisha parlor, second home to 29-year-old Mustafa Ahmed who comes every day to meet friends and seek solace from the monotony of domestic life.
Not even at the height of Iraq’s sectarian wars was he made to spend seven straight days at home. He and his friends smoked shisha at Hashim’s instead.
“It’s normal for us to come here during times of crisis,” said Ahmed. “The only difference this time is we are hiding from the police.”
Down the street from Hashim, Tony Paulis, 60, said he tried to promote social distancing with a poster outside his barbershop door. It has an “X” over an image of two men leaning in for a greeting, and a warning message: “Please limit yourselves to handshakes.”
The Lebanese port city of Sidon, south of the capital Beirut, is mostly deserted. It once bustled with people flocking to its traditional coffee shops where elderly men gathered to smoke cigarettes and play cards and backgammon. Those closed after the Lebanese government ordered a lockdown last week.
Qassem Bdeir, a fisherman, sat with a group of friends near a hidden segment of the port, discussing the situation, each seated a meter away from the other.
“We used to meet at the coffee shop after a day’s work to talk and play cards. Now there’s no work, and we steal these few moments to talk and commiserate sitting away from each other before we go home to lock ourselves up,” he said.
The virus has also upended plans for weddings — often extravagant affairs in the region, with hundreds of invitees.
In Beirut, Bassam Makki, the 42-year-old owner of a jewelry shop had been in the final stages of planning his wedding when the pandemic started. He and his fiance took out a loan and planned a celebration for 130 people at a four-star hotel in Beirut. The party, which had been scheduled for April 10, has been canceled.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” he said, trying to offer a smile.
Others pressed ahead with weddings.
Rawan Mohammed found an open tract of agricultural land outside the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk for his wedding after the Kurdistan Regional Government closed wedding halls as part of preventive measures.
“We told everyone at the beginning, they can come by to tell us congratulations and take pictures, but without handshaking or hugging,” he said.