BOOK REVIEW: Smoke and mirrors

11 August 2006
Anyone who has been to the Middle East will be only too aware of how smoking is an unavoidable part of everyday life. This intriguing book by Ben Gurion University Middle East Studies lecturer Relli Shechter seeks to analyse how the habit came to occupy such a position from both economic and cultural perspectives.
To illustrate the development of the tobacco market across the Ottoman Empire from the 17th century, Smoking, Culture and Economy focuses on Egypt the country with the highest tobacco consumption in the region, estimated at 28 per cent of the population in 2000.

Shechter sets out to describe markets not as price-setting mechanisms, but as 'exchanges', meaning 'a complexity in which producers, sellers, buyers and the state are involved in economic activity and whose outcome is further dependent on multiple social, cultural and political factors'. This separates the history of the tobacco industry, on the one hand, from a study of the cultural drivers of consumption and how they relate to the political and economic effects of state action on production and demand.

The book divides into three sections. The first looks at the introduction of tobacco as a commodity into the Ottoman Empire, of which Egypt was a part, in the early 17th century via merchants plying the trade routes of the Indian Ocean. Meeting with initial resistance from Ottoman Sultans because it diverted land from food production, tobacco's ready adaptation to different climates and soils, the enthusiastic adoption of the smoking habit and the Empire's impoverishment following war with the Habsburg Empire at the end of the century led the Ottoman rulers to strictly control the supply of tobacco through the guild system and taxation.

By the middle of the 19th century, Egyptians had moved on from smoking the chibouk the Ottoman long pipe and shisha, or water pipe, to smoking the hand-rolled cigarette. This was a luxury item, whose use was restricted to wealthy Egyptians and foreigners, but its retailing and promotion colourfully described and illustrated with original package designs and vintage photographs of tobacco stores helped to develop a local consumer culture.

Developing on this theme, the second part of the book charts the development of an Egyptian mass market for tobacco and cigarettes from the late 19th century until the nationalisation of the industry in the late 1950s. Shechter examines how less affluent Egyptians coped with rising prices by, for example, switching from machine-made cigarettes to rolling their own; how the state played a significant role in determining the price, quantity and quality of tobacco by taxation and regulation; and how disproportionately this affected those living closest to the bread line. The middle section also describes how mechanisation fiercely opposed by the highest paid factory employees, the cigarette-rollers led to over-production, cut-throat competition and eventual consolidation in the industry. This allowed British American Tobacco to enter the market through its 1927 merger with the Armenian-owned Matossian family cigarette firm, forming Eastern Tobacco. Eastern quickly dominated the Egyptian market a position that facilitated the state's takeover of the market after nationalisation under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Part three of the book is arguably the most interesting, as it examines representations of smoking in Egyptian popular culture incorporating films, books, magazines and newspapers. Approaching the topic from the perspective that interactions within a market cannot be fully understood without reference to culture as a factor determining consumer choice, Shechter examines how these representations reflected a developing Egyptian sense of social class, especially that of the educated 'effendi', or middle class professional. Representations of smoking in popular culture expressed the notion of 'you are what you smoke' and identified the rural

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