Younis B. Azeem
“Do you smoke?” I asked my new roommate, my hand nervously clenching the pack inside my winter jacket.
It was the start of February 2021, and I had just moved into my first apartment in New York. I had left Pakistan for the first time two weeks ago, amid great uncertainty, as the novel coronavirus disrupted the third and first world alike. The New York City I had landed in was nothing like what the movies had led me to believe. It was desolate, covered in a sort of perpetual virgin snow from the inactivity, and a sense of horror that was almost palpable. I had dragged my suitcase, filled with a past life, across four Airbnbs and a motel till I had found this place on a Facebook group. It was the most isolated I had ever felt in my life. This apartment was on the Upper West Side, on 105th and Columbus, and there were five of us twentysomethings sharing a fourth-floor walk-up with one restroom. I had figured that surely in such circumstances, the potential for a friendship ought to ooze out of the space beneath our doors. A pandemic camaraderie, the all too trope-y we’re-broke-and-in-New-York friendship. As soon as I unpacked, I fingered the pack of cigarettes in my pocket, and practically jumped out into the hallway the first time I heard movement.
There was Bennington outside, and he seemed positively thrilled at my invitation. Bennington was—and to the best of my knowledge probably still is—on the strangest student visa I had heard of. He was a senior at Columbia when we met but was originally from China. He’d however also done high school in the US and at this eight-year mark was indistinguishable from any full-blooded American. We went up to the roof of the building, and there I took out my pack of Marlboro Filter Plus Ones, an entire carton that I had brought from Islamabad. He stared at me for a second as I lit one, his features scrunching up in bewilderment.
“I thought you meant weed.”
“What?” I said, taken aback. “No, of course not. I meant smoke . . . tobacco?” The idea of adding the word “tobacco” felt so incredibly stupid as so obviously self-evident that it almost choked me as it came out. My outstretched hand with the offering slowly retreated of its own accord.
“When people say smoke, dude, they mean weed. If you mean cigarettes, you add the word ‘cigarettes’ here,” he politely explained and wrapped his winter coat more tightly around himself. “Also, no one really smokes cigarettes here,” he added as an afterthought, watching me exhale into the still frigid air. I nodded slowly and we stood in silence as I inhaled three more times. I then flicked it, half still left, on the floor and stomped it out. He didn’t comment on what etiquette dictated here, and we both went indoors.
With the proliferation of the internet and all the microblogging maladies it brings with it, it’s hard to be shocked by a different culture anymore. Even though I had never left Pakistan and had been on an airplane maybe five times in my life, I wasn’t shocked by the diversity, the value of the dollar, the accents, the newfound mobility and freedom that extended now to all the sexes, and even more nuanced things like the aggressive tipping culture or the preference for toilet paper over the bidet. My search for cheap temporary housing had taken me up and down the city since I had landed, and yet the incident with Bennington was the first time I realized there will always be information that won’t make it over the Atlantic. Differences so subtle that no one cares to pen them. Differences, to the right audience, that might be as pronounced as the absence of the Azaan blaring on speakers, five times a day, beckoning you to salvation.
“‘When people say smoke, dude, they mean weed. If you mean cigarettes, you add the word “cigarettes” here,’ he politely explained and wrapped his winter coat more tightly around himself. ‘Also, no one really smokes cigarettes here.’”
Two days after this, I would bump into another roommate in the kitchen. With a sort of greater hesitation, I proposed the same question again, this time clarifying that I meant cigarettes. Howard’s face lit up, and he instantly agreed. He was also from China but like me had come for grad school, a year before. He mentioned that he didn’t have any cigarettes, and I pulled out my pack and told him not to be stupid. Once again, we climbed the stairs up into a night that felt oddly warmer.
For the entirety of that semester, Howard and I would climb up those stairs and for seven minutes share how our day went. We both had thick accents and I only understood every other word he said, subconsciously adding words where they made sense, adding meaning as I thought ought to be added from his body language. I remember nothing about these conversations, just a feeling akin to that fleeting comfort that a lighter brings to your palms on a cold night as it lights your cigarette. I’m sure he felt the same.
April brought with it the first vaccine shot and with it a sense of life back into this greatest city of the world. The temperature reached the seventies, and the people poured out on the streets. And with the people came the smoke. In Manhattan, you saw it especially in Harlem and East Harlem, where pretty much every storefront sold cigarettes illegally for ten dollars—achieved by purchasing them in bulk from states where the tax on tobacco is nowhere close to New York (at the time of this essay, a pack of, say, Newports, purchased from a deli, can set you back as much as sixteen dollars).
People seldom notice things that don’t concern them. And in a city as overstimulated and coked out as New York, it’s hard to pay attention to anything even when it backflips over you on the L train. The MTA’s “If you see something, say something” is as much a plea to look alive as it is a security request. If I didn’t smoke and the idiosyncrasies of smoking across cultures didn’t intrigue me, I’d never even have seen the culprits. An old Asian dishwasher squatting and puffing outside a restaurant during a slow lunch hour in Chinatown is as ubiquitous as a yellow cab, and for the same reason, entirely unremarkable.
I had unconsciously begun to take notes as I went up and down a now unquarantined New York with the fervor only those new here have. July, especially, was when I began to really take more notice of my companions and their nuances—each individual smoker popping out in my peripheral, nicotine yellow on a tar background. This was spurred by observations I had made the previous month. I had spent all of June traveling the country, taking advantage of cheap Covid flights, friends from the Pakistani diaspora scattered across the continent, and the ability to sublease in New York at a moment’s notice.
Visible smoking fell off everywhere outside New York’s city limits, but it was in Los Angeles where I realized how poorly Big Tobacco had fared in the US. There is almost something taboo about cigarettes in LA, and the wider Golden State. You can walk the entire length of the Venice Beach boardwalk and count the number of people smoking on one hand. There’s a strange stare—somewhere between disgust and pity—you’ll attract at lighting up in the middle of the day and the butt-free sidewalks testify that this isn’t entirely in your head. Perhaps not to the same extent, but similar observations can be made in Seattle, Denver, Miami, and even Salt Lake City. Cities where there’s suddenly a gnawing guilt as you pull out your pack. You are solely responsible for besmirching the streets, polluting the sky, forcing passive smoke on passersby. By the time I returned to New York, I thought there was something inherently dirty about cigarettes, completely removed from the fact that of course it’s suicide in a stick.
The feeling quickly vaporized within two weeks of landing in New York. Here they were again, my comrades in stupidity, puffing away in Chinatown, and Harlem, and Jackson Heights. The reason for the discrepancy was right there the entire time, but it was in Flushing when I first realized it. There were five of us, all Pakistanis, who had been given the number of a cigarette dealer in the area (in wonderful juxtaposition to Pakistan where you need a dealer for every substance besides this) and we anxiously waited for her outside a rather unassuming facade. Soon enough an Asian woman came out, looked at us, and then handed me a discreet bag on the sidewalk. It was full of smuggled Korean cigarettes, at less than half the price of even our out-of-state cigarettes. She accepted the hundred and forty dollars in cash that I pressed in her hand, thanked me in her own thick accent, and stepped right back out of our lives. We immediately tore into one of the cartons to retrieve a pack, and as we stood around smoking, enthralled by the economics of tobacco in America, I thought how unamerican all this was.
The revelation wasn’t earth-shattering, and most people wouldn’t need to hop across the country and purchase smuggled Korean cigarettes to realize that almost everyone smoking in New York has an accent. They weren’t, at least not always, from the land of the (tobacco-) free and home of the brave. I remembered all the snatches of conversations as I walked by a plume of smoke, all the asking for and being asked for lighters, matches, loosies. Eight times out of ten there was an accent as distinct as mine. After English, there are eight hundred distinct languages spoken in the city, and they’re all being used to ask for cigarettes. Don’t get me wrong, there are Americans smoking in New York, but they seem to be on the fringes of society. The homeless, the elderly, artists of a specific temperament, people very obviously down on their luck, and of course that odd section of American Spirit smokers in Bushwick who are very much their own thing, and whom I have neither the space, energy nor patience to dissect.
The United States of America, perpetually declaring and losing a war on some drug, third-world country, or illness, needs to advertise their success with tobacco more. I mean this with all the condescension in the world, but I’ve lived a life seeing Americans lose the war on obesity, replace a crack epidemic with an opioid one, to say nothing of their many glorious unaccomplishments with all my Muslim neighbors west of the Peshawar border. Put this on a billboard, America, fly a blimp across the world, give your health department the year off. You did it! The young people of America genuinely don’t want to smoke. This is all the more shocking because the rest of their first-world counterparts in Europe, leading on almost every other quality of life metric, have not managed to replicate this success. This is an unprecedented, unparalleled monumental achievement. The question then, the burning question (no pun intended), is how did this happen? And why is this not the case elsewhere or, well, at the very least in Pakistan?
In September 2021, The New School (where I was enrolled for my Master’s) finally deemed the pandemic manageable and opened its doors for in-person classes. That first semester, five of us who smoked immediately found each other with Apple Tag accuracy. The sad truth, raw and exposed, is that it’s easier to form a friendship over a shared vice than pretty much anything else. Out of the five of us, the three Americans, though, were uneasy, even embarrassed about their habit, a sort of guilt that came out along with their lighter. There was context as to why they smoked, which clearly stated that this wasn’t a casual stupid decision. They had picked up the problem under hyper-specific circumstances and they consistently promised to quit or cut down. Jon was an ex-soldier and had come straight out of Afghanistan to pursue an MFA in poetry, and it was there, right next to where I was born and raised, that he had picked it up. He was almost always on nicotine patches and the entirety of our conversations while we smoked revolved about him quitting. Dylan had worked a high-stakes job in Florida politics and had resorted to cigarettes to take the edge off. He was new to this, though, and at twenty-two he perhaps didn’t share the same enthusiasm to quit as Jon. Tate, straight out of an alternative scene in the Bay Area, belonging to the same species as the Bushwick folks I alluded to earlier (just on the other coast), was consistently bumming cigarettes or having one or two puffs from the rest of us so that he never became a “smoker.” That left Maria who was Peruvian and who casually told me she had been smoking since thirteen and who just as casually stopped next semester.
In Pakistan no one ever had to justify why they smoked. If they did, they did. If they eventually quit, they eventually quit. There was little second-guessing, explanation, apology, and reaching in your pocket was something as commonplace as ordering a chai, as widespread and unnecessary as punctuating your sentences with bhenchod. The sheer scale of the smoking community of course created such an environment, but the reason such a thing could exist to begin with was the lack of guilt you inflicted upon yourself. Often that fall semester when we would step out for a smoke, there were classmates of ours who would tsk-tsk, shake their heads, and some would even come and say don’t you know that smoking kills? As if it was some grand revelation, as if no one had ever stopped to consider that, as if the box didn’t say so.
The point remains valid. Among the few indisputable facts of the world, right below gravity and above the moon landing, is that cigarettes will kill you. It’s how you grapple with that reality that reveals the radical difference between Pakistan and America. In America that belief translates into a two-part statement, the second one unsaid, where it’s declared that cigarettes will kill you before anything else does. This right here, this inherent first-world privilege is something that all the best efforts of Big Tobacco cannot undo.
In Pakistan every pack of cigarettes has a graphic that covers almost the entire pack in addition to a huge health warning in the local language. The graphics range from blackened lungs, gangrened feet, necks with literal holes in them oozing pus. And in the case that you are unable to interpret what these allude to on a box of cigarettes, the text that screams “Khabardar! Tambaaku noshi ka injaam, munh ka cancer!” leaves nothing to the imagination. Even with a literacy rate that’s barely sixty percent you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the country who isn’t aware of this reality. In the United States, the packs are much neater, there are no graphics whatsoever and just a small surgeon warning at the side of the box. To argue then that people smoke less simply due to awareness is a failure of the imagination and seeing humans as stupid three-dimensional beings.
For almost seven years I lived in Lahore where each winter a smog so thick and viscous would settle over the city that on some nights you’d be hard-pressed to see your own outstretched arm. Masks were advised long before anyone knew of a virus that would bring the world to a standstill. The year before Covid, Lahore was the single most polluted city in the entire world. Breathing in the air was said to be the equivalent of having a full pack of cigarettes. At that point if someone handed you a cigarette and asked what really is the fucking difference between twenty and twenty-one cigarettes, it would be a hard point to argue. Often when you ask people in Pakistan why they don’t quit smoking, several of them answer, “Well we might be taken out in a car crash tomorrow.” You don’t need to have studied Logic in college to understand the absurd fallacy that this is; however, what’s critical is the realization that this is less of a fallacy than it is in the United States.
Traffic signals are a suggestion, and the bigger your car is the more the driver is entitled to the notion that bhenchod yeh meray baap ke sarak hai. Pedestrians cross the road where they see fit, rickshaw drivers—smoking as they do so—subscribe to the notion that traffic going one-way doesn’t necessarily mean they have to, and speed limits are, if anything, a joke. In my lifetime, I have seen my aunt be paralyzed in a car crash, know multiple friends who have been in a rickshaw when it flipped over, had the wall next to my house caved in by a driver under the influence, and personally known someone who killed someone on the Lahore-Islamabad motorway and then casually paid blood money to the family. It isn’t that obscene then to wonder why someone would light a cigarette as they drive, the latter activity presenting as a far more immediate threat.
And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of other unique distinctly-Pakistani things that could take you out any minute. My friends in Karachi know all too well that getting mugged for their cell phone is culture at this point, as they walk around with two in their pocket. There is never a non-zero probability of a large gathering going kaboom regardless of your neighborhood or city, and preventable diseases in the United States are anything but in Pakistan. It remains one of the two countries in the world where polio is yet to be eradicated, and thousands succumb to dengue every time the monsoon rolls around—my own mother just survived it this season, and it lags criminally behind the developed world when it comes to vaccines and medicines. My uncle’s blood is on the hands of the West when he passed due to Covid while I sat double vaccinated in Harlem in September of last year.
I suppose on some level all the above may be sorted into why it’s hard to quit smoking, or why “smoking kills” isn’t as persuasive as those across the Atlantic may imagine. This, however, doesn’t really answer why people start in the first place. The answer is twofold. The first is culture, as much as anyone may deny it. With every passing year it becomes a more and more deep-seated aspect of day-to-day life in the country. There is merchandise sold that advertises chai and cigarettes as the classic Desi breakfast, every cigarette brand is produced locally and there’s a price point for every class of society.
In my senior year of college, every day my roommate and I would be awakened by someone in our dorm corridor knocking and asking for a cigarette. With complete indifference to all building and college regulations students would light cigarettes in the dorms, proceed into the elevator and walk out towards their class. That year I remember it was estimated that more than half of our student body and faculty smoked, which is why every time the idea of smoking zones on campus was even meekly suggested, it would be met with furious opposition. In the years since I’ve graduated, the administration seems to have finally managed to do so, and largely only by taking advantage of no students on campus during the coronavirus outbreak to protest the zones. One day my roommate, sick of having an entire floor of students bum his Marlboro Lights, made the pilgrimage to the little kiosks outside our campus. Laws dictated that kiosks selling cigarettes had to be at a certain distance from a college campus, and you’d best believe that, as if measured by a calibrated instrument, there were three kiosks exclusively constructed to sell cigarettes to our campus right outside this zone. The zone didn’t account for delivery, so each kiosk also had dedicated delivery kids, hardly eleven, whom you could call and have a pack delivered to the gate of the campus if you didn’t feel like walking three hundred yards. The minute you stepped out of the fortified walls you’d see these kids on their bicycles, their little kameezain stashed with packs as they waited for us to exit. The day my roommate and I went to the kiosk, he demanded the cheapest pack of cigarettes, which he had decided would exclusively be for the boys on our dorm floor—a bizarre compromise between the Desi notion that cigarettes are public goods so a request cannot be turned down, and the economic realities of being a senior-year college student. The cheapest pack was Kisan which the owner described as “for the labor class.” It cost twenty rupees. Even if I assume, incorrectly, that it’s now twice the price, that means for the cost of the illegally procured, tax-avoided, cheapest brand of cigarettes in New York you can get five cartons of Kisan. In a culture this viciously predicated on smoking, to decide to quit can have real social consequences, and even if you do quit the consistent secondhand smoke makes a compelling argument to at least go out on your own terms.
Secondly, young people all over the world will turn towards substances as surely as they will fall in love and have their hearts broken. It is one of the few rare universal bildungsroman experiences. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, alcohol, on whose flimsy dynamite nature all Western culture has perched its social life, is forbidden in a way that only the most daring will approach it. The law of course forbids lots of things (such as driving fast and breaking traffic signals) but alcohol is not only forbidden, in a land full of believers it is haram. Coupled with the double whammy of prison and hellfire, most people will decide on alternatives. I have known people to do ecstasy and have seizures at raves who wouldn’t touch alcohol with a ten-foot pole. The Hookah or Sheesha, a staple in the rest of the Islamic world, has also been outlawed outside private residences. The cost, size, and comically complicated procedure to make a Sheesha ensures that only the most ardent fans will bother to have their own setup. The government had banned it due to health concerns and one of the reasons I remember circulating, as I saw the contraptions vanish overnight from my favorite cafes, was that it was akin to smoking multiple cigarettes. The government in its infinite wisdom failed to account for the fact that often multiple cigarettes are a viable alternate for something that is equivalent to multiple cigarettes.
Naturally then, cigarettes, already a formidable force in their own right, filled in the gaps produced by a lack of other social vices, and came to be everyone’s first foray into what is forbidden but not criminal, what is frowned upon but not haram, the Paki equivalent of stealing liquor from your parents’ cabinets as a teenager. Anthems have been made around the experience, and there are only so many times you can hear Ali Haider croon “Woh cigarette peena / Gali mein jaake / Wo karna daanton ko / Ghadi ghadi saaf,” or Zeest’s “Sutta Na Mila,” which narrates a man’s life into adulthood through his relationship with cigarettes (punctuated consistently by the very poetic “Bhenchod Sutta, Mujhay Sutta Na Mila”) before you yearn to have these experiences for yourself.
There is a last aspect of this that needs to be addressed. Whereas the idea of smoking has always been linked to rebellion—I’m thinking here of course of James Dean on the cover of Rebel Without a Cause—in Pakistan it occupies a similar notion with our largest oppressed minority. Women. Whereas this essay might have led you to believe the entire country is one giant ashtray, it is almost exclusively men in a culture that has attached a sense of shame to women smoking. In 2018, the National University of Sciences and Technology, one of the leading educational institutes in the country, established smoking zones on their campus that stated that no women would be allowed to enter them. Several weeks ago, I came across an Instagram post where a woman had posted a picture of herself smoking, captioned “cigarettes kill me, not my character.” A powerful statement in a country where only recently has there been a strong movement to reclaim public spaces for women and all the privileges that come with it—including, of course, the freedom to slowly kill yourself anywhere and not be immediately subject to judgment from everyone within a five-mile radius. The irony being that none of this judgment is linked to the destructive properties of the substance itself. In an outlandish turn of events, on some level smoking has come to represent a sense of freedom, a fuck-you to one of the most male-dominated societies in the modern world.
When I first landed in New York City it was 10 PM. I had no SIM, no one I could really reach out to even if I did, and had no idea where to go once I exited the airport. An old colleague of my father’s, however, had volunteered to pick me up while I boarded in Islamabad. Zia bhai had showed up to New York some years prior to me. He had just turned forty and until recently, in quintessential Desi fashion, had driven a taxi in the city. He greeted me jovially outside the airport and I cautiously got into his car, the very blood in my veins having frozen over in the twenty-degree weather. He informed me that he had booked me a room in a motel just outside of the city and we were headed that way. We crossed several lonely Covid-abandoned highways, the snow piled high off the shoulders, and the great darkness on all sides seemingly reflecting what lay ahead in this new life that I was about to start. Somewhere close to our motel, he slowed the car down, and turned right into an abandoned parking lot that pre-Covid must have been a fine establishment. I looked at him with confusion, fear even, and he motioned to a pack of Marlboro 100’s in the car’s central console.
“Do you smoke,” he asked.
I slowly shook my head no. He laughed and then added matter-of-factly, with all the confidence of someone who knew what the truth was, “I won’t tell your dad.”
The moment hung in the air, dense with meaning from a land that we were no longer in, a moment of cultural significance so vast, so great that it had made it seven thousand miles across the Atlantic Ocean to this snowed-in parking lot in Yonkers, New York. I suddenly broke into laughter myself and nodded. Zia bhai passed me a cigarette as we both got out of the car, and when I lit mine, it illuminated the road for miles and months ahead, and all the snow melted as if Zia bhai had been carrying spring in his pack.
Exactly a year later, I went to visit him, and we had Halal outside his shop in the South Bronx. Once we were done with the meal, in keeping with standard smoker ritual, I pulled out a pack to return that favor from what seemed a lifetime ago. He smiled and refused. He had a pack of nicotine pills in his pocket that he pulled out instead, and told me that after twenty years, he had decided he had had enough.
Zeest could no longer be heard anywhere, there was no karak chai to pair with the indulgence, and his friends had scattered like ashes on a particularly windy night. It was a clear beautiful afternoon, and the Air Quality Index app urged us to be outside. I put the pack slowly back in my pocket, now perhaps, maybe, finally, what it had always been; a dumb way to get cancer.
Fall / Winter 2023
Younis B. Azeem
Younis B. Azeem was born and raised in Islamabad, Pakistan. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School that he attended as a Fulbright Scholar, and currently teaches Writing at the Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan.