How to roll a cigarette: The Syrian smoker’s guide to a siege

The East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus comprise a dozen bombed-out towns and villages encircled by the Assad regime since 2012. Earlier this year, the regime transformed a semi-porous blockade into an airtight siege trapping an estimated 400,000 residents within the encircled pocket.

The grip around East Ghouta tightened in February after regime forces began cracking down on the smuggling tunnels that connected the suburbs to the outside world. By March, the regime quietly, and without prior notice, closed the last remaining crossing into East Ghouta, shutting the suburbs off completely from outside food and supplies.

By April, prices had tripled. Bread, baby formula and medicine flew off store shelves. The bombs continued to fall and local armed factions turned their weapons on each other.

In recent weeks, inflation has hit East Ghouta’s smoker-heavy society particularly hard. A single cigarette now sells for $4. That is twice the amount one 23-year-old data entry worker named Yasser makes in a day.

  Leaves are ground into a tobacco substitute and smoked in East Ghouta. Photo courtesy of Yasser.

What’s a nicotine-addicted smoker to do? Roll your own cigarettes with “just about anything,” says Yasser: sewing pattern paper stuffed with crushed cilantro, ground tea leaves, rose petals, mint and even coffee grounds. Yasser isn't the only one taking such measures; his father partakes, too.

“Do you know how hard this must be for someone who’s been smoking for more than 40 years?” Yasser asks Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani, speaking about his father. “The man has got nicotine in his veins.”

Q: How did you come up with the idea of making your own cigarettes?

As the siege of East Ghouta intensified, prices began to skyrocket. It’s gotten to the point where a single cigarette is going for about $4. That’s twice the amount of someone’s daily income. People have been unable to buy cigarettes, especially at a time where their concerns are so focused on just being able to put food on the table, which is something they’re hardly able to do.   

I’m a man, I’m single and I don’t have a family to support. I do data entry work, and I bring in $2 a day. I’m not able to buy both cigarettes and food, so what is someone to do who actually has a family and children?

I was sitting with my father in our garden, and we were talking about smoking. He told me how badly he craved a cigarette. Three days had gone by, and he hadn’t smoked a single one. Do you know how hard this must be for someone who’s been smoking for more than 40 years? The man has got nicotine in his veins.

His patience had run out, and he couldn’t bear the pain anymore. Suddenly, he got up and grabbed some dried leaves from the trees. He began to grind them up in his hands and said: ‘I’m going to give this a try.’

At first, I was really weirded out. But then I said to myself: ‘You know, maybe he’s actually got something here.’ So I got some old sewing pattern paper, which actually worked quite well because it’s thin. And so we started to smoke.

My father was one of the first people to come up with the artificial cigarette.

Q: Okay, but what you’re smoking doesn’t have any nicotine in it. Is that “artificial cigarette” going to make a difference for someone like your father who is addicted?

That is true. It’s the nicotine that you’ll find in a cigarette that gets a smoker hooked. But with nicotine in such short supply over here, people are looking for any alternative they can get their hands on.

Some people have even started experimenting with caffeinated things, mixing their tea leaves or coffee grounds with leaves and herbs. Clearly, there’s no perfect solution, but for some people, at least it’s something. What else are they going to do? Someone with a smoking addiction is going to try just about anything to make up for what they can’t have.

Q: What are people putting into the cigarettes?

It’s not like there’s just one type of artificial cigarette. Everyone develops their own style based on their tastes and preferences.

People are using just about anything: dry tree leaves, parsley and coriander. There are types with mulukhiyah, tarragon, mate and even corn silk. Some people are using leaves from a lemon tree, mint, tea leaves and coffee grounds.

You may also find more than one herb in a single cigarette. This practice has become widespread to the point of being in virtually every home because people have just got no other alternative.

Q: Is it any cheaper to roll your own tobacco cigarettes as opposed to buying a pack at the store? Are people growing tobacco in East Ghouta?

Of course, with the siege, the price of tobacco has gone up; a single gram is selling for around SP200 (approx. $0.50). And then, on top of that, you’re going to need decent rolling paper, and that’s going to run you another SP1,300 (approx. $3.25) for a single pack. At these prices, it’s not like rolling your own cigarettes is even going to be any cheaper than buying them from the store.

Smoking hookah is just as expensive. Today, one gram of flavored tobacco sells for around SP350 (approx. $0.88), and to smoke hookah you need at least 14 grams.

As for growing tobacco, that’s banned here. [Ed.: There is no official law enforced by East Ghouta’s armed factions banning the growing of tobacco or the selling of cigarettes, local sources tell Syria Direct. Even before the war, however, tobacco cultivation was uncommon. Since regime forces captured East Ghouta’s southern agricultural Marj region in May 2016, tobacco cultivation has become virtually non-existent, as residents now grow almost exclusively fruit- and vegetable-bearing crops.]

 Syrians sit at a shop in the East Ghouta town of Kafr Batna, January 2017. Photo courtesy of Amer Al-Mohibany/AFP/Getty Images. 

People do sell their blends in some stores. Others will even use pushcarts to sell what they make. If you have a decent product, it’s not uncommon that you’ll sell it to a store where it can then be purchased by the gram. Usually, a single gram will go for around SP50-100 (approx. $0.12-$0.25) if you want to buy it in the store because you don’t have any experience making it yourself. The artificial flavored tobacco costs SP150 (approx. $0.38) per gram, and it’s made with dried rose petals. Depending on the blend, there are some price differences, but, in reality, they are quite minor.

As for the rolling paper, sewing pattern paper and parchment paper are the two most commonly used, but some people will use other materials depending on what’s available.

Q: How do one of these “artificial cigarettes” taste in comparison with a tobacco cigarette? Are you worried at all about your health?

In reality, it doesn’t taste that good. You really do feel a burning in your throat. The taste does vary based on the herbs that you’re using.

Of course there are health consequences when it comes to smoking an artificial cigarette. If you don’t die from a bomb in Ghouta, then you’re probably going to die from smoking one of these cigarettes. But it’s not as if doctors right now are in the position to be able to determine just how much damage it’s doing.

Artificial cigarettes first started to become a thing about 40 days ago, and it’s only grown in popularity ever since.

Q: If tobacco is so hard to come by in East Ghouta, why not quit smoking altogether?

Of course, the last siege that we went through was intense. The cost of cigarettes went up, but at the absolute most, the price of a pack reached SP4,000 (approx. $10).

[Ed.: In early 2014, the Assad regime imposed a nearly year-long period of total encirclement on East Ghouta. The area held by rebels in the eastern Damascus suburbs was larger in 2014, encompassing several fertile agricultural regions that allowed residents to grow food and mitigate the impact of being cut off from outside supplies, Syria Direct reported.]

We were shocked by just how much the price of cigarettes jumped this time around. They stopped getting in to East Ghouta altogether.

I guess you can say that there is somewhat of a silver lining to all of this: A percentage—albeit a small percentage—of smokers in East Ghouta have been able to quit smoking because of the strength of their will and the reality of the situation.

But quitting smoking just isn’t easy, especially if it’s done cold turkey. The people who are having the hardest time are the ones who’ve been addicted for a long time, and they’re usually the elderly or people over the age of 30.

And, look, the elderly have got their habits that they’re not just going to give up. Life may no longer carry the same meaning for them. They certainly don’t care about their health especially given what they’re in the middle of living through right now. We’re dying in the most horrific ways. In the end, I guess death always does taste the same, regardless of how it happens.

As for the younger generation that’s addicted, you’ll often see a group of five or more young guys get together. They’ll buy a single cigarette and take turns passing it around and having a drag.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.