June 25, 2008 Posted by Tahir in Travel

The Cigarette Man

The sign is made from an old empty crumpled Marlboro carton, wrapped around a plastic bottle, a few inches of sand weighing down the base. Beside it, squatting on the ground in the shade, is the cigarette man. You might pass him without another thought if you were in a hurry, or if like me you didn’t smoke.

But to miss him is to miss a vital part of urban life. That’s because the cigarette men perform a vital duty… or two vital duties. The first is to sell cigarettes, one at a time. If you smile they’ll even light it for you as well. The other duty, the one less known, less advertised, is as an informer.
Casablanca’s cigarette men form a network. They’re always squatting there in their places, come rain and come shine. And they see everything, know everyone and, for the right price, they’re willing to tell what they know.
The network is based on the idea that men like to smoke, and when they like to smoke they also like to chat. The more guys come and hang about, smoking with the cigarette man, the more their tongues wag in conversation. 
Spend more than a few hours observing what’s going on, and you see all sorts of people stopping for a moment to buy a cigarette. Granted, the well-heeled don’t need to stop because they can afford an entire packet over at the tabac. But the middle and lower stratas do pause, hand over a coin, light up, a visit for a minute or two.
If you need to know whether there’s a house for sale on the street, or if the man next door has a deep dark secret, or if someone’s doing building work without permission, then it’s the cigarette man who can tell you. His eyes and ears are specially honed, and they miss nothing at all.
A few days ago I was in urgent need of information. I had to know, and fast, if the telephone man had come and gone. I asked the guardians. They shrugged their shoulders, even though it was their job to know. So I asked Zohra. She rushed out of the house, ran down the lane and accosted the cigarette man squatting in the middle of the shantytown.
When Zohra came back a few minutes later, he was smiling broadly.
‘He not only came to the house,’ she said, ‘but he wondered why you have been calling France so much.’

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