Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 20 December 2008

Gifts galore

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My boy, and almost all the members of his family on his mother’s side, are dedicated smokers. Cigarettes are the joy and consolation of their lives. Whenever I go abroad, they take up a collection and I am handed a wad of money to buy and bring back as many tax-free fags as possible. When I went to Egypt recently, I was given money for cigarettes by his mum, his Aunty Pat, his gran, his mum’s next-door neighbours, by Tom and Glenda at number 47, and by Betty, a lady my boy works with, who really shouldn’t be smoking as her circulation is so bad she can hardly walk. Because Egypt is a non-EU country and Christmas was coming up, they really lumped in.

I guessed that cigarettes in Egypt might be among the cheapest anywhere and I took my biggest suitcase — plus another collapsible one for hand luggage — with a view to buying an extra couple of thousand on top to give my boy a decent Christmas present. It sounds a bit irresponsible, I know, giving your child cigarettes for Christmas, but he’s currently spending £200 a month in Morrison’s for just 800, so a hefty consignment of duty-free fags would be the best Yuletide gift possible.

I went to Egypt to write a Style and Travel piece. But the weight of expectation from my boy’s mum and her co-financiers was so great that the commission to buy cigarettes caused me as much anxiety during the week as my journalistic one. The simplest plan would have been to stock up at the duty-free shop at Cairo airport before the return flight. But would these fags be the cheapest? And could I guarantee that there would be a duty-free shop, and that it would be open? 

I’ve been caught out before. I was stumped once at Delhi airport when the duty-free shop on the flight side of passport control was closed for renovation work and the only cigarettes I managed to bring back were the 600 I was able to buy from the stewardess on the plane. What a wailing and lamentation there was after that debacle! Worse still, they all turned their noses up at these few because they were Marlboro Lights. Too little tar, too little nicotine, they said. Didn’t she have any proper fags?

Our Egyptian itinerary included visits to three souks. At the first souk, at Aswan, the cigarette trade appeared to be monopolised by roving street pedlars. I initiated negotiations with several of these chaps for their Marlboro Reds, just to test the water. A quid for 20 was their absolute sticking point. Beyond that they became genuinely upset and shouted, ‘I lose! I lose!’

The pedlars in the souk at Luxor became terribly embittered also when I offered less than a pound a packet. But from then on, now that I knew the going rate, a figure discreetly affirmed by our non-smoking but omniscient Egpytologist guide, I started buying. I bought a thousand Marlboro Red — his entire stock — from a delighted teenage hawker outside the temple of Luxor for £45; another thousand for the same price from a chap standing on the pavement outside the hotel in Cairo; and in the Cairo souk I bought another thousand from a very old woman who made me kiss her as a mark of respect. From this woman I also bought a thousand Egyptian cigarettes called Cleopatra for £15 — or 30p a packet.  On the day of departure I could hardly shut my suitcase.

On the way to the airport, the subject of cigarettes came up in a conversation with our dragoman. I told Ahmed I had 4,000 in my case, and he wished me luck getting them through customs. I wouldn’t be needing any, I said. The allowance for personal use was unlimited. Ahmed laughed at this. The allowance from a non-EU country was 200 cigarettes only. Did I not know this? Others in the minibus happily confirmed it. It was news to me, and it took the wind out of my sails a bit.

At Cairo airport, before we’d even checked in, a man wearing a blue uniform and a big-handled pistol singled me out and said, ‘Cigarettes?’ I couldn’t believe it. I nodded ashenly, like a condemned man assenting to a blindfold. He led me to a low table and motioned me to open my suitcase. Pushing aside a layer of clothes, he exposed a neat row of 20 packets of 200 cigarettes. He lifted a packet, revealing another layer underneath. He stared at them and scratched his chin. Then he said, ‘Is that all?’ and dismissed me and my contraband with a laugh and a cheery wave of his hand.

‘I think this man was showing you that Egyptians have a sense of humour,’ whispered Ahmed as we queued to check in. ‘You are a lucky man.’