Mafia Dons Rule Lebanese University Café

Opposite the main Science Faculty building cafeteria, you encounter a sight not normally associated with academic institutions. (Photo: Marwan tahtah)

By: Kawthar Fahs

Published Monday, November 26, 2012

A Lebanese University cafeteria run by a local clan has school officials fearful of enforcing the smoking ban.

Everything seems normal when you enter the Lebanese University campus in Hadath from the direction of Lailaki. Rows of trees line the road leading to the faculty buildings, cars and motorcycles are parked alongside, and young men and women take shelter from the sun in any shady spot they can find.

Opposite the main Science Faculty building cafeteria, you encounter a sight not normally associated with academic institutions. Six young men sit in a circle around two argileh, or water-pipes, which they pass round to puff at in turn.

Did they get those at the university? One of the students volunteers a reply: “We don’t have to bring our own gear with us. You can order argileh at the café. The sheikh allows us to smoke outdoors.”

“Sheikh” is not a reference to a religious figure, but it’s how the cafeteria’s proprietor is addressed, a mark of his elevated rank.

At the start of the last academic year, a poster appeared on the cafeteria door announcing a new service: “Available From This Year: Argileh.”

Besides food and drink, there is plenty more available at the cafeteria. You can buy mobile phones and charge cards, as well as computer games to amuse yourself. Cigarettes also used to be on sale, displayed in a cabinet on illuminated shelves.

Things changed a little after the smoking ban in public places was introduced. The poster advertising argileh was replaced with a no smoking sign, and the cigarette cabinet was emptied of its packs and relocated to the back of the cafeteria.

But they didn’t change much, as one can discover by asking, “Don’t you sell cigarettes or argileh?” The people in charge of the cafeteria figured that while smoking may be banned, selling cigarettes was not. So the packs were moved from the empty illuminated cabinet to another concealed one beneath the counter. All the vendor has to do is bend down to get you any brand you like.

Yet the vendor deems the cafeteria to be a closed space, so the smoking of argilehs is only permitted outdoors – i.e. on the university campus.

Surely, the university administration does not approve of that? The question is greeted by the vendor with a wry smile and a gesture which indicates that the administration is powerless in this matter. The people in charge of the faculty buildings and campus prefer to keep quiet and turn a blind eye, and avoid even attempting to enforce the rules. Why? “We’d rather not get involved, for our safety and that of our families,” said one university official.

He explains that the cafeteria used to be leased to someone called Muuti. He sold food and drinks, and paid a portion of his profits to the university in exchange for using the premises. But this displeased a group of local residents, led by “the sheikh,” whose family belongs to a clan. They believed that they, as the university’s neighbors, were entitled to the cafeteria, so they ejected Muuti and took it over, according to the official.

What about the companies that currently lease the university its cafeterias? “They have no choice,” said the official ruefully. The clan has intimidated them into employing its members, and neither they nor the university administration want to incur its wrath. They have sought to accommodate it instead, and avoid imposing rules that could provoke trouble.

They know how serious the clan’s reactions can be. In recent years, these have included vandalizing and even torching university property, as happened after a row broke out between a group of students belonging to the clan in question and others affiliated to a political party.

The official said the clan engages in mafia-like activities at the university. It extorts protection money from the minibus drivers who take students to and from the campus. Everyone in the university administration opposes these excesses, he stressed. They also disapprove of the sale of cigarettes, argileh, and mobile phones in the cafeteria, as well as the prices it charges for food and drink, which don’t comply with the university’s regulation prices.

As for the smoking ban, department heads make sure to enforce it on staff and students alike inside their respective buildings, but enforcing it in the restaurants and cafeterias is the responsibility of the leasing companies and the university’s head of campus affairs, the official explained.

Chadi Chidiac, director of the catering firm Abela which leases the university’s cafeterias, denied that his firm employs members of the clan, and dissociated it from them completely. “We have nothing to do with that cafeteria in particular,” he said, “neither the food, nor the argileh or the personnel.”

He explained that at the Science Faculty, his company only runs the annex building’s cafeteria. There, the firm’s logo can be seen on the merchandise, and no cigarettes or argileh are for sale.

Nazhi Ruaidi, the university’s head of campus affairs, placed the responsibility on the department heads, who in turn disavow any role in the matter. Ruaidi denied that it is his job either to enforce the smoking ban on the ground. “We issued a circular about it to all faculties,” he said.

The buck thus keeps getting passed. Nobody has yet dared take it upon themselves to enforce the law in the cafeteria of a state university out of fear of enraging the clan.

Among the students smoking in the cafeteria, none of them looking above the age of 20, many seem puzzled to be asked why they’re smoking. Some blame the stress of their studies, and others say they’re just relaxing and passing time between lectures. Miriam, a 17-year-old freshman, said she got used to smoking argileh at home and can’t give it up easily, even at college. Her classmate May interrupted her to say that she wouldn’t order an argileh at the cafeteria and would rather smoke at one the cafes outside the university. ”You never know what they might spike it with here,” she whispered.

Ahmad and Ayman, for their part, maintained that they’d be glad to comply with the smoking ban, but only if the “big-shots” comply with it first. Ahmad added, with a smirk, “We’re protected here, they can’t do anything to us,” a reference to the protective shield of the invincible clan.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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