The Washington Times - March 2, 2009, 09:58AM

The smoke-free concept is a long way from reaching the Middle East halls of diplomacy, let alone restaurants and other public places.

I admit I’m more capricious than most when it comes to passive smoking because of my allergy, but the obliviousness shown by both officials and reporters in the region during formal events is difficult to understand.

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I’m sitting at the site of an international donors’ conference for Gaza in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is attending, with my eyes burning from the cigarette smoke around me and my clothes soaked.

It started from the moment I walked into the building, with a security screener sitting comfortably in a chair and puffing away. Cameramen are holding their cameras in one hand and a cigarette in the other — and if they need both their hands to actually work, then the cigarette is between their lips.

People with no obvious reasons to be here are just walking around various rooms, blowing smoke and moving on.

This is, of course, heaven for Western reporters who are being denied the right to smoke in public places in their own countries. One of them just told me I should stop complaining because Egypt is a “smoke-free country.”

Sure, but everything has limits. When you are crammed in a small room with 100 other people, breathing is difficult even when no one is smoking.