Hubbly bubbly, my friend?

Egyptians call it shisha, Lebanese gurgle the narghile, elsewhere it’s the hookah. Whatever you call it, the water pipe is integral to the Arab world.

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By  John Irish Published  March 14, 2004

|~||~||~|I remember my first night in Egypt as a beady-eyed 20-year old student of Arabic. Within hours of landing at a rather deserted, dusty and dainty looking airport in Alexandria, I was driven for an hour to a tiny village on the outskirts of Tanta. Once I got out of a dilapidated Peugeot 205, to the left I could see the hustle and bustle of people in jalabiya guiding their donkeys along the centre of the road. Across the path, a dozen elderly men focused their attention in our direction, while intriguingly puffing on a rather odd-looking homemade water pipe. After navigating through a field littered with red and blue cola cans, eventually Ahmed, an Egyptian-German friend from my course, signalled our arrival. We were set to stay at his parents’ idyllic retirement home, a smallish bungalow, which was more lost than Van Gogh in a bed of sunflowers. That evening around sunset, Ahmed along with two other colleagues headed over to the local mosque, leaving me on my own to discover a completely alien environment to my own. Stuck behind a desk for a year cramming the idiosyncrasies of Arabic grammar into my head rather than useful every day colloquialisms, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to discover what really made the Arabs tick. Not wanting to appear too intrepid, I walked a couple of metres away from the mosque. On cue, the Mu’zzen hummed the call to prayer and a flock of men of all age groups appeared from all sides. I looked on, wondering whether a change of clothes from my fancy Levi jeans and Michael Jordan basketball cap might make me a little less conspicuous. But nobody said anything. Instead, in a matter of minutes I encountered my first real “Arabian” experience. I could hear gurgling, but could not pinpoint where it was coming from. Then a voice called out from above me. “Hubbly, bubbly, my friend?” It wasn’t much, but it was contact. Looking up, an elderly man, whom I later discovered was really just middle-aged, was sucking on the serpent like stem of the hookah. That first puff proved to be my downfall. While a regular cigarette smoker at the time, this was a whole new experience. I coughed, spluttered and felt queasy over something he’d described as a gentle honey flavour that would simply ooze down the larynx. I sat there for another ten minutes contemplating the fascination with this contraption. At the time, I just didn’t get it and to this day, I’m not sure whether I love it or hate it, but across the Middle East the shisha is a part of the furniture. Somehow it transcends religious, social and political barriers. Shisha cafés adorn the streets of Damascus, Beirut and Amman, very much the McDonalds of the Arab world. They are a place to meet, a place to talk politics and poetry and a place to play backgammon. There’s an enormous amount of pride related to it. Shisha smokers are the first to tell you how it relaxes and teaches you patience and tolerance, compared to the cigarette, which is purely for ‘imbalanced busy’ people. Legendary Egyptian novelist Najib Mahfouz is one of its biggest advocates. “The time I spent [in hookah cafés] nurtured reflection, the hookah stimulated my imagination and at each puff, I could see a scenario unfolding in my mind.” Egypt may appear as the hookah haven, but its origins lie elsewhere. Some say Africa, others Europe, but India looks the most likely. According to one specialist, JA Frank, rudimentary pipes over 2000 years old made from coconut shells called Dhoom Netra existed before tobacco. Often these would be filled with aromatic and medicinal herbs or drugs and then smoked. However, it was through Iran and eventually Turkey that shisha took its present form. While originally banned by Sultan Murat IV (1623-1640), after 14 years of underground life the Ottomans created the social etiquette and regulations for smoking the water pipe. It became an acceptable elegant experience to be shared with friends, foes and both genders. Much like the 1930s, when a cigarette was seen as a status symbol, so was the shisha in 19th century Ottoman society. As an object, the hookah became an antiquity itself, with specific craftsmen hired to create crystal bottles and coloured glass adorned with floral concepts. Even the hoses’ mouthpieces were made of amber. More often than, not the components of the hookah were named after these very craftsmen. Nowadays, the classless and genderless feel to the shisha causes ripples throughout modern society. In the 20th century, the water pipe lost much of its appeal as the cigarette became the popular tobacco. However, as one man in Damascus’ old city described it to me, it always makes a comeback. Michel, who claims to live in one of the oldest houses in the Syrian capital, spends his evenings endlessly puffing the narghile, while tossing the tawla (backgammon) dice. For him, there’s no real problem if a man or woman smokes shisha, but the key, he says is that the shisha code is upheld. “Number one, own your own pipe if not bring your own mouthpiece, preferably silver and do not pass it to the person next to you. Put it down and let the people pick it up themselves. You never know who smoked before you. Number two, bring your own tobacco, it’s always better. And never light cigarettes from the bowl, it’s bad for burning charcoal.” Clearly, for the professional shisha smoker, it’s like a rare cigar. As Michel says, the thought of seeing tourists amble through the Souq Al Hamadiyah in Damascus wearing camels puffing on shisha T-shirts and carrying bags filled to the brim with water pipes, makes him cringe. Like many avid smokers, he also dismisses any notion that it could be more damaging to his health than a cigarette. Although no real study has been carried out on the dangers of shisha, over the last few years anti-smoking lobbies have done their best to put a stop on it. In the region as a whole, tobacco consumption between 1990-1997 rose 9%. According to the World Health Organisation, Egyptians smoke 85 million cigarettes each year, which accounts for 25% of the population. 150,000 people die due to smoking related illnesses. A large portion of that number also smoke the water pipe. Although hookah enthusiasts are keen to stress that the water takes away 90% of harmful chemicals, leaving only 0.5% nicotine and no tar, the anti-shisha lobby disagrees. It claims the smoke cuts the lung’s elastic fibres, which in turn cause chronic respiratory diseases. Additionally, dirty shishas and shared mouthpieces help spread tuberculosis and hepatitis. Throughout the Arab world, there has been a backlash against the shisha. The emirate of Sharjah banned smoking water pipe in 1993, as did Abu Dhabi in 1996 and Oman in 2001, while Tunisia banished it from café terraces. With the exception of Oman, the reasons for banning it were not down to health, but more social. To a large degree, all these efforts have failed to curtail shisha consumption. As Murat IV found out, the more you take it away, the more people turn to it. Egypt has tried its hardest to clamp down. Since Ramadan, the government, the largest producer of tobacco, has upped its campaign against smoking shisha. Advertising campaigns aired on local channels depict the hazards of smoking shisha, but as Gamal Shanan, artistic production studio director at the Ministry of Health proved, it wasn’t necessarily for health reasons that the ads were appearing. “All those pretty girls spending hours at traditionally exclusive male cafés. To men they are no longer respectable. How on earth will they find a husband?” Michel laughs off the thought, suggesting Egypt should worry less about the few women who smoke shisha and more about the men who spend their time idly in the cafés. Across the region people’s opinions vary, but at the end of the day they are all proud of the ubiquitous water pipe. With more and more flavours across the Arab world, ranging from the sweetest apple to watermelon and recently even cappuccino, like everything else, the shisha also moves with the times. ||**||

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