Culture Up in Smoke

March 15, 2011 13 Comments »

Smoking shisha

A cultural pastime...

“Put, Put, Puuuut, Putttttt, Puttttt, Purrrrrttttttt….”The slurping, whirring, bubble noise broke through the background lounge music startling me. Next came the sweet smell of apple wafting through the air, hanging there enveloping the entire area in a haze. This same scene went on ever night in ever corner of Lebanon. Lebanon was always smoking; smoking the big, beautiful, aromic, fashionable nargile. If you want to fit in while in Lebanon, then you must learn how to smoke the hookah pipe.

Egyptians call it Shisha, Lebanese refer to it as Nargile, in English, it is Hookah; however I prefer the name Hubbly Bubbly. But they all can agree that it’s really called a form of relaxation. The word actually comes from the Persian word for glass. This ancient glass water pipe has been used for centuries in the Middle East to smoke away the day’s stress, while relaxing with friends and family. Flavors can include apple, cinnamon, mint, cappuccino, strawberry and any other number of fruits which actually make it a pleasant experience to be around; even if you don’t smoke it!

I became fascinated with the culture around the Hookah pipe in Lebanon. I had been exposed to hubbly bubbly when I traveled through Egypt, however it seemed that the Lebanese took it to a whole new level. Every bit of their social culture centered around nargile and as I spent more time there I started to really notice the whole industry behind the social relaxation pastime.

shisha smoking

A man in the Tripoli souks relaxes on the sidewalk smoking with friends

Shisha Pipes

Shisha pipes and hoses

At a typical bar/lounge/coffee shop in Lebanon you will not only find waiters, cooks, and doormen, but you’ll also find numerous people simply employed to manage the nargile consumption. There’s the man who keeps preparing coals out back – a dirty, hot job no doubt. Then there’s the nargile ‘waiter’ – his sole responsibility is to bring the pipe, get it loaded with the correct flavored tobacco, and then get it started for you. He carries his own little tip that goes in the end of the pipe that touches your lips. He gets the pipe started, and then you use your own tip for sanitary reasons. In fact – if a whole table has nargile, then everyone has their own tip that they quickly put in and utilize while they smoke.

Next there’s the coal ‘waiter’ He’s the man that carries a metal basket (normally ornately decorated with a little hand guard so that his fingers won’t be burned by the heat of the coals), with matching tongs. He carefully takes off your old coals and gingerly but precisely places 3 new coals on top of the pipe to keep the nargile burning at the correct temperature. This swapping of coals happens literally about every 10 minutes.

Coal for Shisha

A waiter replenishes his coal carrier

shisha coal carrier

The ornate coal carriers with finger guards

For the excessive amount of attention these hubbly bubbly waiters pay to you, they also get tipped separately. The pipe and smoking itself is actually rather cheap. Overall I was amazed at the attention paid to the pipes and the complete process in bars all over Lebanon. The pipes employ a whole separate staff of people that we don’t really have in America; and that’s why it stood out to me.

In addition, the water pipe culture has necessitated a whole retail culture too. You don’t have to go far in Lebanon to find massive hubbly bubbly stores where you can buy pipes, tobacco, tips, hoses, coal containers, and tongs. They range from super high end to basic and generic.

furry shisha pipe

A little furry flair...

shisha pipes

All colors, sizes and designs...

Most families have a hooka pipe in their home, but if you don’t there’s no need to worry as you can simply have a pipe with tobacco delivered to your door! Then they’ll come pick it up the next day.

Like most fun social pastimes it comes with a price, smoking shisha once is equal to smoking 30 cigarettes. Basically according to a BBC report on the subject one session of smoking shisha resulted in carbon monoxide levels at least four to five times higher than the amount produced by one cigarette. In addition to the health effects, I also noticed that even though it is a social pastime, it’s not very social. By getting a pipe and having it placed by your table – it doesn’t really encourage mingling and meeting other people by walking around. Instead – you are tethered to the pipe at your table. Even more strange I saw a number of people just sitting smoking while texting on their cell phone in a bar; which all seemed rather silly to me.

After 2 months in the Middle East being surrounded by it, I actually never tried it , instead I enjoyed the atmosphere, industry, and culture around it. Plus – the smell wasn’t too bad either!

To learn more about the Shisha culture – I enjoyed this article about the shisha history and cultural pastime in the Middle East.

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