Up in Smoke: Hookah Culture in Lebanon

April 12, 2024   18 Comments »

Up in Smoke: Hookah Culture in Lebanon

March 15, 2011 18 Comments »

Europeans call it Shisha, Lebanese refer to it as Nargile, and in English, it is Hookah. However, I prefer the name Hubbly Bubbly, a term I picked up while in Egypt. No matter what you like to call it, smoking a hookah pipe is essentially a form of relaxation that is deeply embedded in Middle Eastern culture.

Exploring a region that starkly contrasts with your familiar surroundings draws attention to numerous intriguing peculiarities. These nuances, often overlooked by the locals due to their routine existence, stand out for a visitor, akin to a tulip blooming amidst a field of sunflowers.

What is Shisha?

The word shisha is derived from the Persian word for glass (shisha). This kind of 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. Tobacco flavors can include cinnamon, mint, cappuccino, apple, strawberry, and any other number of fruits, which make it a pleasant experience to be around even if you don’t smoke it!

I became fascinated with the culture around the Middle Eastern hookah pipe in Lebanon after I had already been exposed to hubbly bubbly when I traveled through Egypt. However, the Lebanese took it to a whole new level, and so I’m sharing what I learned during that experience here.

hookah smoking device shisha in lebanon
A man in the Tripoli souks relaxes on the sidewalk smoking with friends

Cultural Significance & History of Hookah

To understand hookah culture in Lebanon, let’s first dive into its evolution to today.

The exact origins of hookah are unclear. The development of similar smoking devices occurred independently in different cultures such as India and Persia (Iran). Influenced by the exchange of ideas along trade routes, cultural interactions, and the social practices of different regions, hookah culture spread far and wide.

As hookah smoking gained popularity in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, which included parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Europe, the Mughal rulers in India introduced hookah to the Indian subcontinent. It became a status symbol and a popular pastime among the elite in both empires.

Today, hookah is popular in the Middle East, Turkey, and parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. As a global phenomenon in the 21st century, hookah culture has been shaped by all of these cross-cultural influences over the centuries, creating fusion flavors, modern designs, and innovative practices. It’s quite fascinating.

Discover the food of Lebanon

Hookah Culture in Lebanon

“Put, Put, Puuuut, Putttttt, Puttttt, Purrrrrttttttt….” The slurping, whirring, and bubble noise broke through the background lounge music, startling me. Next came the sweet smell of apples wafting through the air, hanging there and enveloping the entire area in a haze.

This same scene went on every night in every corner of Lebanon while I was there. Lebanon was always smoking the big, beautiful, aromatic, fashionable nargile.

hookah smokers - hookah chicha smoke in lebanon
A cultural pastime…

If you want to fit in while in Lebanon, then you must learn how to smoke the hookah pipe.

In Lebanon, hookah culture is not merely a pastime. It is deeply ingrained in the social fabric, representing more than just a method of smoking. It’s a symbol of leisure, relaxation, and conviviality.

It’s a ritual that connects people of all ages and walks of life, preserves traditions, and offers visitors like me a taste of the country’s warm and inviting hospitality. Whether in vibrant city cafés or amidst the serene landscapes, hookah is a cherished aspect of Lebanese culture. 

Every bit of Lebanese social culture centered around nargile, and as I spent more time there, I started to notice the whole industry behind the social relaxation pastime.

This is one of my favorite things about traveling to new countries. I tend to become hyper-focused on something and can see how it stands out as an industry in that country. Much like when I dug into the poncho culture in Vietnam’s rainy season!

Hookah Pipe Industry in Lebanon

The water pipes employ a whole separate staff of people that we don’t really have in the United States, and that’s why it stood out to me.

At a typical bar/lounge/coffee shop in Lebanon, you will find waiters, cooks, and doormen, just like at home. But then there are numerous people simply employed to manage the nargile consumption. There’s a coal waiter, the man who prepares coals out back – a dirty, hot job no doubt – and a nargile waiter. 

Coal Waiter

The coal waiter 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 three 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.

Nargile Waiter

Then there’s the nargile waiter whose sole responsibility is to bring the pipe, get it loaded with the correct flavored tobacco, and start it for you.

He carries his own little tip that goes at the end of the pipe – the part 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.

For the excessive amount of attention these hubbly bubbly waiters pay to you, they are tipped separately. The pipe and smoking itself are actually rather cheap. Overall, the attention paid to the pipes and the complete process in hookah bars all over Lebanon amazed me. 

Hubbly Bubbly Stores and Gear

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 shisha stores where you can buy pipes, tobacco, tips, hoses, coal containers, and tongs. Products range from super high-end to basic and generic.

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

While visiting Lebanon, why not visit a Hookah store? I found them fascinating to walk through! I never imagined there could be so many styles of hookah pipes – there is something for everyone.

Hookah pipes are made up of a bowl, stem, vase, hose, and mouthpiece. Each of these things can be ‘personalized’ much like you’d pick a car’s tires, interior color, and features. The pipe can be made from a number of different materials, too. Just walk through the aisles of a hookah store, and you’ll be amazed.

Hookah Etiquette and Safety

For first-time users, knowing proper hookah etiquette will enhance your experience. Here’s a quick rundown of etiquette to know: 

  • Accepting an offered hookah is seen as hospitable, and expressing gratitude to the host for the invitation is customary. When declining an offer, just be polite. 
  • When handling the hose and mouthpiece, maintain airflow by holding the hookah hose gently and lightly placing the mouthpiece between your lips. Maintain good hygiene by using clean, personal mouthpieces or disposable tips.
  • To enjoy the hookah flavors without creating excess smoke or overheating the tobacco, use slow, measured breaths.
  • Always exhale smoke away from others, and refrain from blowing it directly toward people to respect non-smokers’ space.
  • When sharing the hookah in a group setting, adhere to the custom of taking turns and passing it without disruption.
  • Engage in respectful conversations and limit the duration of the session to avoid discomfort or excessive nicotine intake.
  • When ending a session, express appreciation to the host or establishment.

Tips for a Satisfying and Safe Experience

To set yourself up for a successful, satisfying, and safe hookah experience, start by choosing a reputable and well-established lounge or cafe. Ask locals for suggestions of places with high cleanliness standards that use quality equipment and employ knowledgeable staff. 

Pace yourself, take breaks between pulls, and limit session lengths to minimize potential side effects of nicotine intake. Drink water before, during, and after the session – smoking is actually very dehydrating. Listen to your body and take a break if you feel lightheaded or uncomfortable.

Remember, while these tips aim to enhance safety and enjoyment, the health risks associated with hookah smoking persist. Even if you are just trying the hubbly bubbly on your trip to Lebanon, it’s essential to be aware of the potential health consequences and to consider alternatives if you’re concerned about the risks.

Hookah Side Effects

Is Hookah harmful? The short answer is yes.

Smoking flavored tobacco can cause the same immediate side effects as regular tobacco smoke. Side effects vary per person but include dizziness and lightheadedness, increased heart rate, dry mouth, nausea, headache, and elevated blood pressure.

Additionally, all tobacco products contain numerous toxic compounds, including nicotine and carcinogens, which come with potential long-term health risks. Some of those risks include addiction, respiratory issues like chronic bronchitis, heart disease and other cardiovascular issues, oral health issues, cancer, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

According to a BBC report on the subject, one session of shisha smoking resulted in carbon monoxide levels at least four to five times higher than the amount produced by one cigarette. Keep in mind that secondhand smoke exposure still poses the same health risks. 

hooka Pipes
Shisha pipes and hoses

Should You Try Hubbly Bubbly On Your Middle East Vacation?

That’s completely up to you. Surprisingly, after two months in the Middle East surrounded by it, I never tried it. Instead, I enjoyed the atmosphere, industry, and culture around it. 

Regardless of if you try it yourself, you should most definitely go into one of the hookah shops and talk to locals about it. It’s a piece of their culture that’s interesting to understand. And locals are always happy to engage in conversation with visitors.

This is exactly how I learned about all of these things in this article. Traveling exposes you to diverse cultures, traditions, and ways of life. Learning about different cultures enhances your understanding of the world, fosters tolerance, and promotes cultural sensitivity.

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