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How can one smoke like this for hours on end?

 A bipolar world; Hookah and Turkish coffee versus McDonald's and Coca-Cola

Who's afraid of shisha-mania?

The three dimensions of the hookah: time, conversation, and games.

From sociability to conviviality and hospitality

A few landmarks in the Mediterranean

A real life-style



Although it is a familiar object for a billion people in the world, the four hundred year old hookah seems struck by a strange silence. Most encyclopaedias overlook it completely, while the mass media seems to be more concerned with problems considered as "serious" and dynamic than by folkloric and inert objects. It is however undeniable that this tool is used daily, for hours on end, by over a hundred million men and women, in Asia, Europe and Africa, at the local coffee shop or at home. By opening its columns to a presentation of this object and this practice that lies at the very heart of Mediterranean conviviality, Rive magazine deserves our gratitude for going back to the true meaning of discovery.


How can one smoke like this for hours on end?

For those who have never heard of the hookah before, we shall briefly define it as a water pipe mainly used in the East, where its social use became widespread together with public coffee houses and tobacco. Its historical relationship with the universal stimulant is well illustrated by an Egyptian saying: "Tobacco without coffee, a sultan without furs" that some readers will no doubt associate with a popular Spanish saying, "Caf, copa y puro" (a coffee, a glass and a cigar!). And if the art of smoking well, represented by the cigar, is here associated with the enjoyment of tobacco through the hookah, what is the place of a glass of wine (the copa) in this comparison? It is common knowledge that in most of the area in question alcohol is a religious taboo and is therefore replaced, in this context, by words, with an unquestionably psychoactive power, as we shall see later.

  The hookah is however more than a simple water pipe since such a simplification soon shows its limits in light of the size of this object which can reach two metres in height, its sophisticated smoke cooling and purification system in a water container, its suction tube that, Serpent like, can reach several metres in length, its collective use, the nature of its tobacco and the means of combustion and, lastly, its mysterious origins and the time that its fans devote to it. Despite all these peculiarities, as just pointed out, anyone who is curious about it will immediately come up against a wall of silence, ignorance and strange indifference to it. The first work on the subject focused on the instrument itself, its social use through the centuries, as well as the events that turn hookah smoking into sessions that bring together several men or women. The aim of the work was to answer the questions that any traveler spontaneously wonders about, while strolling though the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Beirut and other Eastern cities: "How does it work?", "What does one smoke in it?", "What is its Origin?", and especially a question that is almost philosophical, "How can one smoke like this for hours on end?"  

A bipolar world; Hookah and Turkish coffee versus McDonald's and Coca-Cola

In short, the hookah is a popular Cultural practise, but also nowadays, as a social phenomenon is a real indicator that helps us understand, on a par with religious and linguistic practises and food habits, the Societies within which it evolved, mainly around the Mediterranean basin. To ignore this and, therefore, to skip over a daily activity that tens of millions of people engage in for hours in a wide variety of socio-cultural contexts, implies a non-scientific attitude or perhaps even ethnocentric blindness. Isn't it in fact quite extraordinary that this "custom of the past, this "idiotic pastime" indulged in only by "beggars" and lazy "oafs", has not disappeared even as we approach the third millennium, marked by the globalization of exchanges and time? How can one explain the survival and even a boost in the business of hookah cafes - in remembrance of Pierre Loti who was an assiduous customer at the beginning of the century at a time when, in stark contrast, Europe seems flooded by McDonald's and other cyber-cafes. With all due respect to certain local "observers" this peaceful practice seems to be back in vogue. In Yemen, a country where coffee-houses were practically non-existent, coffee-gardens - Istirht - now open their doors, providing services focusing around the shisha. Their customers, especially the young, prefer the shisha and its special tobacco to the traditional household mad'at (a hookah with a tong mast and a very long tube, used to consume pure tobacco),  

Who's afraid of shisha-mania?

The tobacco used is a sweet tobacco, both because of its aromatic additives and because of the washing - the ablution, as some might put it ironically, of the smoke in the water container. This peculiar and incredibly widespread manner of smoking is now undergoing a phenomenal revival in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and many other Middle Eastern states. This success has reached such proportion that, faced with this shisha-mania {shisha being the local word for the hookah), authorities in certain countries have shown concern and tried to control the phenomenon, sometimes by introducing cumbersome rules. Egyptian MPs recently called for its removal from the range of ser-vices provided in top hotels, The Emirate of Sharjah banned it in 1993, followed by Abu Dhabi three years later. In Tunisia, the shisha is now banished from open-air cafes. According to certain sources, several ministries, including the Home Ministry and the Ministry of Tourism, were behind the ban. Certain hookah-lovers who believe that the open air is the natural, preferred environment for hookah-smoking, find imaginative ways to indulge in their favourite pastime. They can be seen sitting at the door or by the window of a coffee house where they ask for the hookah to be set up. Then they take full advantage of the length of the tube by stretching it or by passing it through the window.... In this way, they escape the sanctions provided for under these strange laws, that could well lead to increasingly long suction tubes on the market! In the famous suburb of Sidi Bou Said, tourists are now denied this pleasure they so assiduously sought quite recently, since the hookah is no longer served in many coffee-houses. Hookah-lovers may however find some consolation in Smoking far from the public eve in a site that seems to have leapt right out the Thousand and One Nights at the famous Caf des Nattes. Paradoxically, market stalls in the old capital, behind the ramparts of Hemmamet and other sea-side resorts, still groan under the weight of souvenir real or imitation hookahs displayed for tourists to buy. A T-shirt has recently been marketed in Tunisia, depicting a map of the country side-by-side with a camel smoking a hookah! Wax statuettes of the typical Tunisian hookah smoker also abound wearing the traditional dark red fez (kebbz) a tiny bunch of jasmine blossoms behind his ear, the elegant figure is seated cross-legged on the ground in his long flowing beige robe (jebbet) with the jebbd (tube) at his lips, meditating in front of a brazier (knn).  

The three dimensions of the hookah: time, conversation, and games.

The hookah, compared with other objects of local material culture such as the brazier or the derbkat (small drum) for instance, retains a three-fold specificity. First of all, it affects time, expanding it much as the laws of relativity do. Secondly, it is a pretext for conversation since it encourages and supports long chats, thirdly, unlike cigarettes, it is not associated with a seductive personality, but rather with a sort of game, as the smokers pass the tube around, each taking a few puffs of smoke, in turn. So, here we have adults playing like children, spending hours at it, while engaging in serious conversation, quite like Alice and the Caterpillar in Lewis Carroll's tale! But (his does no have the good fortune of pleasing certain technocrats and 'intellectuals' with an excessively positivist attitude who feel that the practice, considered by its fans as a life-style. is an obstacle to "development". This argument was recently put forward during a vehement press campaign in Yemen led by the newspaper Al-Ayym, with the support of sociological questionnaires and interviews with medical specialists. In fact, this is nonsense: in a large number of countries engrossed by the burning issue of "development", anyone can see workers, peasants, technicians, engineers, doctors and top civil servants, all enjoying outside working hours - need one say this - a few delicious moments of company around a hookah. In short, the aim - should there really have to be one - is not to smoke in order to appease an addiction or get rid of anxiety, as with cigarettes, but to take the time to chat and listen and share, one by one, by passing the suction tube around in a brotherly, ritual and symbolic manner. it must however be pointed out that the tendency to have television screens flooding certain coffee-houses with images, as can be seen in Amman, totally destroys this atmosphere.  

From sociability to conviviality and hospitality

Since we are dealing here with Mediterranean societies,. it would not be relevant to analyse sociability in terms of the classical opposition between public and private. In fact, as Shawqi Douaihi observed about the coffee houses of Beirut, ...the closed private atmosphere of the home and the open public arena of the street are only deformed extensions of each other."  The terms "conviviality" (from the Latin convivialis; "pertaining to meals ") which includes the notion of sharing and ritualised exchange, and "hospitality" with its strong domestic connotation, seem more suitable. The hookah is still best-known for its tube that is passed between smokers and, hence, shared, It is therefore part. together with the rituals of coffee and tea of a peculiar feature of proverbial Eastern hospitality. As Edgar Morin points out [In French culture] one does not see what one sees in Eastern countries, hospitality extended to foreigners in the traditional sense, that induces a Bedouin to give you his tent.  In French culture this respect for the guest that one used to find all Mediterranean countries, is missing. This yearning for lost hospitality which is apparent in current forms of sociability nurtured by fractures between the past and the present, not to mention the "mix ups" of the modern world, can be found in the latent contents of the stories of Tunisian writers such as Hl Bji.  

A few landmarks in the Mediterranean

Turkey, a country that increasingly attracts attention, is no longer the place where Pierre Loti, at the beginning of the century, could count hookahs by the thousands "How wrong the word coffee-house sounds when you wish to designate these Eastern taverns where the hookah is smoked", he once remarked. This novelist and seaman turned Eastern sensualist used to stop at such places with an assiduity rivaled only by his enthusiasm as a collector. Today, the places set up for indulging in this art, often under the horrified gaze of tourists, can be counted off the fingers of one hand. In Istanbu1s Beyazid district, there is even a coffee house that invites foreign visitors to try what the sign outside advertises as the "mystic water pipe . After all, isn't the hookah an Eastern version of the American Indian's peace pipe?  

Tunisia, increasingly described as an "economic success story", is also a friendly country - according to the advertisements - where the art of the farniente embodied in the shisha is very much alive; so much so that a worried government has taken dissuasive measures against the practice. This country is living proof that "economic development" Can be perfectly in tune with an "archaic custom' indulged in by "lazy oafs"!

In Libya, last year, at night fall, a walk around the part of the capital awash in the orange glow of magnificent street lamps, was a constant temptation to linger awhile in a good-natured atmosphere. Under tall palm trees, right in the middle of a colourful crowd of young men and women, of whole families and old men the waiters of an open air restaurant could be seen rushing between the crowded tables and the kitchen. After the meal, those who ordered a hookah that was already set up at their table would be provided with a kursy (pipe bowl, in clay or in metal, depending on whether the hookah was an arguila or a shisha) full of apple-flavoured mo'essel (tobacco aromatised with molasses). Sometimes, the waiter would alternate this with the distribution of new live embers for burning the tobacco. Freedom Square, located in the city centre, is where during the daytime taxis for Tobruk, Benghazi, Cairo or Tunis wait far a full load before leaving. Their cosmopolitan customers assemble at the coffee house on the esplanade.  

There many of them order a hookah full of their favourite tobacco, chosen from the wide range of mo'essel brands on offer, mainly imported from neighbouring Egypt, It is also quite usual far customers to bring their own tobacco.  

Lebanon, as it emerges from its long mourning, gradually savours its newly found peace that seems almost reflected in the coffee houses of the Zahl region, lying along a lazy river, facing which customers peace-fully smoke the hookah, some of them even as they sip the local spirit known as arak. What mare can one say about Egypt, where the hookah, in its two forms, the shisha and the gza, are well known thanks to films and television programmes that are massively broadcast at the regional level? Hikes in the price of cigarettes during recent years have drawn a large number of smokers to the hookah, as acknowledged by no less a source than a World Health Organisation report. lastly, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the typical Egyptian coffee house, with its ever-present hookahs, is well received abroad, Surprisingly, in Paris it is not nostalgia driven old men who make up most of the clientele of Such an establishment, but high school and university students! Whole groups of teenagers crowd the doors of the small cafe to sit on cushions spread out on the floor and to smoke from this exotic object known as the hookah. At the same tine, they play droughts, chess or charades, the same kind of innocent games, which the traveler Jean Chardin described in the Persian coffee houses of the 17th Century. This is quite paradoxical since most of these young people have no cultural links with the Arab world that could explain their marked taste for such places! If questioned, they would answer that the place is "real cool" or that they  "feel at ease here". Conversation flows easily, thanks to this conversation piece-whose main role is precisely to help people chat. This is made possible by a very ritualized presentation (see the book on the hookah} that the object demands. Conversation therefore flows freely in an atmosphere of freedom, equality and brotherhood. Must one mention Algeria to underline the fact that the use of the hookah has completely disappeared? Perhaps since Eugene Delacroix immortalised it by painting his famous "Women of Algiers"? As a cultural relic it re-surfaced in the 1960s with the impromptu performances of certain musical groups, mainly in the Oran area. According to an observer singers would not sing until they were presented with their rguila. This habit continues even today in other countries where musicians, producing popular music can be seen smoking a few puffs from their hookah during intervals. Set up close to the stage, their hookah can sometimes keep burning for up to two hours at a stretch.

Lastly, in neighbouring Morocco, one should take care not to confuse the hookah with another object, known as the sebsy (short pipe) used for smoking cannabis, Although this is a common mistake, the fact is that the hookah never really caught on in this country.


A real life-style

After a journey sometimes limited only to the Mediterranean, the so-called Orientalist artists generally rendered, albeit sporadically rather than Systematically, proud homage to the "elegant object "(Balzac dixit) as they were wont to call the hookah. In the Greece of the Twenties, the bards of the Rembetiko culture uniquely praised it in their moving lamentations. One can find this same nostalgia today in Gabriel Yacoub who sings about Lebanon and large jugs of lemonade and the sweetness of the hookah- (Le plus rapide des oiseaux - The fastest of birds - 1993). An object of inspiration for Pierre Loti at the end of the last century, the hookah plays the same role today. much closer to us, for the world famous novelist Naguib Mahfz: "the time I spent at Fichaoui's nurtured reflection, the hookah stimulated my imagination and at each puff, I could see a new scenario unfolding in my mind".  Lastly, the hookah symbolises, and oh! to what extent, social peace. I have personally observed how deeply touched a large number of people, Indians, Greeks, Palestinians Lebanese or Afghans who left their native lands for reasons of physical or economical survival, were by the simple mention of this object. The very name of the object conjured up images from their childhood, when they had played close to their parents or grandparents who peacefully smoked this pipe that pleasantly spread its soft murmur through the silence of the home. And the gurgling of the water in the pipe amused and fascinated them. In short, the hookah recalled images of peace associated to a region that for the past few decades has only been associated with violence.  

While Europe debates a cut in working hours, as smokers and non-smokers are divided by glass walls, as one wonders about the disintegration of social relationships, is not the importance of the hookah increasingly obvious? Doesn't its exotic, enchanting, dreamlike, peaceful and poetic nature, even as it is incomprehensibly ignored, provide a comparative, anthropologically useful, overview of various societies in their forms of sociability and their perception of time?      


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