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Narghile in painting, literature and poetry

 
 

 
 

Rudolf Ottenfeld, Backgammon 1890

 

 

In the western and oriental imagination, narghile appears as an artistic artefact. Let us consider, for example, this gold-coloured harmoniously enamelled of blue and green hookah from Cashmere, or those of Indore, a city of Indian Madhya Pradesh, the coconut of which, used for its elegant shape, is "mounted in silver with very good native work" (cf. R.Blackner' site) "Chillums" of the same area are sometimes moulded in the same metal and provided with a conical lid. Some are made of "glazed pottery, biscuit background colour with a green pattern and ruby spots" (Id.). Let us also appreciate this Ottoman baluster shaped chiselled narghile decorated with diamond points, knocked down at 35.000 French francs"… Thus, in the Orientalist painting, the artists definitely had a taste for representing the narghile. Any research in this field comes under a real visual anthropology. Let us quote, among others:

- Léon Belly, Inside of harem ( 1878 ), which can only put in mind of Eugène Delacroix's painting Women in Algiers, in which the artist, making use of rich and deep colours, also fixed women sitting around a narghile.

- Paul-Désiré Trouillebert, The harem handmaid ( 1874 ). In this painting, the "beautiful and cold topless slave" holds a tray supporting a small narghile. The long hose coils up around the mast in five to six loops.

-Angel Tissier, An Algerian women and her slave ( 1860 ). A woman, elegantly dressed in the old Turkish tradition, nonchalantly holds the hose of a narghile. She sits near a wooden inlaid with mother-of-pearl ebony table.

-Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Odalisque and slave. In an indolent atmosphere, an almost undressed woman, lies on a bed. In the foreground, to the right, discreetly stands a tiny narghile.

- Jean-Léon Gérôme Ferris, The Afternoon Siesta. in this painting exhibited in 1884 in New York, opium and hashish smells seem to wave. A woman lies on a low bed, near a narghile supposed to be responsible of her dosing …

- Stephen Wilson Van Schaick, Turkish Idlers (1872). Two men are sitting on a coloured carpet, against a wall, in the shade of a cloth stretched out over their heads. One of them leans on its sabre. Their shoes stand around the carpet. The other man holds in his hand the hose of a narghile which seems to be well balanced because of its large based water vessel.

-Thomas Hicks, Bayard Taylor with a View of Damascus. In fact, it is a self-portrait in oils. Squatted, wearing a turban, dressed in the noble oriental suit, the painter has put his left hand on a pillow while the right one supports the hose of a magnificent narghile the water vessel of which is diamond-shaped. Far off the vast plain stands the ancient Omeyyades'capital, Damascus.

Finally, the artist who, to our opinion, most represented narghile, is Jean-Léon Gérôme. Two paintings deserve a mention: Young Oriental Woman with a Narghile and A Woman lighting a Narghile. A commentator noticed that in this last one, there is a striking contrast between the nudity of the woman who carefully lights the narghile by the pool and others basking on the side of the pond, and a group of veiled women watching the scene, in the background, behind a hand-rail.

 

Literature
For any analyst of the relation between the artefact and literature, a review of the Orientalist production, but also of the local one, is essential. In a Najîb Mahfûz' novel, the plot of which takes place under the roof of a floating hut on the Nile river, narghile is cast for a central part, that of conversation catalyst and, after all, even becomes the indispensable element without which the novel would not have come to light. His author, holder of a world literature prize, is interesting because he is a writer of everyday's Egyptian life. Now, in the Arabic language literature, it is important to disregard the romantic side of the artefact because it is a trivial element of the related societies daily life. No author, here, went away to carry out an initiatory journey to a far "Orient" - which could well be in this case Asia,- to bring back recollections of it and images liable to feed a literary production as the European writers did in the last centuries.

Taha Hussein is here an original case because he is blind. So, he does not describe the pipe in a physical way as his peers did but rather bases himself on sensations others than visual: sounds and flavours. In an autobiography, the sightless man described by twice the gurgling of the narghile.

Beyond the simple aesthetic pretext made of it, which leads writers or poets to use the word "narghile" in the very title of their works, one may wonder how this artefact calls upon the imagination sphere called "inspiration". Indeed, from a purely physiological point of view, the narghile excites the five human senses: the vision as a craft object, the touch through the manipulation of its numerous elements, the taste and the smell through the absorption of its flavoured smoke and the hearing by the gurgle of water inside the vase. This light and discreet sound, similar to that of a fountain, does not it come to break the silence by which the poet is inspired ? This would explain the famous verses which Alphonse de Lamartine, during his journey to Lebanon and Syria in the nineteenth century, wrote for a girl sitting in a garden in the city of Aleppo. She made "the tepid water gurgle in the very heart of the narghile..." (" Quand, ta main approchant de tes lèvres mi-closes ; Le tuyau de jasmin vêtu d'or effilé ; Ta bouche, en aspirant le doux parfum des roses ; Fait murmurer l'eau tiède au fond du narguilé [...] )

The tones of the above may call back, somewhat, A. Shirâzy who was, towards the end of the 16th century, the first one in the Persian literature, to mention narghile (from French, by H. Semsar): " Le narguilé s'enrichit de tes lèvres ; Et son bec devient une douceur ; Ce n'est point la fumée qui enrobe ton visage ; C'est un nuage qui glisse vers la lune ")

 

Some other landmarks
Lewis Carroll actually deep-rooted narghile in the western collective memory thanks to his tale for children entitled Alice's Adventures in Wonderlands:

" […] She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else."


Théophile Gautier is interesting from several points of view. First of all, he described, in 1856, with an ethnologist's precision, the different types of tobacco one could find by that time on the market. Then, he established a geographic comparison of narghile use. He noticed that in Smyrne (today, Izmir), people smoke narghile while in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the chibouque is given preference. Finally, he participated in its practice:

" Rien n'est plus favorable aux poétiques rêveries que d'aspirer à petites gorgées, sur les coussins d'un divan, cette fumée odorante, rafraîchie par l'eau qu'elle traverse, et qui vous arrive après avoir circulé dans des tuyaux de maroquin rouge ou vert dont on s'entoure le bras, comme un psylle du Caire jouant avec des serpents. C'est le sybaritisme poussé à son plus haut degré de perfection. L'art ne reste pas étranger à cette délicate jouissance; il y a des narguilés d'or, d'argent et d'acier ciselés, damasquinés, niellés, guillochés d'une façon merveilleuse et d'un galbe aussi élégant que celui des plus purs vases antiques; les grenats, les turquoises, les coraux et d'autres pierres plus précieuses en étoilent souvent les capricieuses arabesques ".



Honoré de Balzac, even if he was known to be tobacco-phobe, was nevertheless lenient only with narghile: " En fait de jouissances matérielles, les Orientaux nous sont décidément supérieurs. Le houka, comme le narguilé, est un appareil très élégant; il offre aux yeux des formes inquiétantes et bizarres qui donnent une sorte de supériorité aristocratique à celui qui s'en sert, aux yeux d'un bourgeois étonné ".

Gustave Flaubert "wasted" much of his time during his journey to the East:

" Nous menons une vie de fainéantise et de rêvasserie; toute la journée vautrés sur notre tapis, nous fumons des chibouks et des narguilés, en absorbant de la limonade et en regardant les rives du fleuve ".

Pierre Loti, a great amateur, intensely practised narghile and really found it amazing:

" ...sous les treilles aux pampres frais, sous les glycines, sous les platanes; des narguilés par myriades, le long des rues, exhalaient leur fumée enjôleuse ".

C.M. Leconte de Lisle saw rich Babus, sitting under the floor timber, smoking hookahs full of spices and smells, or eating grapes, pistachio and nuts…:

" […] Là, les riches Babous, assis sous les varangues ; Fument des hûkas pleins d'épices et d'odeurs ; Ou mangent le raisin, la pistache et les mangues ; […] Jamais, sous les berceaux que le jasmin parfume ; Aux roucoulements doux et lents des verts ramiers ; Quand le hûka royal en pétillant s'allume ; Et suspend sa vapeur aux branches des palmiers… "

A Rebetiko song by Artemis (1935)(from Gail Holst)
" In the bath of Constantinople, a harem is swimming.
Arabs guard them and take them to Ali Pasha.
He orders his guard to bring them before him,
To make them dance and play the bouzouki.
Narghiles for him to smoke with Turkish hashish
And hanoumia to dance the gipsy tsifteteli.
That's how all the Pashas live in the world,
with narghiles, bouzoukis, caresses and kisses "…

 

 

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