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 Narghile in Society




For many observers, the social acceptance of narghile is surprising. Nevertheless, we can partly explain this fact by the nature of the special tobacco it uses. Actually, the so-called mu'essel, which is a flavoured mixture of tobacco and treacle (molasses), is the product mainly consumed in this pipe. Now, if the mu'essel indeed associates a negative principle, materialised by the fire burning its tobacco, this is however moderated by the positive representation of honey - or treacle (molasses) - the second element.

A rather collective practice. Narghile amateurs would rather smoke in group first to let conversation, or waiting, naturally take place among them. Then, they appreciate the collective participation in the punctilious preparation and smoking rites. When they are dependent, it is a wonder that they do not generally substitute the consumption of cigarettes for their practice. In fact, such an attitude reveals the existence of two different universes. We insist on the collective form of the narghile practice even if it is sometimes individual. However, even under this aspect, it can be understood as a waiting for the fellow smoker (or non-smoker) who will come and sit to listen and share. This said, there is certainly, these last years, a trend towards individual smoking (one person one narghile) to the point that some people declared that it is a hedonist practice. In fact, it is only a recent evolution we can explain, on one hand, by the individualistic contagion of current times which extends to all spheres of society and, on the other hand , by the publicising of so many epidemics. Certainly the medical talk is not irrelevant to the observed preventive concern. Consequently, within such a configuration, the passing around of the hose - on which our traditional commensal narghile model is based - disappears. If such a model is not appropriate, in certain circumstances, it serves here as a reference and remains, for example, well illustrated in yesterday' Syria - with its singular coffee-houses where professional story-tellers (hekewêtiyyé ) officiated - and the same country of today where a revival of narghile may be observed. Besides, narghile is characterised by a triple egalitarianism: social, sexual and religious. This is mainly due to the passing round of the hose which also represents a symbolic sharing. In this respect, it is of importance to mention here that many broadcast football amateurs, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, are also narghile smokers.

The social egalitarianism of narghile. All strata of society are affected. Such an ignorance of social frontiers gave to some travellers of the past the illusion of "class-less" societies, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, one should know that this last one was extremely divided, according to social, professional or religious memberships. Such a social promiscuity even worried political and religious authorities. Moreover, their fears led to disastrous episodes of ban on cafés, coffee and tobacco by Murâd IV who wanted this way to put an end to the transgression of limits between social groups.
In Tunisia, upper classes seem to turn up their nose at narghile and a same evolution is noticeable in other countries as Egypt for example. More and more, this pipe may appear as the symbol of lazy persons or "baddies". The case of the famous 'El-Fishâwy café in Cairo is here relevant because this coffee-house was originally created by a gang leader: "By the doorstep, Hagg Fahmi 'el-Fishâwy was permanently smoking an endless narghile" (G. 'el-Gîtâny).


The sexual egalitarianism of narghile. A riddle collected in Jordan evokes the feminine narghile figure: Who is this princess standing in her palace with her hand on her hip ? ("'Amîra fî qasrihâ; wa yeduhâ 'elä hasrihâ ?") The pipe bowl is indeed similar to a crown; the baluster body, elegant and rounded, evokes that of a woman. As for the hose curve coiling up around the mast, it can easily be compared to the arm outline. Finally, the palace is a metaphor of the atmosphere in which a narghile session ideally takes place: pillows, tapestries, vegetation, and so on. In the past, women of the Shah' suit spent most of their time smoking narghile. Between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Turkish women of the upper classes were fond of being photographed near their narghile for the latter had become an essential element of any social or intellectual gathering. Today, be that in Iran, in the Persian-Arabian Gulf countries or in the Middle East, women remain narghile amateurs. We can see them smoking in Beirut, Damascus, Amman or Cairo. Their absence in Tripoli's (Libya) or Tunis' cafés may be explained, hypothetically, by the relative newness of narghile in these last countries whereas in the first ones, women have often been using it for several centuries.

The religious egalitarianism of narghile. Believers of the three monotheist religions of the region have been smoking narghile for centuries in an undifferentiated way. The route from the mosque to the coffee-house and vice versa was, for a long period, a vulgar course of daily life. In less puritanical times than today's, it was not rare to meet religious men in cafés and in particular sufis. As for the annual festivities accompanying the ritual fast month (Holy Ramadân) widely observed by local populations, they have actually made of narghile a star of Arabian-Islamic sociability.

The specific conviviality of narghile. It can be analysed through the three intrinsic dimensions of the generated situation : time, conversation and play, which are key notions in sociology and anthropology. The passing around of the hose is remarkable in that it places narghile in the centre of a "giving" and "counter-giving" process of exchanged words and shared passing time on a playful mode. The corresponding rites, that is puffing and blowing but also those that the punctilious preparation and staging of the instrument implies, are naturally profane. However, they certainly contribute to the smoker's integration in her or his social environment. The etiquette, here and there complied with, normalises a part of this ritualising process, thus allowing the perpetuation of traditions.

A private and public practice. The house and the café represent the main places where the above described specific conviviality of narghile emerges. From a domestic anthropology point of view, the kitchen is a real ritual nebula because it simultaneously feeds tea and coffee conviviality. One can see how the many gestures required for the preparation of the latter harmonise with those required by narghile in a sort of ritual symphony where the woman and the man do not play a less inferior part than that of the conductor.

Narghile in " Oriental coffee-houses ".



Key writers of every day's life in Arabian-Islamic societies are generally fond of speaking about the cafés of old they used to frequent. Actually, narghile has witnessed verbal spars and political and poetic debates among intellectuals in countries as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq. And how wouldn't it have, it whose main and highly social function is, as a matter of fact, conversation… Certainly, Eastern coffee-houses underwent the shock of modernity and evolved in several directions. Some of them became cafés in the European way. Others remained what they have always been, satisfied in their destitution. Finally, a hybrid model, with finely decorated spacious rooms and terraces, and particularly spread in the Middle East, for about fifteen years now, really catches on. In both last cases, the conviviality was not affected and this sociological constant should be ascribed to the nodal presence of narghile in these establishments, whereas the artefact was taken out from those of the first type.

Revival. Today, narghile smoking is flourishing in societies of the Arabian-Islamic world as well as in those of Europe and America. In the latter, new coffee-houses, that we term "neo-Orientalist cafés", are opening out. Indeed, narghile became, because of its specific and unique conviviality, the pretext for their emergence and looked for activity (ref. to section on places where one can smoke it).


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