Smoking shisha is a way of life. We shouldn’t give it up
When I was young I found it hard to understand why people smoked, some of them inhaling the smoke and all of them smelling bad. When I was 11, I hid my father’s friend’s cigarette case. When he came looking for it, I asked him why he smoked, but he never replied, simply picked up the case and left.
I was reminded of this when I read the expert views on shisha that came out of the Arab Health Congress in Dubai recently. Dr Feras Hawari, chief of pulmonary and critical care at the King Hussein Cancer Centre in Jordan, blamed flavoured tobacco for shisha’s popularity. He said that the various kinds of flavoured tobacco made shisha and the very act of smoking “more appealing for everyone to try”. And he offered data: 38 per cent of British university students, 40 per cent of French students and about 20 per cent of American college students have tried shisha. “These are very high numbers,” he said. “This tells you that this problem is spreading across the world.”
It is hard to argue with statistics and Dr Hawari may be right that flavoured tobacco makes shisha appealing to those who have never smoked it. But surely that is hardly the case for us?
To many Arabs, serving shisha is like serving coffee. It is considered a communal activity that allows us to enjoy the conversation while we pass around the shisha. For most Emirati men, the shisha is an essential part of coffee shop gatherings. As Rezk Ahmed Al Arabeed, a Palestinian who lives in the UAE, says, shisha provides some release from the tensions of daily life.
Mr Al Arabeed admits to being a heavy smoker but offers another reason for the habit: it substitutes for a hobby. Instead, he and his friends gather to play cards and PlayStation and smoke shisha of an evening. It is, says a psychologist who often deals with smokers wanting to quit, a classic case of finding something to do to fill the time. A hobby serves as a stress-buster, but if you don’t have one, you’re more likely to see social gatherings, complete with shisha, as a way to relax.
“It really is a way of life,” says Mr Al Arabeed, checking off the long list of occasions that absolutely have to include shisha: when we make business deals, meet new people, have fun with our friends. Unsurprisingly then, many businesses totally unrelated to shisha spring up around cafes that offer a smoke.
Different cultures have their own ways of socialising – in Britain, people go to pubs; in some parts of Europe, people congregate at cafes; in the US, people may go to a bowling alley. In the UAE, it has to be significant in some way that 25 per cent of 14- to 25-year-old males are tobacco smokers and more girls smoke shisha than they do cigarettes.
Shisha’s link with hospitality is a fact of life across our region. It’s interesting to note that when the hookah cafe trend started in the US, most of them were near college campuses or cities with large Middle Eastern communities.
In Lebanon, serving shisha is considered a nice way of welcoming guests to your home, and usually a range of flavoured tobaccos is on offer. In this country, however, there is anecdotal evidence that most shisha smokers prefer plain tobacco. This is why it’s probably going to be of little or no use here to crack down on the availability of flavoured tobacco.
Instead, Mr Al Arabeed is one of many who advocate incremental health measures for their tribe of smokers. These could include, for example, limiting the number of shisha smokers in each cafe, raising awareness about spending too long in a smoke-filled atmosphere and enhancing ventilation rather than having fans that help eliminate the smell.
Sarah Khamis is The National’s social media editor
On Twitter: @SarahKhamisUAE
Updated: March 8, 2015 04:00 AM