Confessions of a shisha smoker
It is my dirty little secret. An infidelity that my wife suspects but to which she chooses to turn a blind eye. When my work is done I often sneak out of the office cross the road and enter Al Hajaz Coffee shop. My Egyptian friend Tamer is always ready, armed with a double apple shisha and a qahwa wasat, medium sweet Turkish coffee. Once I have stumbled through the mandatory Arabic greetings the ritual that I cherish gets underway. With a deep intake of breath I draw the rich aromatic smoke through the water and prepare for that first joyous hit of nicotine. Yes, my name is Crispin and I'm a shishaholic.
This week the government announced strict regulations on smoking. It is unclear what that will mean for shisha cafes but it is possible that the country will follow Britain and the US by banning shisha smoking in public closed places. Will everyone who shares my weakness for a hubbly bubbly be banished on to the street as is now the case on the Edgware Road in chilly London? Even worse, fans of the molasses-drenched, fruit-infused tobacco may be forced to smoke the contemptible herbal equivalents offered in trendy New York hang-outs.
My love affair with the Arabic water pipe is as enduring as my passion for the Arab world. Like many Europeans, my gateway to the region was the Moroccan port of Tangier. It is a place of intrigue where smugglers mingle with western misfits and writers, the sort of town that bright-faced, impressionable teenagers should probably avoid. Yet it was in Tangier, at the age of 17, that I was initiated into the rite of shisha smoking and with it the hospitality of Arab society.
It is perhaps a narrow prism through which to view such a rich and diverse culture, but over the past 20 years I have learnt much about the people and politics of this region while smoking. The pattern is always the same: a chance encounter over a double apple, be it in the louche lounges of Morocco or the embattled streets of Baghdad. I have sampled the scented tobacco in many cities from Jerusalem to Sanaa, from Cairo to Damascus, all the time listening to the stories of the Middle East.
In an era of tightening budgets and rapid deadlines, the life of a foreign correspondent allows little time for reflection. Most journalism is now done from the rooftops, at press conferences or through briefings and all too often ordinary people are drowned out. Yet in the haven of a shisha cafe everyone seems to have time to talk. As the fog of smoke thickens so cultural barriers lift. Here men speak more freely about their personal tragedies and collective tribulations - as well as the latest football scores. This is a man's world where women are seldom seen, like the working mens clubs in Britain. As a western journalist who easily sweeps through Israeli checkpoints, it is in the camaraderie of the cafe that I can begin to understand the daily reality for a Palestinian market trader.
I returned to the region as a university student six years after my Arab awakening for my own Grand Tour from Cairo to Beirut returning to Egypt through Israel. It was then that I bought my first shisha in the medieval souk of Aleppo. It was an exquisite but simply made wooden pipe carved by hand which I stuffed in my rucksack and carried for the rest of my two-month journey. My lasting memory of that shisha is sharing it with Syrian labourers in a hot, smelly hostel in the bombed out heart of Beirut. The church down the street had a mortar shell through its dome. It was 1994. The civil war had ended four years before. Syrian soldiers and tanks were all over downtown. The men were scared because many Lebanese hated the Syrians, but they were poor and desperate for work. We barely spoke a few words but somehow the shisha brought us together.
Towards the end of my journey, a suspicious Israeli border guard didn't share that enthusiasm for my prized possession. He turned it upside down, apparently looking for explosives. He even X-rayed the glass bowl. The origins of the shisha and how it arrived in the Middle East are disputed. Some say the first pipes were hewn from coconut shells in India or perhaps Iran. It later became fashionable in Turkey and the Ottomans may have brought the custom with them as they conquered Arab lands. There are few places as appropriate to savour a shisha than in the shadow of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It is easy to allow the experience to take you back to the days of the Ottoman court in the Topkapi Palace where viziers sipped on mint tea as the gentle hubble bubble of pipes accompanied the pronouncements of the Sultan.
This passion is not all pseudo-Orientalist fantasy. The reality of life in the most troubled of this region's countries travels to shisha cafes around the world. One day on the Edgware Road, in London, I met an Iraqi doctor who was in his early thirties but looked a decade older. At the time the sectarian fighting in Baghdad was at its height and the doctor's hands shook with fear as he recalled the carnage in the accident and emergency department of his hospital in the Iraqi capital. The cheers of the Zamalek football fans in the cafe masked his gentle sobbing as he described the arrival of waves of bomb victims. The image that haunted him were walls and floors covered in blood.
Sometimes, though, it is what is not said that is most powerful of all. In 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, I wandered into a cafe off Firdos Square where the famous statue of Saddam Hussein had recently been torn down. Outside the streets were quiet aside from sporadic gunfire which punctuated the early evening air. Inside, the cafe was virtually empty and as I puffed on a pipe I wondered what the prospects for the tight-lipped owners were in such uncertain times.
Over the following years, I often remembered that moment and I was determined to return to the cafe. Finally, in 2008, I went back to the area with the intention of persuading the owners to tell their story, but they had disappeared. The neighbouring shopkeepers claimed that they could not remember the cafe. By then Shiite militias had taken control of much of the local area and I suspect that the former owners may have been Sunnis who fled.
These days I am a loyal regular at the Al Hajaz rather than an itinerant smoker. I may be sitting in Abu Dhabi but I could be anywhere in the Arab world. The television blares out Al Jazeera and my fellow puffers are from across the region. In these slightly quieter times for the Middle East the conversation is less troubling, although fundamental problems remain unresolved outside the confines of the cafe.
As always the walls appear to have been painted with a rather alarming yellow-brown tint. A reminder of the unquestionable damage that smoking shisha does to one's health. Of course the tough new anti-smoking regulations are a vital step for our nation but surely there is a balance to be found between public health and this venerable Arab institution. Crispin Thorold is the presenter of Inside the National on Abu Dhabi Al Emarat TV. He covered the Middle East for the BBC
Published: January 9, 2010 04:00 AM