The Shisha Culture in the Middle East
Shisha: A Long, Slow Pleasure
One of the pleasures of living in the Middle East is to pass an evening in congenial company while enjoying a shisha of your preferred flavour.
Shisha is the traditional Arab water pipe, sometimes called a hookah (but not by the locals).
I’ve never been a smoker in the conventional sense. Cigars have little or no appeal for me, and cigarettes I actively dislike. But shisha is a different animal altogether. Of course it still counts as smoking, and yes, it’s bad for the health, but the social and ritualistic aspects of the custom are irresistible.
I’ve met many Western visitors to the Middle East who wanted to try shisha at least once, even out of curiosity, but missed out because they were just not sure what to do. That seems such a shame. To counter this, I’m now going to talk you through the whole experience of my typical shisha evening.
First, I choose my companion for the evening. This is important (and not difficult!) We’ll be together for a couple of hours at least. Slow, relaxed, unpremeditated conversation enhances the pleasure, while nervous or point-scoring talk is simply joyless. Ah, but isn’t that always true…
Next, we select our shisha venue with care. Many of the better shisha cafes have outdoor tented booths that are open to the street, but offer privacy from neighbouring tables. For most of the year, in the Gulf States, we can sit outside comfortably through the long, warm evening. Souq (market) areas with no motor vehicles are best. Or a rooftop shisha garden, if we can find one. Indoor cafes are OK, but the smoke of many shishas together can build up to an oppressive heavy fog.
Once seated, we’ll ask for the shisha menu. The most popular flavours, available almost everywhere, are apple, rose and grape. Mint is common too. Among the more exotic flavours I’ve seen are banana, liquorice, strawberry, vanilla, and even chocolate. More traditional menus will also include one or two plain tobacco shishas without added flavours.
So, What to Order?
We steer clear of the exotics; they are only there for novelty. Most shisha waiters will recommend apple for beginners, but I’ve found it can be quite sharp on the throat. Grape is much smoother, if sometimes a little bland. Rose is my normal choice, with mint a close second. We would normally have eaten first, but, if still peckish, a little hummus served with the local flat bread fits the bill, but nothing hot or heavy. Cool fresh water is a must, and maybe a glass of tea with mint. (Be aware, though, that in the Gulf, tea and coffee are always served sweet, unless you specifically ask for no sugar).
One Shisha Each, or One Between Two?
For a shisha to work properly, it has to be smoked fairly steadily to keep the coals and tobacco at optimum temperature. Unless you’re normally a heavy smoker, this can be quite taxing. For that reason, I prefer to ‘share the load’ and order one for the two of us. There’s a delicious intimacy in sharing shisha. But this is not for business meetings; be sure of your company before sharing 🙂
Usually, the waiter will bring our shisha and set it down before going off to get a scoop of smouldering charcoal. He’ll then place two or three coals on top of the perforated foil and take several long draws on our pipe to get it started. We all know this is one of the perks of his job, the first few draws on every shisha he serves. Once it’s smoking freely, he’ll fit a new plastic mouthpiece (hygiene, ok?) before handing it to me, rather like a wine waiter, for approval. Of course, it’s always perfect!
Now, How Do You Smoke a Shisha?
Deeply, m’dears! It’s the only way. It’s a big piece of equipment, and drawing on it from the cheeks is just not going to make any impression. You’ve got to inhale. This is what we’re doing tonight, for an hour or two, and maybe not again till next weekend, or the weekend after. Feel as guilty as you like, but enjoy it. Life’s too short anyway.
You might be wondering exactly what you’re smoking. Needless to say, it’s possible to put any smokable substance into a shisha pipe in your own home, but commercial establishments will only ever serve tobacco shishas. The tobacco is blended with molasses, glycerine and the extract of rose, grape, etc. The charcoal is not in direct contact with the tobacco; it is separated by a perforated metal foil (though some traditionalists dispense with this). The smoke is drawn through water, which cools it and even removes some of the water-soluble nicotine. Having said that, it’s still bad for you, but so is worrying!
After maybe 15 to 20 minutes, the flavour will start to change. Often, the smoke becomes too hot. Then we simply use the coal tweezers (always provided!) to remove one of the charcoals. Or maybe the taste tends towards sooty or dirty. Then we’ll pick up the charcoals (with the tweezers) and drop them into the metal coal tray to shake off the ash coating, before placing them back on top of the foil. A little later, maybe after half an hour, the coals will be exhausted. When that happens, we catch the waiter’s eye and he comes by with a hopper of fresh burning charcoal. The shisha can be refreshed with new coals once or twice, before the smoking mixture is used up. When that happens, it’s time to go home!
I would recommend trying shisha in several cafes before deciding to buy your own. Small ‘souvenir’ shisha pipes are about as serviceable as a chocolate fireplace. Don’t be tempted to buy anything that the cafes would be ashamed to present. And remember there’s quite a lot of technique involved in preparing a shisha. My next article might explain how to do it at home. But there’s no hurry, is there? We’re relaxing.