The tobacco water-pipe, nearly 600 years old known as a hookah, shisha (many parts of the Arab world, including Egypt), argile in Syria, nargile in Turkey, and galyan in Iran, is an integral part of Middle Eastern cultures whose misty clouds of smoke are often a mystery to visitors. No, they’re not getting everyone high on the streets Cairo – well, not technically – and each puff isn’t quite the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes. While shisha (the term I’ll stick with for the rest of this post) contains plenty of nicotine, it’s not what hooks it into life around the Arab world; it is something entirely more addictive about that culture in general.
Shisha – What It Is Exactly And Are There Drugs In It?
Shisha’s fundamental components consist of a (specialized) charcoal at the top that heats flavored tobacco beneath it; both separated by a piece of aluminum foil. The downward force for the heat is provided by two dedicated human lungs sucking in tobacco smoke through a hose. In a public setting, the tip of the hose is capped with a removable plastic piece, so you’re not sharing germs with others who’ve been smoking the same shisha. Traditionally, the tobacco air isn’t inhaled, but rather enjoyed more like a cigar, by keeping the fruit-flavored smoke in your mouth before exhaling. Cigarette smokers and others though do inhale the smoke however, which often produces a slight buzz and a lightheaded feeling, primarily due to carbon monoxide (CO) accumulation in the blood. That effect typically lasts 3-4 hours, the approximate half-life of CO, in the body at most altitudes.
It’s not so much hearing about the mild woozy effect that leads many to conclude there’s marijuana in shisha, but rather the appearance of the water pipe itself, which many associate with a bong.
I was quite perplexed last year while smoking shisha (nargile in Turkey) by the Mediterranean waters off Fethiye‘s coast to notice an entire British family wide-eyed starring at me. They were looking at me as though I were a green alien or had 7 arms. I kept looking over my shoulder and wondering if I had forgotten to wear pants that day and eventually asked the waiter what was going on. He told me the family was wondering if I was getting high and what exactly I was smoking. They seemed quite disappointed to find out it was tobacco only. Especially the mom.
Although you can put marijuana or hash (very popular in Arab subculture) in shisha, it’s not part of the usual mix. That’s not the traditional allure of the pipe which has roots in places from Nepal to Morocco and is spreading worldwide via seeds of Arab immigrant communities.
Smokey Shisha Bonds The Cafe Culture
The peoples of the Middle East – not just Arabs – are generally cafe cultures. Spain has its siestas and Oman has its shisha to get through the working day. Sips of tea and puffs of shisha at cafes typically crowded with men (though that is changing across much of the Middle East) is where you exchange the troubles of the day, exhaling both literally and metaphorically. You smoke a cigarette for the quick nicotine fix but a shisha for the conversation, relaxation, or both.
Gaining Ground Where It Was Once Found, Now All Around
While shisha as been quite popular throughout most of the Arab world (with a few notable exceptions publicly in places like Saudi Arabia), it’s prevalence elsewhere has brought it back to life in places more familiar with it. The hookah, it’s mostly agreed, was originally invented during the 1500s by the Persians, in what is today northwestern India. Since that time it became passe over the mid-to-late 1900s in places like Turkey and India, something considered too arabesque for rapidly modernizing societies. Shisha and the cafe ambiance around it, continued to spread during that time as Arab communities established themselves in many parts of the world. Popularizing shisha across South Africa, the Philippines, and (especially) Europe – pretty much anywhere you have Arab or southeastern immigrant populations, it has come back strong in places looking west but reexamining their eastern roots.
What we eat says a lot about where we came from and as cuisine travels around the world, so does the history, culture, and people whose tale it tells. Apparently the same is true of what we inhale as well.
Some Prevalently Common Shisha Myths
Aside being packed with marijuana, there are some rather common myths about shisha not matter how familiar its smoke is to you.
- Smoking One Shisha Is Equivalent To A Pack Of Cigarettes – One hookah can last a very long time coal after coal so it’s important to define a typical smoking session; they average about 45 minutes. Now, in terms of equivalency, there are many things in cigarettes that are bad for you, including 4,000 chemicals and 50 carcinogens – a pack generally consisting of 20 cigarettes. We’ll focus on three things – nicotine (not a confirmed carcinogen), nicotine-free dry particulate matter (NFDPM – basically tar and other crap that sticks around in your lungs); and finally, carbon monoxide which is toxic to all forms of life that depend on oxygen to survive.
So, in one 45 minute session of shisha smoke you inhale about 2.25 milligrams (mg) of nicotine, versus the average 6mg per packet of cigarettes. As for NFDPM, it’s roughly 245mg per shisha session and 120mg per cigarette packet. Lastly, when it comes to carbon monoxide via shisha you’re getting a total dose of 42 parts per million (pm) CO and a heavy smoker has about 35 ppm on average.
To add things up, a shisha session (where you inhale) gives you less nicotine, more NFDPM, and about the same CO as a pack of cigarettes according to current research.
- Smoking Shisha Is Ancient – No, it’s not, no matter what the Caterpillar in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is doing, it’s about 600 years old. Remember, tobacco was only introduced to Asia about that time, so while it took off quickly, it did not take off before.
- One Shisha For The Group – Although getting a shisha for the table is common in Western countries, generally it’s one shisha per person in the Middle East and Asia with the occasional sharing.
- Shisha Isn’t Bad For You – I think we’ve covered that well above but the consensus is that while it’s not good for you, people tend to smoke them less frequently than cigarettes and that’s kinda good.
Perhaps the biggest myth about smoking shisha is why it’s done in the first place by the peoples who enjoy it so much and often.
Conversations Around The Coal
Much like eating paella in Spain, drinking raki in Turkey, or fika in Sweden, it might be the food, alcohol, or caffeine that brings you to the table but it’s company that keeps you there. Ordering coal after coal (free without charge – you pay for the hookah once) people help their shishas keep up with the conversations gently blowing into the air all around them.
Last year when I was in Kuala Lumpur I was surprised to see quite a few Shisha cafes had sprung up- also, in Accra you will find that at the various Lebanese restaurants they offer Shisha. I knew a little about it- but I’m very happy about this article because it has put to rest some of my misconceptions- and brought to my attention some other things I was not aware of.
Always a joy to read your updates!
Thank you Anjuli, shisha has made quite a comeback where it was once popular and now popular where it wasn’t known before 🙂 Curious your number one misconception about it previously?
That was a really informative article and nicely written Anil. I remember my first time smoking a hookah in McLeod Ganj with Earl on one of his “Wandering Earl” trips. It was a pretty cool experience. I think the name of the place was The Tavern? Correct me if I’m wrong as I’m sure you know the place. Hope you are well!
Hi Dan. Is it the one that’s a few floors up on a rooftop? If so, I know it well!
Though I quit smoking last year I do enjoy an occasional nagile. One of the attractions is the immobility of the things – I’m unlikely to pull a nagile out of my pocket whenever I get a craving.
I was in the mood for one yesterday but the place I was heading to was closed. Never mind. A place near the beach offered me ‘a special price for you’ so I will itch that scratch next time I’m that end of town.
I think that’s what helps nargile in terms of health when compared to cigarettes, often it is harder to find. (Unless you buy one at the house!) When I was in Egypt for example though I was in trouble, they even have drive-thru nargile, what an invention 😀
Did you know I have a hookah website too? lol.
No way, man that is an extensive site! So, guessing you like a good shisha from time to time? 🙂
Oh yes absolutely. we have bloggers from Egypt, NY, LA, and Dallas. I just upgraded the site too. I would love for you to write a guest blog post if you come across another hookah place.
I’m going to send an email to all our subscribers right now about this post too.
I go out of my way to find them 🙂 In fact will have some shisha near Hamburg, Germany soon after typing this comment…feel free to email me with what you might be looking for in a guest post to discuss further, sounds like fun 🙂
…and thanks for sharing this post with your readers as well!
Great post! I tried this in Turkey for the first time last month and while I have to say it didn’t do much for me, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the tea house and the pleasant smell of the smoke.
The atmosphere is the best part isn’t it? Slows down even a slow tea break 🙂
LOVE this post! Shisha is the best, such a fun way to bond with people. I’ve been the only female many many times smoking shisha in cafes in and and around Cairo but it’s delicious and it’s all about the atmosphere 🙂
I too enjoy the cafe culture around the Middle East, especially when it’s flavored with shisha smoke 🙂
I love sheesha! I uploaded a photo of me enjoying one to facebook and my dad proceeded to freak out, thinking i was on the hard drugs, haha.
I remember being in Fethiye, Turkey and having some British tourists starring at me thinking I was getting high too. They even had to ask the waiter what I was doing 🙂 (Actually one of the inspirations behind this post.)
I can imagine that conversation with your dad! Must have been a fun one explaining 😀
can you put up a post that shows the method of filling the pipe and where the water and coal go. I have one I picked up in cairo but it has lost its coal tray and the tubing needs to be replaced. Where would be a reliable place to have these parts sent from. And approximately how much would I expect to pay. It is a metal , single tube and do they have to be supplied with the size of the tray etc.
Sorry, not the right site for this question!