Charbel is a 21 year-old literature and linguistics graduate from Melbourne.
Published October 25th 2013
The Arab man's air
Remember that hookah-smoking-caterpillar scene in Alice in Wonderland? Of course you do - it was that fat, lazy, purple caterpillar which lay slouched on an overgrown mushroom, blowing coloured rings around a frustrated Alice who was trying to speak to it.
That caterpillar was smoking a shisha.
There are a few other popular names for this bong-looking, water-bubbling, smoking device: argileh, nargileh, hookah, hubbly-bubbly and waterpipe are just a few.
The origins of shisha smoking are quite hazy. While it is widely contested whether it was created in India or Egypt, it is predominantly a feature brought in by the Middle east and Asia.
Over the last 10 years, hookah smoking has boomed in and around Melbourne, with dozens of hookah lounges opening their doors for like-minded Melburnian smoking-caterpillars.
Many of these lounges have become go-to spots for young adults and are even on menu items in popular Melbourne nightclubs and restaurants, such as Shane Delia's Maha and Dockland's nightclub Alumbra.
Why has there been an increasing culture around this smoking device in recent times?
For starters, Shisha Bars and Cafes operate unregulated by the strict Tobacco Act, so many shisha-goers are enjoying their ability to puff indoors while this loophole in the Smoking Law lasts.
A WHO report on tobacco smoking found that an average 'shisha session' was more than 40 minutes – which is true. A standard tobacco head on the water pipe can easily endure for an hour. The report declares that "the waterpipe smoker may…inhale as much smoke during one session as a cigarette smoker would inhale consuming 100 or more cigarettes" (WHO Study Group on TobReg).
This however, is untrue - the WHO ignores the crucial social aspect of shisha smoking. Unless you're the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, you do not sit for an hour smoking a shisha non-stop. A 'shisha session' is a social gathering – card games and board games are played and long conversations follow. It incites bonding and connection among a group of people. Naturally, then, this social environment involves passing the shisha hose around the group as well as a lot of talking, so you do not smoke the shisha consistently on your own for an hour.
Also, the fact is that the tobacco involved in Shisha is a type of syrup, with semi-dried fruit (that's right, not weed). The water basin at the bottom of the pipe actually filters some (not all) chemicals inhaled. Further, shisha applies a thick layer of foil between the tobacco and the burning embers so that the tobacco is intensely heated, not burnt (as in cigarettes), hence releasing less chemicals.
While it is clear that a smoker would enjoy shisha smoking, even non-smokers can enjoy its company.
The non-irritating, vapour-like smoke produced is full of fantastic flavours which means you don't have to inhale the smoke in order to enjoy it!
The flavours to choose from are endless and are subject to each shisha café but includes apple, orange, lemon, grape, mint, watermelon and even Coca-Cola and bubblegum.
Here are a few things you should keep in mind if smoking shisha for the first time.
- Etiquette requires you to put the hose on the table to signify its vacancy or, when handing it over to another person, fold the hose in on itself so it doesn't point towards the person.
- Remember to use plastic tips on the hose which the Café provides.
- You can control the density of the smoke by adjusting the placement of embers on top of the tobacco.
- Standard shisha pipes use a ceramic head which the tobacco is placed in. Although it is more expensive, try a 'fresh head' which replaces the ceramic head with a real piece of fruit!
Where to find shisha cafes?
Being a multicultural melting pot, the northern suburbs (Preston, Coburg, Brunswick) offer a wonderland of Shisha cafes and lounges. Head into Sydney Rd in Coburg which hosts a plethora of authentic shisha cafes and restaurants, my favourite being 'Arabesque' (they have a cafe-cat which reminds me of the cat from Alice in Wonderland) - as well as High St in Preston for cafes such as 'Shisha Square' and 'Gulf Cafe'.
Prices are generally $15-20 for a ceramic head and $25-30 for a fresh head.
If you're brave enough, perhaps head into a Middle Eastern grocery shop and buy your own pipe!
I'll leave you with this enchanting quote by a Turkish smoking-caterpillar named Ismet Ertep:
"Cigarettes are for nervous people, competitive people, people on the run…When you smoke a narghile, you have time to think. It teaches you patience and tolerance, and gives you an appreciation of good company. Narghile smokers have a much more balanced approach to life than cigarette smokers".