Hookah: The Heart Of Middle East’s Café Culture

Once considered unsophisticated, hookah, whose origins are disputed with some claiming it originated in India, has become integral to the Middle East’s café culture, and gained popularity in the West, too

Once considered unsophisticated, hookah has become integral to the Middle East’s café culture and gained popularity in the West too

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

There is more to Karbala than just pilgrimage sites. Known for wooden waterpipes—nargilehs—carved locally from white willow grown in forests along the Euphrates, it is also known as a shisha smokers’ paradise.

Cafes dotting the market within walking distance of the shrine of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain, are favourite haunts of keen shisha smokers, where they drag puffs of tobacco from the elongated pipes in between sips of black tea.

The smokers were laying out sticky fruit-flavoured tobacco on clay heads and dragging on the hand-held pipes with hollow upper stems known as bakkar when our group of journalists covering the war on ISIS in 2016 strolled around in the area.

The sounds of water bubbling in glass bases filled the air as the smokers dragged for the smoke smelling like apple and mint. In broken English, a connoisseur explained why the wooded pipes were better compared to copper or iron hookah hoses. They, he added, enhance the tobacco flavour by keeping the smoke cool as he sat with a chatty group of young people dragging puffs from waterpipes at one of the cafés.

Once considered unsophisticated, hookah, whose origins are disputed with some claiming it originated in India, has become integral to the Middle East’s café culture. Shisha has gained popularity in the West, too.

Hookah cafes have popped up in places such as London and across the Atlantic in New York. They have also grown in popularity in part because of the misconception that shisha is harmless or less harmful, unlike cigarettes. Many believe since the smoke in the case of hooka is inhaled after passing through water, it loses its damaging impact.

For most enthusiasts smoking shisha in Karbala, it was their way to unwinding and relaxing. The presence of carcinogens and nicotine in shisha smoke, which have prompted curbs on hookah bars in the West, was the last thing on their minds.

Other pressing issues related to their country bothered them more than what health problems shisha smokers may face. But no matter what, the anti-ISIS resistance remained the talk of the town, wherever we went, including shisha cafes.

At a plush hookah bar, the resistance movement too eventually emerged as the topic of conversation after some small talk. ‘All of us will go to fight if needed on the call of [Ayatollah Ali al] Sistani [for resistance against ISIS]. It is not an individual but a collective obligation. I am a public servant. So, it is not mandatory for me but if required, I will also go and fight,’ a man in his 40s told us through a translator.

Billiards appeared to be another fad among the younger people in Karbala. Azhar Talafar, who owned a garment shop and played billiards in the evenings, told Sonia Sarkar, who was part of our group of journalists, that he will also join the resistance forces when needed. Till then, Talafar said, he can relax.

Sonia Sarkar also met Muhammad Youssif, who like Talafar was not also too worried about ISIS as he was celebrating his cousin’s grand wedding at a five-star hotel.

Down the road, Hasaan Hadi, a perfume shop owner in his early 30s, who spoke fluent English, echoed the relaxed men on the streets. To some extent things, he said after receiving us warmly as guests from al-Hind (India), things were complicated some time back.

He added that now the anti-ISIS Popular Mobilisation Forces have ensured the situation has moved ‘from a zone of danger to a zone of safety. ‘… by the grace of God, we are living in peace due to [blessings] of Imam Hussain and his family… [and because of] the deep faith we have…’

Hadi, an ebullient young man, insisted they have come a long way on their own from where they were a few years earlier. ‘…we… have ISIS in some parts of Iraq …but we could defeat ISIS… people from different backgrounds joined; they did respond to the call of Sistani.’

Hadi repeated the common refrain about the resistance and insisted it was broad-based. ‘It is not limited to a specific class of people or the youth [from] the poor [backgrounds]. It was a call for [resistance to] all people,’ said Hadi. He added his father had passed away six months earlier and this prevented him from joining the resistance forces on the battlefield.

Hadi said had not he been the only breadwinner for his family, he would not have hesitated to offer the supreme sacrifice for his country. ‘I am supporting these people [resistance forces] in a different way,’ he said without elaborating. ‘… it is my dream to die for my country. I will be very honoured to die that way,’ said Hadi as he saw us off in the middle of the market dotted with flags and banners with Hussain’s images.

The streets around Hadi’s shop were packed with devotees 24×7. We waded through crowds of pilgrims carrying flags of their countries as they marched down the streets in groups hailing Hussain and the prophet’s family.

Indian and Pakistani flags were most prominent among them as elegies to the martyrs of Karbala in Urdu, a bridge language in South Asia, also played in the background street after street. South Asian pilgrims, mostly Indian and Pakistani, outnumber the devotees who visit Karbala and other shrines in Iraq.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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