WATER PIPES AND SMOKING IN THE MIDDLE EAST

SMOKING IN THE MIDDLE EAST


a relatively uncommon sight in public

There are no clear religious edicts in Islam banning smoking. Nik Abdul Aziz said that some Muslim scholars consider smoking as forbidden based on the Muslim ban on intoxicants. In some conservative areas, cigarettes are hard to find.

Even so there are a lot of smokers. In the Middle East, 40 percent of the men smoke and 8 percent of the women smoke. Sometimes it seems that more men than that smoke. Coffee shops and tea houses are often filled with male smokers. It is customary to lay a pack of cigarettes on a table next to one’s cell phone and thick coffee or glass of tea. There are a lot of chain smokers and men with several-packs-day habits. There are some “No Smoking” signs but they are often ignored It is frowned upon for women to smoke in public. Some women smoke in their homes.

In the Middle East, tobacco companies often give out free cigarettes on the streets to young people to win customers. Sometimes the cigarettes are given out by children. Many tobacco companies are state-owned and cigarette taxes are cash cows for governments. It is estimated that Egyptians spend billions of dollars on smoking a year, almost 22 percent of the average income on a per capita basis. Half-hearted attempts by the Health Ministry to launch anti-smoking campaigns have been largely ignored.

Socializing among men often revolves around smoking and drinking tea. Cigarettes are offered as a sign of hospitality and friendship. If you have cigarettes you are expected to offer them to others. It is considered somewhat impolite to refuse a cigarette but these days most Arabs realize that smoking is frowned upon in the West and accept a refusal by foreigners.

Websites and Resources: Arabs: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Who Is an Arab? africa.upenn.edu ; Encyclopædia Britannica article britannica.com ; Arab Cultural Awareness fas.org/irp/agency/army ; Arab Cultural Center arabculturalcenter.org ; 'Face' Among the Arabs, CIA cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence ; Arab American Institute aaiusa.org/arts-and-culture ; Introduction to the Arabic Language al-bab.com/arabic-language ; Wikipedia article on the Arabic language Wikipedia ; Sharia (Islamic Law): Oxford Dictionary of Islam oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica britannica.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Sharia by Knut S. Vikør, Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics web.archive.org ; Law by Norman Calder, Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sharia Law in the International Legal Sphere – Yale University web.archive.org ; 'Recognizing Sharia' in Britain, anthropologist John R. Bowen discusses Britain's sharia courts bostonreview.net ; "The Reward of the Omnipotent" late 19th Arabic manuscript about Sharia wdl.org

Socializing and Sharing Tea and Smokes in a Cairo Barber Shop

Traditionally men liked to gather in the shade of tents and the aroma of incense, sharing tea, coffee and fruit while conversing about camels and issues of the day. These days they like to gather in tea shops, coffee shops, hookah-smoking rooms and barber shops


smoking a long-stemmed pipe

Daniel Williams wrote in the Washington Post, “It was 11:30 at night, and the Professeur Barber Shop on narrow Um ul-Ghulam Street in a run-down section of Cairo was running at full capacity. Three young barbers offered haircuts, shaves, facials and flattery to customers who filled a trio of threadbare chairs and stools that lined the tiny establishment. Sayeed, a barber who had dyed his hair copper and moussed it into little waves that lapped merrily about the top of his head, waved a razor in one hand and a cigarette in the other over a client. It seemed a dangerous moment, but nothing compared with what followed. [Source: Daniel Williams, Washington Post, May 2, 2006 ^~^]

“As a bouncy tune by the Egyptian singer Tamer Hosni blared from a boombox tucked among towels and a Qur’an in a corner of the shop, Sayeed undulated and lip-synched the words that told something about the arrival and departure of a girl. It looked like he was doing a saber dance. The customer closed his eyes -- whether to avoid looking at the tiny torch and sharp instrument that Sayeed brandished inches from his nose or just to relax in anticipation of the razor's next stroke, it was hard to say. ^~^

“Lots of things go on besides barbering at the Professeur. The shop got its name from a customer who once complimented the workers there as masters of their craft, which in Egypt can be expressed by calling them professeurs, an example of lingering French influence. A night at the Professeur -- the coolness after dark contrasts pleasurably with the motionless heat of Um ul-Ghulam in daytime -- is an opportunity to sing, gossip, sip tea or coffee and smoke from a shisha, the Egyptian water pipe filled with slow-burning tobacco. ^~^

“The tangle of activities and conditions would seem incompatible with haircuts -- smoke blown in eyes, music that drowns out conversation, electric cables that twist around tubes emanating from the water pipe, boys who bring in hot refreshments and dart under the elbows of the barbers. The shop's decor adds to the feeling that at the Professeur anything goes: fluorescent lighting, little red Chinese lanterns, plastic plants, Christmas tinsel, posters of singers and models, Egyptian talismans to ward off envy and evil, and carved plaques with Qur’anic verses that describe the rewards of praising Muhammad and the promise of protection to the righteous. On this night, a cockroach navigated tufts of hair on the floor. And the barbers keep the mood light.” ^~^

Smoking in Turkey


Many Turks are heavy smokers. It is unusual to meet someone who doesn't smoke, rather than someone who does. Most brands of western cigarettes are sold only in 100 millimeter lengths. It was never clear to me whether Turkish people smoked these long cigarettes because they liked them and considered them a good value, or whether it was because American companies dumped the long cigarettes in Turkey, like they did in Russia, since no one bought them anymore in the States, and the American tobacco companies still had expensive machines that produced them.

Turks, surprisingly, only smoke 1,304 cigarettes per person a year, about half as many as Americans. The Turkish smoking rate would probably be higher if more Anatolian Turks could afford cigarettes. Annually, each Turk on average drinks four liters of beer (about 1/25th as much as Americans), .4 liters of wine (again about 1/25th as much as Americans) and .8 liters of spirits (one third as much as Americans). These statistics show that Muslim Turks drink less than Americans, but when they do drink they like the hard stuff—especially rakı.☻

Tekel, the government cigarette and alcohol monopoly, is the only legal producer of raki. Large cigarettes taxes have been used to subsidize housing. In 1997, laws were passed that banned smoking in offices with more than four people and on public transportation, sports centers and placed providing cultural and, health and education services.

History of Smoking in Turkey

Turks took quickly to smoking after tobacco was introduced from North America in the early 17th century. Sultan Murat IV instated the death penalty in 1633 for smoking tobacco, intensifying the anti-smoking campaign of his father, Ahmed I, who punished offenders by piercing their noses with their pipestems.


Bashi-Bazouks smoking a nargile

Murat was fond of sneaking up on Ottoman soldiers having a quick smoke on the battlefield and beheading, hanging and quartering them himself. When he was in a lenient mood he let the offenders off easy with crushed hands and feet. Murat also used to travel around in disguise to find out what people thought of him. By one count more than 25,000 smokers were killed during his anti-smoking campaign. All this simply drove smoking underground. The ban was rescinded 14 years later.

Tall brass water pipes — hookahs — were first used in India. They made their way to the Middle East about 300 years ago via Iran and Turkey. In Turkey, they were status symbols. The offering of smoke became a sign of trust while a refusal to offer a smoke or turning down a smoke offer was regarded as an insult. In the Ottoman era, a diplomatic crisis resulted when the Ottoman sultan refused to invite the French ambassador to smoke with him.

Turkey is also well known for its domestically grown tobacco. Camel cigarettes boasted about the use of Turkish tobacco. In the 19th century, however, American and European cigarettes manufactures accused their Turkish competitors of spiking their tobacco with opium and adding "clay, dirt, filth, germs, bacteria" to their cigarettes to give them "bite."

Water Pipes: Hookahs and Sheeshahs

The ubiquitous tall, brass-and-wood water pipes seen in tea houses and cafés all over the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia are known as “hubble-bubbles” to Englishmen, “ hookahs” to hippies and “narghiles” to Turks. They are called “ sheeshahs” in to Egypt where the term is also used to describe the tobacco that is smoked from such a pipe. Sheeshah-style water pipes were first used in India. They made their way to Egypt about 300 years ago via Iran and Turkey.

Sheeshah smokers don't smoke hashish. They inhale the cooled smoke from tobacco which has been placed on top of pieces of burning charcoal. The cooled smoke is generally so mild that even nonsmokers can enjoy a puff. It is often cured or combined with apple, fruit paste and molasses and placed beneath a piece of charcoal, preferable made from citrus trees, on a metal tray that makes up the bowl of the pipe. The water is sometimes flavors with rose oil, pomegranate juice or pieces of fruit.


an Aleppo cafe

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention and Health Promotion: Hookahs are water pipes that are used to smoke specially made tobacco that is usually flavored. They are also called a number of different names, including waterpipe, narghile, argileh, shisha, hubble-bubble, and goza. Hookah smoking is typically practiced in groups, with the same mouthpiece passed from person to person. [Source: National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Adult and Community Health, November 9, 2015]

Smoking with a water pipe is a popular social activity, and users say a vital one since Islam frowns on drinking alcohol, a popular social activity outside the Muslim world. Sometimes smoker have their own pipes. Other times they share a pipe. Smokers that share sit around the sheeshah. They take turns taking a long inhale from the flute-like mouthpiece. Ideally, after one person has finished smoking, the mouthpiece is sterilized in scalding water and handed to the next person. The tobacco sheeshah takes a little while to prepare.

Water pipes produce a soft bubbling sound when being used. Hence, the hubble-bubble name used by the English. A coal placed on top of the tobacco keep the smoke coming for about an hour. The cooled smoke is easy to swallow and much mellower than smoking a cigarette. In restaurants and tea houses the pipes are often tended by waiters or attendants who add charcoal with large iron tweezers.

Waterpipe Smokers

Sheeshah smoking has traditionally been the domain of older men in tea houses but in recent years it has become popular with women, young people and tourists and are found in five-star hotels, restaurants, backpacker guest houses and trendy nightclubs. The owner of one trendy nightclub popular with Armani-wearing yuppies told Time, If we didn't offer sheesheh I doubt this place would always be this jammed." [Source: Scott MacLeod, Time, June 28, 1999]


Arab sheikh, with his pipe bearer, smoking a shisha

The trend began when some hotels popular with tourists began offering sheeshah smoking as way to exposing visitors to local customs. The idea caught on with Egyptians and soon became a fixture of the Ramadan party season.

Sheeshah smoking is popular because it is something that people can do together in social situations and unlike drinking alcohol, many Muslims say, it doesn't break any Islamic rules. Smokers often drink sweet Arabic coffee or tea and sometimes smoke cigarettes while they are smoking the hookahs. Many enjoy a sheeshah smoke after a meal.

A 48-year-old man told the New York Times, “The important thing is not what you put in the pipe, but who is with while you’re smoking. It’s a complete experience. In a café like this one, you find the good people, the old people, the interesting people. As long as there is a need for company and friendship, as long as people want to stop and think, there will be narghile cafes.”

Sheeshah-smoking is becoming more and more poplar with women and teenagers. It has also become popular in California and London where they are a number of hookah bars, Customers at these bars in London cried discrimination when British anti-smoking laws cased many bars to close down. In California, hookah bars are exempt from anti-smoking laws.

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention and Health Promotion: In recent years, there has been an increase in hookah use around the world, most notably among youth and college students. The Monitoring the Future survey found that in 2014, about 23% of 12th grade students in the United States had used hookahs in the past year, up from 17% in 2010. In 2014, this rate was slightly higher among boys (25%) than girls (21%). CDC's National Youth Tobacco Survey found that from 2013 to 2014, hookah smoking roughly doubled for middle and high school students in the United States. Current hookah use among high school students rose from 5.2% (770,000) to 9.4% (1.3 million) and for middle school students from 1.1% (120,000) to 2.5% (280,000) over this period. [Source: National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Adult and Community Health, November 9, 2015]

Water Pipe Smoking in Turkey

Some Turks enjoy smoking from communal hookahs called “narghiles” at places called narghile salons. Water pipe smoking used to be a popular social activity among men of all ages. There used to be thousands of narghile salons. Now it is enjoyed by a dwindling number of old men. There are less than a dozen narghile salons in Istanbul and a few in sme other Turkish cities.


parts of a water pipe

Many older Turks prefer strong Turkish tobaccos grown on plantations near the Syrian border. Younger people prefer the aromatic apple- and cherry-flavored blends from Egypt and Bahrain. In the old days some people smoked hashish and opium mixed with tobacco in their narghiles. Some Ottoman sultans enjoyed smoking a special mixture of tobacco, opium, perfume and crushed pearls.

Describing the smoking ritual at a narghile salon. Stephen Kinzer wrote in the New York Times, when a smoker arrives the salon manager Yasare Guler “selects a narghile, cleans it and wraps a handful of damp tobacco around the the stone bowl...After Mr. Guler has filled the bottom of the pipe with water and attached the brass neck, the bowl, and long smoking tube, he delivers it to the patron. A waiter who carries a pot of glowing coals carefully picks up a couple of them with metal pincers and places them atop the tobacco plug. With a few puffs, the smoker is under way.”

“It takes about an hour to smoke a pipeful of fruit tobacco, two hours for the stronger stuff. The smoke is noticeably cooler than cigarette smoke, and lightly intoxicating...Before long, the water begins to turn brown; smokers say it is filtering out many of the harmful substances that they otherwise they would be inhaling.”

Explaining by pleasure of smoking with a water pipe, one 71-year-old man told the New York Times, “Smoking a narghile is nothing like smoking a cigarette. 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 appreciation of good company, Narghile smokers have a much more balances approach to life than cigarette smokers.”

Waterpipe Smoking and Health

Many sheeshah smokers believe that smoking from a waterpipe is less harmful to the lungs than cigarette smoking but the contrary may be true. In his book “ Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians”, written in 1836, E.W. Lane observed "the strong inhalation necessary in this mode of smoking is injurious to a person of delicate lungs.”


women in Bethlehem

Egyptian doctors say sheeshah smoking can cause serious problems such as bronchitis, emphysema, and heart diseases. Moreover, virus and bacteria can be transmitted for one person to another via the pipe's mouthpiece. It has even been blamed on rising rates of tuberculosis. Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate tobacco smokes through water has just as much nicotine as cigarette smoke.

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention and Health Promotion: Similar to cigarettes, hookah smoking delivers the addictive drug nicotine and it is at least as toxic as cigarette smoking. While many hookah smokers may consider this practice less harmful than smoking cigarettes, hookah smoking carries many of the same health risks as cigarettes. [Source: National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Adult and Community Health, November 9, 2015 ><]

According to a study published in the 2012 issue of CDC's Preventing Chronic Disease (PCD ), many hookah smokers believe that smoking a hookah carries less risk of tobacco-related disease than cigarette smoking. However, hookah smoke contains many of the same harmful toxins as cigarette smoke and has been associated with lung cancer, respiratory illness, low birth weight, and periodontal disease. According to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO), a hookah smoking session may expose the smoker to more smoke over a longer period of time than occurs when smoking a cigarette. Also, due to the method of smoking—including frequency of puffing, depth of inhalation, and length of the smoking session—hookah smokers may absorb higher concentrations of the same toxins found in cigarette smoke. ><

The charcoal used to heat tobacco in the hookah increases the health risks by producing smoke that contains high levels of carbon monoxide, metals, and cancer-causing chemicals. A typical 1-hour-long hookah smoking session involves 200 puffs, while an average cigarette is 20 puffs. The volume of smoke inhaled during a typical hookah session is about 90,000 milliliters, compared with 500 to 600 milliliters inhaled when smoking a cigarette. Using a hookah to smoke tobacco poses a serious potential health hazard to smokers and others exposed to the emitted smoke.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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