I had my first sheesha in 2000, a few days after moving to the Middle East. This was before the Hookah Craze took America’s cities, and later its suburban cul-de-sacs, by storm.
Dubai in August. At nightfall it was still a balmy 115 Fahrenheit. My sweat was drinking Gatorade and toweling off. A new colleague took me to dinner and, afterward, a sheesha café. I consulted the menu and ordered cappuccino-flavoured tobacco. A few minutes later, a befezzed gentleman in white robe and red vest brought over two water pipes, set them at our feet.
He took both wooden pipes in his mouth—without inserting plastic, sanitary mouth-tips—and inhaled furiously. The charcoal began burning orange and, after 10 or 12 deep inhalations, smoke was coming out of his nose and mouth like a car with a busted radiator. I calculated how many times a night the sheesha sommelier did this, and worried about his life expectancy.
I had a puff. Nice. It really did taste like cappuccino. My colleague enjoyed a raspberry-vanilla. This was relaxing, fun, cosmopolitan. I was urbane and sophisticated. I could acclimate to any culture in the world. I was a traveller, not a tourist. I was swimming in a pool of my own sweat.
By week’s end I had my own pipe. I was an expert. I’d lived through the Cigar Bar phenomenon of the ’90s and now I was an early adopter of the sheesha. I was cool. I smoked every day. I was basically a local. They would probably offer me citizenship.
What I didn’t know was that only fools and suckers smoked flavoured sheesha. For an 11-year-old it was acceptable, but not for a real man. I was a sheesha wimp, a hookah neophyte. I learned this a few months later from Ahmed, an Egyptian friend.
We sat around a small table by the Khor, the creek that cuts through Dubai. “Do you enjoy sheesha?” he asked, when the waiter arrived. I told him I loved it. “Good. We will have two sheesha and a pot of mint tea.”
“Which tobacco are you wanting?” the waiter asked.
“Zaghloul.” Ahmed turned to me. “This is real Egyptian mu’assel—sheesha tobacco. Very strong.”
“I’ll have the same.”
Ahmed touched my arm, furrowed his brow. “No, my friend. You have cherry, watermelon, like this. Zaghloul is not for American man.”
“I can handle it.”
“Okay. Fine.” He shrugged. When the waiter returned, he called the pipe a hubbly-bubbly. For some reason, I found this troubling. A small part of me—my intellect—must have known what was coming.
It was strong. I took a few deep hits and lay back, extended my legs, enjoyed the sight of abras carrying passengers across the creek. Larger boats, dhows, were hauling cargo. This was good tobacco. I was mellow, relaxed, happy. I began to wonder if “zaghloul” was Arabic for “tranquilizer.”
“You like?” Ahmed asked.
He smiled. I had a few more hits.
That’s when the Earth began to spin more quickly on its lopsided axis, when the contents of my stomach began to churn uneasily, when my limbs no longer worked properly. When two, three, four, five Ahmeds started looking at me funny. I turned the colour of rotten iceberg lettuce. I began to moan and cradle my head. Ahmed took a long slow puff, exhaled. “Maybe you should slow down.”
It was several weeks before I hubbled the bubble again, but since then I’ve smoked all over North Africa and the Middle East. Here’s my advice, in the effort to make your own sheesha journey more enlightened and less humiliating: