A.K.A. Hookah, Narghile, Waterpipe, or Hubbly Bubbly.
Aaron Noah M.
Location: Middle East

You’ve ridden a camel across the dunes.  You’ve lounged in a Bedouin tent and sipped hot tea.  You’ve eaten a box full of dates.  So now what?

If your lungs can handle it, get ready to check “Shisha” off your list of Middle East cultural experiences.  Shisha (pronounced “Shee-shah”) is a sticky flavored tobacco that is filtered through large, sometimes elaborate, water pipes and it has a faithful following of smokers throughout the world and especially here in the Middle East.  In the Gulf you’ll find a mix of traditional styles, but the most common shisha pipe consists of a decorated glass base full of water, an engraved metal body section, a long hose apparatus for inhaling, an air valve to purge stale smoke, and a bowl on top of the pipe full of flavored tobac, such as apple or honey.

Shisha Diagram

How It Works

To smoke the shisha, a piece of foil with small holes is placed over the tobacco bowl and then chunks of red hot charcoal are placed on top.  When someone inhales through the mouthpiece, scorching air is drawn from the charcoal vaporizing the shisha tobacco below (not burning it), travels down into the water to cool, bubbles up into the top of the glass base, and then finally exits through the hose.

Traditionally shisha is best enjoyed after a dinner, like a smoky dessert, although zealous smokers can be found at shisha cafes during all hours of the day, with or without food.  The most common flavors are fruity and sweet, but there are hundreds of types available to suite just about any taste.  Some folks will try to convince you that shisha is much safer than cigarettes, since it is “filtered” in the water, but studies have shown that the same harmful effects of cigarette smoking are also prevalent in shisha smoking.

Occasionally people ask me (with a wink of the eye), “So, what ELSE is in there BESIDES tobacco?”  Usually that implies grass or hash, but for those looking for it, you’re out of luck (at least here in the UAE or Oman).  There’s nothing but flavoring and tobacco.  I repeat: there’s nothing but flavoring and tobacco…I think.  I do admit that the shisha experience seems to make people a bit giddy, but that probably has more to do with lack of oxygen to the brain than anything else!

Essential Info:
Finding shisha in the UAE and Oman is about as difficult as locating sand; it’s everywhere.  Many cafes, restaurants, and bars will have a “shisha guy” to get one fired up for you, or you can even buy the equipment at any grocery store or tobacco shop and give it a go yourself.