a traditional , indulgent and civilized past-time


In most Cafes and on many street corners, you will see one of the oldest traditions of the Middle East: Shisha smoking. For some of us, our first introduction to this pipe might have been through Lewis Carroll’s character: the Caterpillar (Alice in Wonderland). But in the Middle East, it is a tradition almost as old as time, and with as many names….

  • nargile (coconut, Indian)
  • sheesha (Glass, Persian)
  • water pipe
  • hookah (jar, Arabic)
  • hubbly bubbly (the sound as the water bubbles through!)


The concept is thought to have originated in India/Persia in the 1560s and after its humble beginnings in coconut shells, developed and spread and soon became a symbol of prestige. The master-mind behind it is thought to be an Iranian physician (Hakim Gilani) who was said to have be greatly alarmed at the increase of smoking in the Mughal Courts, and attempted to build a filter to purify the smoke, by making it pass through water thus creating the first sheesha pipe.


There are a frightening array of parts and purchases necessary for the lighting of the sheesha pipe, and will bewilder any new smoker! These days, with the “national addiction” of the middle eastern nations increasing in popularity in Europe and America, you can do your on-line buying of any of these components in a variety of colors and styles and many other accessories too!

  1. BOWL (head) usually clay, holds the tobacco and the coal
  2. WIND-SCREEN (foil cover with air holes) prevents wind blowing the ash and altering the temperature of the coals
  3. HOSE: (Flexible tube) usually brightly, at the end of which is a mouth-piece.
  4. PURGE VALVE: to get rid of any stale smoke (if you have taken too long to draw!)
  5. WATER JAR (base/vase) Usually of glass, or even in the past, out of gold or silver. and even from crystal (from Venice). The smoke is bubbled through the water in this jar.


The traditional sheesha tobacco is marinaded in molasses. Some countries have used Cannabis (weed/grass) as well! But these days more popular is the flavored tobacco blends, the range is almost overwhelming:

apple, strawberry, apricot, mint, chocolate, banana, coconut, bubble gum, grape, honey!


Traditionally, in public, women did not smoke sheesha pipes, though I have heard that some did in the privacy of their own homes. But today, though many still frown upon the idea, many of the more modern coffee/restaurants will have sheesha available and the young men and women of the cities will sit together and smoke sheesha. Sometimes you will even find groups of only women smoking together, and on occasion even a woman on her own, nonchalantly puffing away.


The average sheesha session takes a minimum of 45 minutes. It should never be rushed. It is a social activity, to be enjoyed with coffee and pleasant conversation. In this time, there could be 100 inhalations. There are many discussions and arguments about which smoke is worse for you: cigarettes or sheesha. As a non-smoker, I would vote for neither!

However, as a civilized past-time, part of a long culture, a social and enjoyable past-time, I have realized that those who smoke sheesha do not really care about tar levels, amount of smoke inhaled and lung disease! To them, they are sharing a long and ancient tradition of the land, and a part of their heritage.

And if you ask them what they think, they will shrug, and suggest you pull up a  chair, have a puff, drink a cup of coffee and chat with them for a while!

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