Far be it from me to promote smoking. I have no doubt that this would only further blacken my already black record in the great hall of American records. However, as I recently found myself back in Beirut enjoying one of my many vices, I thought the time had come to talk to you about the nargile.
The nargile goes by many names: shisha, hooka, even hubbly-bubbly, but no matter what it’s called it provides the same sensory experience, namely: sweet, cool, fruit-flavored smoke that fills your mouth while you make gently gurgling sounds by drawing on a smooth wooden mouthpiece attached to a colored flexible tube that is sometimes pleasantly fuzzy. If you go back and count the senses in that sentence, you’ll find that the nargile covers all five, hence its hedonistic allure.
So, what is the nargile doing in a travel column? It’s here because there are many, many interesting places in which one can smoke a nargile. There is, of course, my house, which I, at least, find interesting and which boasts two nargiles, but there are also places like Beirut’s Petit Café, which perches above the Pigeon Rocks and which I’ve mentioned before. For that matter, just about any restaurant or café in Lebanon will provide you with a nargile upon demand, and if you walk through Beirut’s rebuilt “downtown” area in the inevitably lively evening, you’ll be treated to a sweet atmosphere heavily scented with apple. Nargile smoke smells like nothing so much as incense.
You can also leave Beirut for a quick one-hour drive up the coast to Byblos, which is a beautiful little port that is also the world’s oldest continually inhabited town. There you can have fresh fish in a charming restaurant with both a view on the port and a cave in the back that was used by Phoenician smugglers.
Which allows me, finally, to respond to one disgruntled Ohioan reader: you may have falafel in Cleveland, but do you have Phoenician smugglers’ caves?
Anyway, you can’t actually smoke a nargile in the fish restaurant. (Although I may have convinced the owner to serve them in the future after breaking the ice with my new Arabic Useful Phrase: “Ma aandi bachra, walla aandi djedj—aandi oktobut bas mano ma’I,” which means “I do not have a cow and I do not have a chicken—I have an octopus, but not on me.”) However, you can walk down a little farther to a café, which of course will serve you one.
Lebanon is far from the only place in which the nargile is widespread. Throughout the Arab world and well beyond it, into countries like Turkey, cafés, restaurants and tea rooms offer nargile.
We can begin with the Pudding Shop in Istanbul. This café is on Hippodrome Square, or “Meydani,” which used to be the Roman hippodrome. It retains its ancient layout, although the vestiges of the stadium are gone. The Pudding Shop is always full of students smoking nargiles, playing backgammon, and debating the state of the world. They will be very happy to have you come and join them. I assume there are also good places in Israel to smoke a nargile, although I, unfortunately, haven’t been there in a few years, and my own habit wasn’t fully formed back then.
In Egypt, I must suggest the Sheraton Hotel in Heliopolis. It’s not very “earthy,” nor is it a bastion of Egyptian culture, since it’s inevitably stuffed with foreign businesspeople, but it must be admitted that they have a fantastic complex of outdoor cafés, pools, restaurants, and some of the best nargile service in the world. You can get a more “authentic” experience in the cafés near the great market, where you can smoke your nargile while listening to a musician with an aoud lament about loves lost.
I have no qualms about authenticity when suggesting the Jameira Beach Hotel in Dubai. There is no “authentic” Dubai, since the city itself is a modern invention. The Jameira Beach is part of the same hotel complex that boasts the Barj Al Arab, which proclaims itself to be the world’s only seven-star hotel. It sits just offshore as if it were Buck Rogers’ space-yacht. The Barj Al Arab is well beyond my means, but it’s probably best to be looking at it as opposed to sitting in it (or so I tell myself), particularly because the Jameira Beach offers nargile served on lounge chairs dotting an improbable lawn, of all things, that stretches from the hotel down to the beach. You can therefore relax in the balmy evening by sucking on a nargile while watching the Barj Al Arab try to take off, as the waters of the gulf wash up on the white sand, itself dotted with brain coral.
You don’t really need to go that far, though. On London’s Edgeware Road, there are a number of cafés that offer nargile, and there’s also a tobacconist with a wide variety of good tobacco. In Paris, the pickings are slimmer: There’s the Baghdad café, in the 6th, which is no longer run by Iraqis, by the way, but to be quite frank, neither their tobacco nor their coals really hold their own. Better are the one or two Indian places near the Port St. Denis, or the cafés near Belleville, or in the Goutte d’Or.
Or you can just buy your own. The best thing to do, of course, is to go to Beirut or Cairo or Istanbul and negotiate for hours with a swarthy man in a cluttered shop, but if this is impossible, you can also buy a nargile in Paris or London without too much trouble. In London, the best place is probably the tobacconist on Edgeware Road, who has a good selection. In Paris, I’d suggest the Avenue de Belleville. You can find good ones in the 18th as well, but they don’t sell tobacco, whereas there’s a small tobacco shop on the Avenue de Belleville that sells Tunisian (bad) and Egyptian (acceptable) tobacco. The very best tobacco I’ve ever found, though, was the “house blend” of a tobacconist in Amman. That sounds exotic, but it must be admitted that the shop in question is in an awful, modern shopping mall next to a bowling alley.
You don’t need to fly that far, though, for a shopping mall in which you can buy a nargile. There’s a perfectly serviceable nargile shop in Broward County, Florida, at the Sawgrass Mall. People actually fly in just to go shopping in this mall, although I assume that relatively few of them do so for the nargile selection. I was amazed one day a few months ago when I went to the movies at the Sawgrass Mall (yes, sometimes I travel in the United States as well) and I ran across a tobacco shop with nargiles in the window.
It turns out that the shop is run by a Turk, who was pleased to the point of tears to speak with someone who actually smokes a nargile. He said that he hadn’t been there too long, but he has sold a few nargile … although he doesn’t think his clients actually smoke them, because no one has bought any nargile tobacco. “They must use them for decoration, or maybe as flower pots.” (It should be said that the glass base can make a rather fetching vase.) He planned to keep on trying. I haven’t been back to the Sawgrass Mall in a while, so I don’t know if he managed to survive, but I like to think he did.
Apparently, nargile smoke is less detrimental to your health than that of cigarettes or cigars, since the water filters a lot of the nastiness out. On the other hand, you smoke the thing for about an hour. The real pleasure, though, is in sharing a nargile. There’s a whole slew of little rituals that surround the passing of the pipe, and in lands in which alcohol is theoretically frowned upon, the nargile offers a smokier conversational lubricant. You can pass many an interesting hour debating life, love, and politics surrounded by a wreath of apple-scented smoke.
As long as you’re not pregnant, of course.