Narghile (Hookah) in Society

Photo of man smoking NarghileFor many observers, the social acceptance of narghile (hookah) is surprising. Nevertheless, we can partly explain this fact by the nature of the special tobacco it uses. Actually, the so-called tobamel (mu'essel), which is a flavoured mixture of tobacco and treacle (molasses), is the product mainly consumed in this pipe. Now, if the tobamel indeed associates a negative principle, materialised by the fire burning its tobacco, this is however moderated by the positive representation of honey - or treacle (molasses) - the second element.


A rather collective practice.

Narghile (hookah) users would rather smoke in group first to let conversation, or waiting, naturally take place among them. Then, they appreciate the collective participation in the punctilious preparation and smoking rites. When they are dependent, it is a wonder that they do not generally substitute the use of cigarettes for their practice. In fact, such an attitude reveals the existence of two different universes. We insist on the collective form of the narghile practice even if it is sometimes individual. However, even under this aspect, it can be understood as a waiting for the fellow smoker (or non-smoker) who will come and sit to listen and share. This said, there is certainly, these last years, a trend towards individual smoking (one person one narghile) to the point that some people declared that it is a hedonist practice. In fact, it is only a recent evolution we can explain, on one hand, by the individualistic contagion of current times which extends to all spheres of society and, on the other hand , by the publicising of so many epidemics. Certainly the medical talk is not irrelevant to the observed preventive concern. Consequently, within such a configuration, the passing around of the hose - on which our traditional commensal narghile (hookah) model is based - disappears. If such a model is not appropriate, in certain circumstances, it serves here as a reference and remains, for example, well illustrated in yesterday' Syria - with its singular coffee-houses where professional story-tellers (hekewêtiyyé ) officiated - and the same country of today where a revival of narghile may be observed. Besides, narghile (hookah) is characterised by a triple egalitarianism: social, sexual and religious. This is mainly due to the passing round of the hose which also represents a symbolic sharing. In this respect, it is of importance to mention here that many broadcast football amateurs, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, are also narghile (hookah) smokers.

A private and public practice.

The house and the café represent the main places where the above described specific conviviality of narghile emerges. From a domestic anthropology point of view, the kitchen is a real ritual nebula because it simultaneously feeds tea and coffee conviviality. One can see how the many gestures required for the preparation of the latter harmonise with those required by narghile (hookah) in a sort of ritual symphony where the woman and the man do not play a less inferior part than that of the conductor.

Revival in the East and Growing Popularity in the West.

Today, narghile (hookah, shisha) smoking is flourishing in societies of the Arab-Islamic world as well as in continents other thant Asia. In Europe and America, new coffee-houses, that we term "neo-Orientalist cafés", are opening out. Indeed, narghile (hookah, shisha) became, because of its specific and unique conviviality, the pretext for their emergence and looked for activity (ref. to relevant dedicated section of this site).