Hooked On Hookahs

It's midnight in Paris, and the crowd is growing outside the Left Bank's Paradis de l'Orient cafe. "A half hour to get in?" complains one would-be patron. A cafe employee shrugs apologetically. Sounds of clapping and singing--and the smell of fruity smoke--waft into the street. Some decide to leave, but others choose to wait it out. The big attraction? The chance to smoke a bubbling Middle Eastern hookah pipe--and the glamour of being on the cusp of a trend.

Of course, the water pipes known as hookahs, narghiles, sheeshas or hubble-bubbles have been around for centuries. But the smoking experience that was once the domain of old men in Middle Eastern cafes is now attracting new and younger audiences all over the world. Cafes from Kiev to San Diego are offering hookahs to their patrons; Paris alone has more than 50 sheesha cafes with evocative names like the Bagdad Cafe and Salon Egyptien.

As more and more Westerners suck down tobacco laced with molasses and fruit flavors, some Arabs are making grand claims for the pipes as crossover cultural ambassadors. "We can see very well that there is no clash of cultures," says Tunisian-born cultural anthropologist Kamal Chaouachi, as he scans the diverse clientele in an Egyptian sheesha cafe in Paris. The narghile can introduce Western youth to Arab culture and "teach a lot in these troubled times," says Chaouachi. "It's really a bridge. The narghile is the peace pipe of the Middle East."

Keren Leiby agrees. A New York native, Leiby ran a popular Tel Aviv University program called Have-a-Nargila--a play on the popular Hebrew folk song with a similar name. The monthly campus gathering attracted students to get together over hookahs, tea and hummus. "Israelis and Arabs had [the pipe] in common and would smoke together," she says. "[They'd] shoot the breeze."

As hookahs take hold in the West they're helping to fuel a resurgence in Muslim countries, too. In Beirut, young Lebanese men and women smoke the pipes on the rooftop terrace of a Virgin Megastore and on plastic chairs they set up along the city's seafront corniche. In Istanbul, the pipe once virtually relegated to museums is gaining popularity with young Turks. And Baghdad boasts crowded narghile cafes where students experiment with new flavors. One favorite: cappuccino.

Not all Arab governments welcome the revival of the hookah. Jawad al-Lawati, a section head in Oman's Ministry of Health, says that narghile smoking is seen by some local officials as "an uncivilized habit" that risks denigrating the image of Omanis. Oman recently tried to ban narghile smoking in public places, but had to back down in at least one county after a lawsuit brought by cafe owners. Government spokesmen say the planned restriction was partly for health reasons. "[It's] a visionary political commitment," says Samer Jabbour, an epidemiologist and cardiologist at the American University of Beirut, of the antitobacco initiative.

Not surprisingly, smokers tend to disagree. "It's smooth, it doesn't irritate the throat," Michel Moriniaux, 27, says of the pipe, which can have as many as six smoking tubes passing through an urn of water to cool the smoke. Like many sheesha users, Moriniaux cites the popular notion that hookah smoke is safer than regular tobacco smoke because it is water-cooled and filtered.

Some scientists, however, suggest the opposite. One is American University of Beirut researcher Alan Shihadeh, whose preliminary findings suggest that sheesha users ingest about 100 times more lead from hookah smoke than from a cigarette. Doctors are also concerned that hookah smoking could raise the risk of lip cancer and that pipe sharing could spread infections like tuberculosis.

Others, however, believe that the unhappy Arab governments could be concerned about more than health. "There is a certain cultural shame among researchers from those countries [about hookahs]," says Chaouachi of his Middle Eastern counterparts. The anthropologist believes that politicians share similar reservations because of the perception that smoking the pipe is associated with indolence. Indeed, the central Egyptian province of Qena recently banned hookah smoking in coffee shops to deter people from skipping work.

Still, neither politics nor medical concerns are keeping Westerners away from the cafe experience. "It's superfriendly, it's convivial, it's a little exotic," says Constance Floret, 17, a Paris student who has joined the crowd outside the Paradis de l'Orient. It's an image-builder, too. When far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen wanted to show how cool--and multicultural--he was during France's heated presidential campaign earlier this year, he agreed to meet a French magazine journalist near the once-risque Moulin Rouge. The venue: the Aladin hookah cafe.