Shisha (hubbly bubbly) cafés
Surely no visitor to the Middle East can escape the fascination of the Shisha (Narghile, Hookah, Hubbly Bubbly, or Water Pipe) – and Sa’udi Arabia is no exception to its neighbours in this regard.
Whether you are a smoker or a non-smoker, a visit to a Shisha Café should definitely be on your agenda – preferably accompanied by a Sa’udi friend who can explain to you what is going on and what to order as many such cafés expect you to know what is on offer rather than present you with a menu and full explanation.
It is said that the Shisha originated some 400 years ago on the Indian sub-continent. From there it spread to Iran and thence on into different parts of the Arab world. Its smoke isn’t harsh or irritating like cigars and cigarettes, it being flavoured with fruit, molasses, and honey. The most popular flavour is apple, but you can also order strawberry, mint, grape, watermelon, melon, rose or liquorice.
Because the smoke is ‘filtered’ through water, many of the harmful constituents such as aldehydes, nicotine and others responsible for cancers are greatly reduced. Even if you don’t wish to smoke one, the aroma that fills the air from other smokers is truly evocative of the region and an experience not to be missed.
The use of charcoal in the bowl of the Hookah generates a rather high ratio of carbon monoxide, and it is for this reason that it is preferable to smoke in a well aerated place. Hookah does not filter all nicotine and tar but as a rough rule of thumb, a one hour session provides more or less the same amount of nicotine as is found in one cigarette. As for the tar, it depends on the size of the device, the freshness of the water, the frequency of inhalation and other such factors. Typically about half of the initial tar is filtered out. However, hookah tar is perhaps less dangerous than cigarette tar because the temperatures are completely different – around 100°C in the first case and 900°C in the latter; the more elevated the temperature the more carcinogenic the tar is.
So, with that health warning out of the way, it’s time for your waiter to start by filling up the base with water so the level reaches the bottom of the bottle neck. Next he will insert the shaft into the base and secure the tray on top of the shaft. A bowl grommet is then placed over the top of the shaft and the shisha tobacco is placed into the bowl. On top of the bowl there is a screen – as often as not simply some aluminium foil that’s been poked full of small holes. Lighting up is the last step. One of the waiters will come along with a bucket full of glowing charcoal and use the tongs to place a lump or two on top of the bowl screen or foil, and then take a couple of puffs to get the hookah smoking. Once it is ‘up and running’, he will then offer you a clean plastic mouthpiece and pass the pipe over to you. Every ten minutes or so he will return to make sure your charcoal is still burning, or else swap out the charcoal for a new piece.
As you smoke you may well wish to partake of some tea or coffee, or even try some of the special offerings such as sheep’s liver and pickled vegetables.
Shisha cafes aren’t purely for the elderly; in fact it is common to see whole groups of teenagers crowd the doors of a small café to go and sit on cushions spread out on the floor.
Riyadh is full of places in which you can smoke shisha, but my two favourites are out on the Dammam Road (some eight kms from junction 8. Turn into the service lane, go under the flyover and go back the way you came for a couple of hundred metres. There is a string of shisha cafés on your right. 24o 49.46’ N; 46o 47.78’ E)
... and out on the Thumamah Road - from junction 8 go north towards the airport, but take the next available exit signposted Thumamah. There's a huge shisha park at 24o 51.195' N; 46o 46.562' E