Let my son and me teach you how to smoke

Anti-smoking legislation is about to snuff out Britain's emerging shisha culture

A little segment of multicultural Britain is finally about to be snuffed out. Thanks to the Health Act 2006, we will all be banned from smoking in enclosed public places from 1 July. I have no problem with that. But the ban will also kill Britain's emerging shisha culture; and shisha cafes throughout our fair isles will have to close their doors.

A shisha, for the uninitiated, is the Arabic term for a water pipe. On the Indian subcontinent, it is known as a hookah. In its simplest form, the shisha consists of four main components: a clay bowl used for burning tobacco, a shaft that connects the bowl to an ornate water vessel, and a long hose used to draw the smoke from the vessel to the smoker. The contraption can be quite elaborate, involving as it often does air valves, grommets and a variety of mouthpieces. It is fashionable nowadays for shisha tobacco to be scented (apple, mint and mixed fruit are popular), but, scent or no scent, the shisha smoke is exceptionally mild yet high in nicotine.

I learned to smoke the shisha in the mid-1970s in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. During the hot summer nights, I would drive with a friend to the outskirts of town to a spot known as Kilo 10. This was where the desert began and a number of notorious shisha cafes were located. We would sit under the Milky Way, puffing gently on the shisha and chatting with the Bedouins, and would often drift off to sleep to the gurgle of the pipe and the cacophony of crickets and lizards.

Shisha culture, however, is about much more than simply relaxing. Smoking a shisha is a communal activity. It has to be shared, passed from person to person, and enjoyed as a collective experience. It's also about understanding the nature of time; it promotes patience and tolerance, encourages the art of conversation and appreciation of good company. And this is exactly what shisha culture in Britain has been all about.

Shisha cafes first emerged in London about a decade ago. They were located mostly on the Edgware Road and were initially designed to attract visiting Arab sheikhs. Once discovered by young Muslims, they spread to the rest of the capital pretty quickly. Soon, scores of these cafes, managed by Arabs or Asians, created a niche for themselves in cities with large Muslim populations such as Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester.

During the past few years, shisha cafes have become the focus of a non-drinking Muslim youth culture. "Instead of clubbing," says my effervescent daughter, "we go shisha-ing!" But the youngsters go not just to smoke the shisha (though that is the main activity), but also to listen to Asian and Arabic hip-hop, sip endless cups of sweet mint tea, meet other young people, laugh, let their hair down and, most important, chat. Shisha cafes are the only public place where different types of Muslim come together under one roof. So Punjabis get to meet Gujaratis, Arabs meet Pakistanis, and everyone else meets the Somalis. In most cases, the younger kids come with parental approval, or with parents in tow. It's not the sort of thing that happens in a mosque, but it is not uncommon to see a few imams and mullahs mixing with the young crowd and blowing smoke rings into the air.

Shisha cafes are also one of the few places where Muslim youths meet non-Muslims and have a jolly good natter about multicultural Britain. Most non-Muslims who frequent these cafes have returned from travel in the Middle East or south Asia. Many are attracted by the hangover-free party atmosphere, Muslim music and exotic food.

Shisha cafes, then, had a lot going for them besides fragrant tobacco bubbles. Alas, they are about to disappear. The impact on Muslim youth culture would be equivalent to the effect of closing all the pubs in Britain. What could possibly take their place? I asked my daughter.

"Somehow, Dad," she replied, "I don't think puri parlours or kulfi clubs will cut the mustard."

So we decided to do our bit to preserve the British shisha culture. My son has bought a shisha and we intend to turn our conservatory into a shisha zone. I have been teaching him how to prepare a good shisha. It's an art form; smoking the contraption itself requires a modicum of skill. You need to keep the coals at just the right temperature to get a smooth, flavourful smoke.

Remember, I tell my son, a small pinch of shisha tobacco goes a very long way. A shisha requires respect and is best smoked in moderation. We will be ready by the time the smoking ban comes into force.

Come and join us!

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?