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Culture

Oriental Tradition Catches on in Berlin

Throughout the Arab world, the water pipe or "shisha" has been a traditional accompaniment to friendly gatherings since the 17th century. Now, it’s becoming increasingly popular in German bars and cafes.

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Water pipes are becoming popular in Germany.

BERLIN: "I first took a draw on a shisha a year ago, while on holiday in Turkey," Stephan says. Now the 25-year-old is a regular in the Shisha Lounge in the Berlin district of Friedrichshain.

Almost every table in the hip bar is occupied by a tall, ornately-decorated water pipe. It’s part of a trend that’s popping up in cool places throughout the capital. Brought to the city by Arab immigrants, the water pipe has quickly caught on among Germans.

Stephan’s colleague Sven got hooked on the Oriental water pipe: "I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t smoke cigarettes, but the shisha is something special. The cooled smoke is pleasant because it doesn’t tickle the throat at all. I also like the fruity flavor, and of course the sheer sociability of it all."

Importing an Oriental tradition

In the Arab world, the shisha (which is also known as the nargile or hookah), can boast a lengthy tradition dating back to the 17th century. Unlike the more common Arab imports, coffee and tea, the water pipe -- which uses tobacco flavored with molasses and fruit -- never really caught on in Europe. But that’s about to change as bars and cafes offering shishas to their guests spring up in Berlin.

More and more Germans are discovering the pleasures of the Oriental smoking ritual. The Iraqi owner of the Shisha Lounge is delighted by the recent upsurge of curiosity; but as an experienced gastronome, he’s careful not to place all his eggs in one basket: "What we’re offering here is a combination cocktail and shushi bar. The two go together very well."

Not just for men

Mreihil Amer, the Lebanese owner of the restaurant Babel, sees the water pipe as a luxurious complement to food and drink. "It’s simply very pleasant to spend an hour or two relaxing over a pipe after dinner or after work; that’s the best way for Europeans to understand this old Arab tradition."

With Oriental flair, and regular belly-dance performances, Mreihil Amer wants to attract a prosperous and sophisticated clientele. He rejects any suggestion that the water pipe is popular only among young people: "The shisha is now appreciated by guests of all ages and from all social classes. That includes lawyers and doctors. And it’s wrong to think of pipe-smoking as an exclusively male domain."

In his home country, says Amer, women enjoy the water pipe just as much as men. In the Arab world they just tend to smoke at home rather than in public, he explains.

A taste of home

For many in Berlin, smoking the shisha is more than just a cool trend; it’s part of their daily activities. This is especially obvious in the numerous tearooms and coffeehouses in the poorer quarters of Berlin which offer their guests a kind of home away from home. In these meeting places, the customers are almost exclusively of Turkish or Arab descent. Here, smoking the water pipe is a matter of course; the only things the German visitor might miss are alcohol, a chic interior -- and some female company.

German shisha fans such as Stephan and Sven have no desire for quite such an authentic environment. "I’m not really particularly interested in Oriental culture," says Stephan, who works as a computer programmer; yet he wouldn’t like to have to do without his shisha, and he may even buy his own someday.

Water pipes are available in a range of styles, and can be bought on the Internet or in specialist shops. The same goes for the various tobacco mixtures (which are imported mainly from Yemen) and the coal needed to light the shisha.

Although it’s too early to say whether the Berlin trend will catch on all over the country, Mreihil Amer is optimistic. "In ten years time, there will be more people smoking the water pipe in Germany than in Lebanon."

Ariana Mirza, © Qantara.de 2003
Translation from German: Patrick Lanagan

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