I am a Dr. Frankenstein, a creator of sorts; I have harvested liberally from the defunct bodies of those less fortunate in order to generate life. I look upon my progeny and confess that it has a face only a mother can love. In spite of, or rather because of its spurious legitimacy, I dote on my gaudy green waterpipe, made (so its faded label tells me) of the finest Bohemian crystal, its chipped body stained and sticky with overuse and inadequate cleaning, its now-tarnished stem and valves pathetically bereft of a tin of Brasso. I have plugged its ubiquitous air holes with bits of cellophane and cardboard in an effort to facilitate airflow. Its faded leather hose has become dangerously brittle and its many resultant cracks repaired with duct tape. The dapple-grey plastic mouthpiece has broken twice but is still serviceable when used backwards. It is truly a thing of beauty, but then again, love is blind.
When my waterpipe was but a twinkle in my eye, I secured a position as an archaeological site supervisor in Upper Egypt for several months. I flew into Alexandria, believing that Alex would be a logical transitional point between East and West mitigating the inevitable culture shock awaiting me in Cairo. Within hours of my arrival and imbued with a heady cocktail of jetlag, adventurousness and naïveté, I veered off the beaten path and found myself lost among a myriad of alleys which split from the main thoroughfare like the legs of a centipede, half-heartedly illumined with sallow neon lights and bare bulbs suspended by lone wires.
Like so many alleyways in Egypt, this one was also a makeshift tea stand where wobbly chairs (no two of which shared a common ancestor) stood precariously along each wall, where men in suits or galabiyyas came to discuss the events of the day over a glass of tea and a shisha (for such is the waterpipe called in Egypt). Behind me I could hear Alex freshly-awakened from its siesta, its traffic and promenading youth shaking off the fug of the afternoon heat, gathering momentum and volume. Before me, men sat in huddles, gesticulating with the mouthpieces of their waterpipes, voices raised in mock rage or laughter, while boys ran up and down the length of the alley, deftly bearing trays of glasses, foodstuffs fetched from other shops, or shavings of live embers to refresh a pipe.
The alley was filled with the din of conversation, the clinking of glassware and the sound of a lone lovelorn woman, her recorded voice rendered warbled and tinny by the archaic cassette player that stood in an open doorway, doubling as a doorjamb. I stood at the mouth of this Aladdin’s cave and gaped like an idiot.
I wanted in. But I was a khawagayya, a female foreigner, and before me were none of my kind. Would I be allowed to sit? Would I be offering offense, sowing discord by my very presence? Would I be transgressing some age-old code of male solidarity? Gathering what little resolve I had, I passed over the outstretched legs of a number of men who, startled, shifted awkwardly to make way for me until I found a vacant chair. Immediately a young man in track pants and a T-shirt appeared with a small table and a glass of water. I asked for a glass of tea, looked about me, and then paused. He paused. I pointed to my neighbour’s pipe and attempted to win him over with my pigeon Arabic.
“Mumkin shisha?” I asked feebly. Can I have a shisha? (well, sort of).
“Aiwa! Aiwa!” he cried. Yes! Yes!
My neighbours who had been watching me covertly up until that point made no attempts to hide their interest and apparent delight as my waiter told everyone in earshot that I had asked for a shisha. Chairs scraped as they were repositioned in my direction. All eyes were on me as my waiter carried the shisha over. I was the stage show. God, I was the headliner! From a brass dish he deftly removed the sizzling embers, breathing fire into the quickening night, positioning them on the clay cone that was filled with the treacle-sticky tobacco and stood back a few paces. The cone sputtered and hissed from the marriage of cool moist tobacco and glowing charcoal; within seconds a sweet perfume of smoke serpentined before my eyes. I took my first drag. I heard the intake of many breaths. Heads were cocked to watch me closer. I closed my eyes. I inhaled; I exhaled.
I neither coughed nor hacked up a lung; instead, I experienced The Rapture as the first rich hit of unadulterated molasses-flavoured tobacco began to undulate within my body. I felt myself billowing, if not swaying, in an ineffable awareness of bewildered peacefulness: two days’ worth of traveling stress was suddenly washed from my body. I opened my eyes and smiled.
“Good?” my nearest neighbour asked me in thick English, with a co-conspiratorial look in his eye.
“Kwayyis,” I answered in Arabic, “Good!” The men about me broke into peels of approving laughter. My neighbour slapped me on the back with a bear paw, which nearly sent me reeling onto the pavement.
“Tamam!” I added, “Excellent!” and I was a hit. Thanks, I’ll be here all week—don’t forget to try the fish.
I spent another hour or so drinking tea and chatting in the patois of travel: bits of whatever tongue worked, be it Indo-European, Semitic or body language. Fresh tea was served, more embers added to my pipe. When I eventually got up to leave, I realized that I had somehow lost my land legs so that the act of standing and balancing was not as simple a task as I had remembered it to be. Nobody seemed terribly concerned about my condition and I did manage to rappel out of the alley without falling. As I rounded the corner, I lurched against a wall and retched uncontrollably; remarkably nonplussed, I kicked dust on my roadside offerings and went on my way.
From Alexandria to Aswan I whiled away many the hour in swank coffee houses, impromptu tea stands, hotel patios—wherever a shisha glowed and the kettle was clanking on the fire. Men unquestioningly shared their waterpipes. With the exception of that first shisha in Alex (you always remember your first), none were sweeter than the shishas I shared with our site caretakers and staff. In their gracious company, we talked and laughed and smoked languidly at the door of the dighouse after their evening prayers. In the lengthening shadows of the Temple of Karnak, we would watch desert fox course the outer mudbrick walls, watch nighthawks and owls careen through the tall grasses, and listen as donkeys laden with fodder appeared out of the charred night, their drivers offering up a litany of greetings to us. Sometimes they would sit and join us; more often than not they continued on, their donkey’s little hooves never missing a beat.
On the penultimate day of my stay, with only a hundred or so last-minute errands to run, I ventured into the Khan el-Khalili market, once the largest caravanserai of the Islamic world and now Cairo’s largest tourist mecca, (second only to the pyramids at Giza). I had neither the time nor the inclination to comparison shop or negotiate for my “best price.” Nevertheless, thirty minutes later, after a considerable amount of haggling, I left the medieval district with three shishas (one to use and two for parts), and a goodly supply of tobacco which, when wrapped up and placed side by side in my suitcase, looked suspiciously like bricks of hashish.
My shishas are still with me in spirit although only one survives, a hopeful monster, an amalgam of my original three. My furniture is irrevocably permeated with the smell of Egyptian tobacco. I unabashedly enlist anyone I know traveling to Egypt to bring me back tobacco, which is, unfortunately, the weak link in this narrative. Shops who do carry shisha tobacco tend to sell the fruitier blends (apple, banana and strawberry, mint and, horror of horrors, cappuccino and licorice), tantamount to offering Juan Valdez a cup of butter pecan coffee. I sourced out Egyptian merchants in Montreal who will occasionally sell me a few packages of the unadulterated stuff clandestinely in their backrooms, and every once in a while I am able to track down a rogue shipment to a local Lebanese food store. It is all so sordid, yet so worth the effort.
I fear that my sources will eventually go up in smoke—I know that I must return to Egypt with a couple of empty suitcases for the mother-of-all tobacco runs. If successful, I could follow the trend of larger cities and open up a shisha bar—but how would this jive, I wonder, with our smoke-free sensibilities? Perhaps I would qualify for some level of government funding as long as I don’t use tobacco in my advertising. I’ll have to look into that a bit deeper. In the meantime, a new Egyptian restaurant has opened in town. I should pay a visit to the owner.
Copyright © Carolyn A. Thériault 2004. Title graphic: "Smoker" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.