There is a fine balance between protecting a population’s health and fostering cosmopolitan culture.
Not much beyond an opium den can conjure the notion of “exotic” quite like a hookah. Lews Carroll stuck one in the caterpillar’s clutch to bring a place called Wonderland to life. George Lucas gives one to Jabba to evoke an especially remote nook in a galaxy far away. To walk down a street and catch a distant hint of sweet coffee and delicate apricot smoke as a door bursts open, punctuated by the frantic clamor of Arabic conversation, is the height of what it means to live in cosmopolitan neigbhourhood. The hookah café has become a casualty of municipal smoking bylaws. Hookah, shisha, nargile, cigars, Chevy Impalas, Royal Canadian Legions—there are exemptions to every urban smoking bylaw in the world.
A cosmopolitan city needs shisha cafes as much as it needs creaky old carousels, Irish pubs and naked Baptists preaching about the apocalypse in barrels and suspenders. You may not personally ever need stop and consume such things, but the possibility they stir up is all that separates Wonderland from Any City, USA.
It’s worth emphasizing that a hookah is neither a hijab nor a Kirpan. It is not an essential expression of one’s cultural identity. Nor is it religious. (In fact, more traditional interpretations of the Koran have little room for shisha and the progressive questioning of authority that emerges in café culture.) On top of that, smoking shisha is not especially safe. Inhaling anything beyond unpolluted air is unsafe.
The thing about the old-school tobacconist and the shisha café, the thing that makes them worthy of exemption, I think, is delicateness. While stale cigarette smoke that gathers in a bar over time comes to feel like death—in these other places there is a sweetness. Dried fruits and spices, nuts and distant floral notes you can’t quite put your finger on. Clouds of shisha smoke hang differently in the air than cigarette smoke. There’s a silkiness. There are long winding hoses, pipes and vases and bowls and special charcoal and a whole practice to managing heat for best effect. You feel all four centuries of the tradition. This equates to a calmness, which one doesn’t find in rush hour or fast food drive thrus and big box malls.
A community develops around these places.
There was a cigar store in my hometown called Cavendish & Moore. You could walk by Cavendish & Moore ten times a day and not know people were smoking inside. They don’t sell cigarettes. The people in this place despise cigarettes. Cigarettes are thoughtlessly mass-produced by billion dollar multinationals. Tobacco, on the other hand, requires a connoisseurship rivaling wine. It’s agriculture. It’s craftsmanship. It’s tradition.
The humidor is exactly 16.5C with 65% humidity. If you were to take one of the more temperamental Cubans outside, they’d be ruined by the cold arid air in less than a minute. Every cigar in the humidor is shaped the way it is for a reason. Some were designed centuries ago to be smoked between acts at an opera, others for the commute. To smell one is to smell a regional microclimate of a country that many in the world are banned from visiting. It’s about terroir. Of things imparted on the palate. About Einstein, Freud, Wilde, Churchill and El Caballo. There’s a Rolodex at Cavendish that looks like a ferris wheel from a Jeunet film. Its appearance struck me as a kind of alternative cerebral cortex of the city. Sixty thousand cards, each noting the specific way a customer likes their blend. It’s littered with names like Doc Severinsen, Jerry Seinfeld and Whoopi Goldberg.
Likewise, I don’t meet Syrians anywhere but the shisha café, not in such a way that they are going to open up and tell me what it is like to be from Damascus living in a Canadian city. There is a generosity in such places that doesn’t exist at the average restaurant or on the commute home, where making eye contact constitutes some mutual act of voyeurism. These are vital places.
A Royal Canadian Legion, for instance, is—and bloody well to the end of eternity should be—a smoke-filled room. It’s bad etiquette to send citizens to war, then tell them after that smoking might be dangerous. Not to mention that in a society as young as Canada, the legion is as definitive a cultural institution.
When the smoking bylaw threatened to include these cultural institutions, I phoned a progressive member of city council, most active in fighting for the ban.
“It’s a difficult one because it’s changing Canadian culture as well,” she told me. “We don’t want to homogenize the city. But because bylaws are often challenged in court, they have to be seen as impartial and defensible. If we exempted a business because it’s cool, because it’s culturally interesting then I imagine most businesses could come up with a similar argument.”
How do you tweak the bylaw? One approach has been to ban non-smokers from smoking establishments. IE: you are exempt by only selling tobacco. Or at least, a certain % of sales must be tobacco (from 50% to as much as 100%), which means hummus and apple tea come off the menu. A cut your nose to spite your face approach.The second approach, the approach the shisha café and the tobacconist have already started to take, and the reason Legions are currently exempt, is to restructure as a private club; customers pay monthly dues, sign waivers, hold sporadic meetings. The private club keeps the bylaw strong and without holes, it lets us have our tobacco and smoke it too.
It also ghettoizes the experience.
On one hand, I believe these are things that the imbiber must seek out, but you must also be able to stumble down the rabbit hole too. It’s a small point, and I wonder myself if this is too much to ask.
What I want, I guess, is to agree on a mechanism of exemption. Not just with respect to tobacco. Because I want weirder zoning too. I want to live in a city where pedestrians have to weave between café tables on the sidewalk. Patios that ooze onto the road. A bylaw should include a council of citizens with the power to make extraordinary exemptions. The council should consist of a tuba player, a twelve-year-old girl who has never lost a game of hopscotch, a mad scientist, a sommelier, a Chinese fish monger (because Chinatown gets it), a guy who restores old Volvos and some cantankerous lady born in the 1920s, who remembers nice buildings and colorful places. And let the chips fall where they may.
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Emirates has announced that it plans to trial new shisha lounges aboard its A380 fleet. In a statement released this morning, the Dubai-based airline revealed that the lounges would be available to business and first class passengers on several of its long-haul routes flown using Airbus’ superjumbo:
“Alongside unique offerings such as our Signature Spa and Onboard Lounges, with our new Signature Shisha Rooms premium customers will be now be able to relax amid luxurious surroundings with a traditional waterpipe,” the airline said in a press release.
“This new service will provide our Middle Eastern passengers with the sort of home comforts they’ve come to expect on our award-winning airline, while presenting those flying to the Middle East for the first time with the opportunity to sample one of the true tastes of Arabia before they’ve even landed.”
According to the statement, passengers will be able to pre-order a shisha from the onboard menu while at their seat and retire to the lounge after the main meal.
Emirates added that, should the trials run smoothly, it hopes to have the shisha service operational across its entire fleet of A380s by the year end.