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The age of the shisha

By Faisal Hanif
November 29th 2012

Smoking a shisha pipe has become a favourite past time for young people of South Asian and Arab origin and for many it is the defining social norm of our generation.

One needs to look no further than Manchester’s Curry Mile to examine the impact that the Middle Eastern water pipe has had over the past decade.

Once a great enclave of Subcontinent cuisine the quarter mile stretch of road has been transformed into something resembling a boulevard of the Middle East.

Much like the apparent spontaneity of the Arab Spring which has overwhelmed and reshaped the world we live in, a similar wave of Arab culture has usurped this corner of Manchester turning the cultural experience on offer on its proverbial head.

More than thirty shisha bars and cafes have opened along the stretch and down its side streets and synonymous names from the Subcontinent like Mughal, Lahore and Islamabad now sit alongside Hadramut, Marrakech, Damascus, Beirut and Jaffa.

The Arab and Kurdish immigrants have not only brought their cuisines but also their smoking water pipes.

Such has been the popularity and impact of the water pipes that it is plausible to ask whether the “Curry Mile” is still an appropriate label.

Abdul Ghaffar who manages Sanam Restaurant and Sweet Centre established in 1968 believes so: “this will always be the Curry Mile because the Government gave us that name.”

His view, however, is not shared by Masood who has operated Caspian which specialises in Persian cuisine since 1991. “The shisha revolution has been good for us. It’s given the road a fresh lease of life. It should be called the foreign mile as we have lots of different cultures now.” In good humour he suggests that English people “need a visa to come in.”

Dilsoz Adam who owns the Damascus Café agrees about the name and in the midst of smoking his pipe confidently exclaims this is now the “Shisha Mile.” After a couple of inhalations of tobacco he changes his mind and with similar exuberance re-christens the surroundings: “it is the Arab Street!”
Dilsoz and his fellow shisha café owners might have good reason to be confident. The impact of what they have brought from their culture has been felt most visually on the Curry Mile however its social impact is much larger.
It is fast becoming a defining symbol for a generation of ethnic minority students and youngsters.
Rabar, a Kurdish IT student works in the Marmara Café. Better known as the Sports Café it has become a favourite amongst many shisha smokers. “On the weekend we get fifteen to sixteen hundred people coming through our doors each night. There are people queuing until four in the morning.”

As a visitor myself on several of these nights he is certainly not exaggerating and the impact that shisha cafes has had on social interactions and experiences is not lost on those who frequent them.

Sarah is one of these: an undergraduate at the University of Manchester she mentions how the smoking shisha offers an alternative to student norms. “Because most student activities are centred around consuming alcohol it is a good alternative for me and my friends who don’t drink to have a relaxing time in each other’s company.”

Amjad a former student working in engineering also mentions the allure of the overall experience. “To be honest I’m not overly fussed about smoking the actual shisha. It’s just more of an excuse to chill in a relaxed environment with the lads. When large groups of people gather in a space it can often get rowdy and lewd but its not like that here.”

The success story of Marmara and the Curry Mile’s shisha cafes is not unique and the popularity of shisha extends beyond their confines.

Bradford based Pasha has gone to great lengths to enhance the shisha experience. Lights imported from Morocco adorn the ceiling whilst a water feature of jagged rock and lighting gives the place an almost disco like quality.

Majlis in Leicester a personal favourite during my university days sits upon the roof of a furniture showroom. Large patio heaters keep customers warm as they recline on the soft cushioned sofas. Like Marmara they also have queues of customers to contend with into the early hours.

Whether the shisha craze persists to become a staple for immigrant populations depends on several factors. Early research suggests the harmful effects that smoking shisha can have on health and more recent noises have been made concerning the risk of infection that come about through sharing of a shisha pipe. There is also the possibility that many cafes could risk closure as a result of their contravention of the laws guarding the smoking ban introduced in 2007.

Whatever the future trend for many of my generation, the shisha will be an integral part of their youth. In observing the throng of people eager to find a space to sit and enjoy the experience, a friend poignantly described it as “The Age of the Shisha.”

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