Middle Eastern cultural norm makes for popular hangout

Before I even have a chance to look around the room I am welcomed with the numerous aromas of shisha tobacco. It’s hard to differentiate between any of the smells. It kind of smells like watermelon, no it’s a muskier scent. Perhaps it’s a mix of fruits?

When I’ve finally overcome the scent my eyes adjust to the scene. Maroon-coloured couches decorate a dimly lit room. There’s probably only a dozen or so individuals chatting amongst each other, or sitting alone in one of the corners smoking away.

Café Med is one of the well-known shisha bars in downtown Calgary. Located on 1st Street and 10th Avenue S.W., it’s a regular hangout for individuals.

Now you may be thinking what’s the difference between regular cigarette tobacco and shisha? Well I’ll tell you. One of the main differences is that the tobacco associated with shisha is wet, and it uses coals to be heated instead of being lit like a regular cigarette.

The bottom of the hooka is filled with a bit of water, and the pipe is attached to the side of it. On top of the hooka sits a small ceramic bowl. Within the bowl you would normally place the wet tobacco and cover it with aluminum foil. The aluminum foil is then punctured with a few small holes. I place a hot piece of coal on top and start smoking.

A single pipe usually costs about $17, but can be shared amongst people.

Although within many cultures individuals around 15 or 16 years old do smoke shisha, Calgary requires you to be 18 or older to smoke within these special bars.

Most nights, the café is usually packed with people in their early or mid twenties. Once in a while, you may catch some of the older folks, who are in their early forties or older, stationed around during this time.

A hooka with burning coals placed on top of a table at Café Med.

Photo by Mahroh Afzal Looking out the window, I see Café Medina, another shisha bar, which is located right across from Café Med. Further down the road is where Buzzards Restaurant and Bar is stationed. Business looks slow, then again not many people go to shisha bars on a Monday afternoon. Of course this works in my favour since I have numerous papers I have to write, and won’t have to worry about any distractions.

After a few minutes pass by, a waiter finally catches my eye and walks on over with two menus placed gracefully under his arm.

“Hey how’s it going?” he asks as he hands me one of the yellow-coiled menus.

“Not too bad.” My eyes skim over the menu.

“Are you by yourself?” He’s about to place the other menu on the table. I tell him yes and he quickly retracts his hand.

I already know what I want without having to look at the menu.

“Can I get a bluemist, cola, and a ginger ale,” I ask, handing him back the menu.

He walks to the back to start on my order.

A faint bell announces the entrance of an older man in a black trench coat. He looks over at me and smiles while he proceeds to walk towards the worker who just took my order.

“As-salamu alaykum!” I hear him shout at the worker. It’s an Arabic greeting, which translates to “peace be upon you”. The worker quickly turns to face the man and laughs as he replies “walakum asalam” (and peace be upon to you) in a much quieter tone.

The two ends up shaking hands, which then leads into a hug. I can faintly hear them speaking in some sort of Arabic dialogue. I’m not too sure as to what they are saying but it sounds pleasant nonetheless.

Numerous hooka pipes hang up on a wall as they await their next use.

Photo by Mahroh Afzal Two more women walk in and sit on the other side of the room towards the back. Behind them is a desk filled with about 20 or so hookas. Most of them are neatly wrapped up with a blue-coiled pipe.

The women themselves look like neither of them come from a Middle Eastern background but they seem to be quite familiar with how the process works. They do not need to look at the menu and end up ordering right away.

When smoking shisha it’s easy to tell who smokes quite frequently, and who has just started.

I watch a young man in business attire as he takes the pipe from his friend’s hand. He puts it to his mouth and I watch as he inhales. The water at the bottom of the hooka starts bubbling. Gradually and effortlessly the young man starts to exhale. A cloud of thick grey smoke escapes his lips.

It comes out all at once, and at first I’m taken aback as to how much he’s actually exhaling. I watch the smoke dance above his head for a bit before it is swept away by the air vents.

The blaring of an older Arabic song snaps me back to my senses. The worker laughs as he apologizes for the scare and turns down the volume.

I slowly pack up my things and go to the back to pay. Compared to Friday nights, Monday afternoons are a better choice if you wish to find a table.

What started out as a cultural norm for a lot of Middle Eastern people has become a popular, casual trend for numerous people. It’s amazing to see how some individuals, who may not even know where it actually originated form, have gathered in this small, room, surrounded by other strangers who have accepted this form of cultural hangout.

mmohammadfzal@cjournal.ca