By Haider al-Yaqoubi, in Nasiriyah
As a pastime, the tobacco hookah is almost extinct. A hard corps of pensioners in Nasiriyah are keeping their habit alive.
Nasiriyah local Haj Abdul Khader al-Sharifi has been coming to the same cafe in his city, every day since 1971. He comes because it is just about the only place where he can smoke a tobacco hookah pipe. Most hookah pipes use a flavoured smoke but the tobacco hookah is different. It is also almost extinct.
Al-Sharifi stopped smoking cigarettes when he was 18 and started to smoke the tobacco hookah after that. He’s addicted and he knows it. “I cannot travel for more than a day because of my smoking habit,” he confesses. “But because of my old age, I only smoke twice a day now.”
In fact, he insists that the tobacco hookah is healthier than smoking cigarettes. The process of preparing the tobacco means that the dried leaves are washed and al-Sharifi says this means the nicotine is washed out. He believes that it even cures conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion.
Using other water pipes is worse for you, al-Sharifi insists, “because of the addition of flavours, chemicals and sugars. Tobacco is more natural,” he argues.
To smoke the tobacco hookah, al-Sharifi must go to the Haj Allawi Cafe in the middle of a central city market. Many of the other patrons seated on the traditional wooden benches are also elderly locals, many of whom also seem to be addicted to the tobacco hookah.
Smoking a complete tobacco hookah takes about 45 minutes and actually produces very little smoke compared to the more common water pipes.
A friend of al-Sharifi’s, Jamil al-Khuzai, arrives. He’s a retired policeman and he says he comes here every day because the tobacco hookah is good for him. “After every meal, I smoke a hookah because it makes me feel physically and emotionally comfortable,” he explains. “It helps with the feelings of anger and tension I have, ever since I stopped drinking alcohol 30 years ago.”
Al-Khuzai says he first smoked a tobacco hookah when he was 19 and did not enjoy it. “It almost made me faint,” he recounts. But he took it up again after he stopped drinking and he now smokes about three a day. However the 70-year-old insists he’s not addicted and that he could stop at any time.
“I can travel and when I do, I’m not worried about the hookah, even though I miss it,” he explains.
The cafe owner, Jawad Abdul-Khadhim, brings al-Khuzai the tobacco hookah he just ordered. He’s been preparing these pipes for 29 years and says that this cafe used to a cultural hotspot, but that a lot of the customers have died or left the city.
The tobacco is bought from a region in Karbala, where there are tobacco plantations. It is mixed with molasses and salt by the farmers before being sun dried. “We buy it ready like this and we only have to cut it and wash it with water several times before preparing it,” Abdul-Khadim explains. A tobacco hookah normally costs about IQD 1,250, or around US$1, he adds. “And I have seen him here,” he motions to al-Sharifi and laughs, “since I was a young man.”
Al-Sharifi is settling in to enjoy his addiction. He gathers up the smoking pipe on his legs, puts on his headphones and begins to browse YouTube on his phone. Finally he finds a song he likes: “It seems I’m getting old,” by Hussein Neama.