The High School Student News Site of The American School in London

The Standard

The High School Student News Site of The American School in London

The Standard

Shisha: London’s new habibi



In the late 19th century, Ottoman merchants were enticed to the ports of London, where significant trade between the two empires began to burgeon. The merchants took up residence in the southernmost part of Edgware Road. This would become the first of many mass Arabic migrations to London, especially to the Edgware area. Over the decades, in consequence to political unrest in African and Middle Eastern nations, more and more immigrants took up residence in London. With them, they brought their language, festivities, and – as has become more prevalent – their shisha.

Shisha is flavored tobacco that is smoked through hookahs, or water pipes. Usually nested in a pineapple head (as depicted below), the tobacco is vaporized by the charcoals on the aluminium head and the a base liquid that sits at the bottom of the contraption. With it’s abundant flavors and decorated pipes, “it’s like choosing your cocktail of choice,” Health Teacher Joy Marchese said, comparing the alluring, almost deceiving, appearances of alcohol and shisha.

In the last six years, despite recent heavy smoking bans, the number of shisha bars in major UK cities has increased from 173 to 556 according to Freedom of Information data. Most often associated with Arabic, especially Turkish, culture, shisha has become a popular pastime for the cosmopolitan population of London. Bit by bit, this ‘illegal-under-18’ hobby has trickled into the High School.

“I was walking down Beauchamp Place when I first actually paid attention to a shisha bar,” said Steven*. “I drive by Edgware Road almost everyday going and coming from school, so seeing someone smoking wasn’t a novelty, I had just never seen shisha smoked elsewhere other than densely-Arabic communities.”

Steven had always associated shisha bars with “strange looking guys” and the smell as “trashy, like Santa coming out the chimney.”

Today, though, he admits to smoking about once a week despite being 17. The fact that smoking any substance that includes tobacco is illegal does not phase Steven. Rather, he views shisha as, “A nice way to chill. Meet up with some friends, have something to eat or drink, and smoke. There are not many other places to do that.”

Shisha, Steven is convinced, has morphed from a cultural anomaly to a respectable hobby. Nearly 40 percent of students polled (out of a total 182) have smoked shisha, with most doing it quite regularly. Marchese believes that the lack of education about shisha is one of the factors of its rise in popularity. Shisha is not taught in Health class, nor has it ever been discussed as an issue within the community. “We need to create awareness and we need to educate about it,” Marchese said. “If [smoking shisha] is creeping into ASL then it’s becoming a trendy thing. I think it’s a big problem if it starts to become a trend.”

Nearly 75 percent of students polled believe that the rise of shisha is a result of smoking becoming more trendy. They attribute this to a number of factors: “Unique taste” and “identified with the Arabic culture” came up most often. Marchese believes that this mindset has increased shisha smoking among High School students. “When you see people smoking outside a pub, they are kind of like ‘dirty’ people smoking cigarettes. But when you see people smoking shisha, they look very poised and sophisticated. It’s a different perception that is an issue,” she said.

But shisha has no roots in the general Arabic culture, asserts part-time Arabic Teacher Ouma ALemadi. In fact, ALemadi elaborates, “I’m from the Arab world and I doubt it’s a [feature of] Arabic culture. It comes from Ottoman rule of the Arab states of today.” Today the smoking of shisha has been in part divorced from the general population: which is largely a product of increased knowledge of health consequences.

Steven believes his love for shisha stemmed from his heritage. “It’s part of the general Arabic culture that dominates [African and Middle Eastern] countries,” he said.

“People who smoke shisha in Lebanon are most often low-class, and they rarely ever serve it at general restaurants,” ALemadi explains.

Pressed with the undeniable Arabic presence of the rise of shisha, ALemadi concedes it is present in some parts of countries like Lebanon, but it is mostly due to the “cosmopolitan” hues of cities like Beirut.

While the shisha movement has only recently begun in European cities like London and Paris, the prevalence of hookah smokers in the Middle East rocketed a few years ago. Today, however, only embers are left. “Doctors have been more outspoken about the health effects of shisha; people understand how bad it is and that’s why they rarely smoke it,” ALemadi said.

Smoking shisha has taken on an unprecedented social role. A shisha bar is an ideal setting for meeting up with friends, at least so says the majority of students interviewed.

Lisa* was new to London and ASL last year. She had never smoked shisha prior to her arrival in Europe and she only started smoking shisha last year as a junior. She smoked shisha entirely for the sake of being part of a social situation. “I wanted to go out and do something with my friends. It was a very social thing for me,” she said.

However, while she was enjoying her evenings out with her friends at shisha cafés, she disregarded the health and behavioral connotations that accompany shisha. Lisa isn’t alone in this, though.

It was only when smoking one night that she started feeling“light headed and nauseous.” She realized shisha was taking a toll on her health. “My whole body was shaking and I felt numb. I felt like I was going to throw up. It was traumatizing,” she said. Since then, Lisa has sworn to never touch shisha again.

An hour-long shisha sitting – where the subject is continually smoking throughout this period, is the smoke-inhaling equivalent of 100 cigarettes. Though the number is quite shocking, it is an overlooked deterrent. “My parents always told me that, but in all honesty, it didn’t change much. Without knowing the numbers, I understand my health is taking a hit for my shisha hobby but – call it ‘teenage immortality’ or plain stupidity, I don’t really care,” Steven said.

Most students did not know that smoking shisha introduces burned aluminium into your lungs. This is one of the most virulent aspects of shisha smoking, argues, a website dedicated to educating the general public on hookah smoking, and yet, like a majority of shisha health consequences, is obscure an unhealthy number of students.

So what is it that prods the ASL administration to give more attention to shisha? The fact that it is hurting students at a rate that is easily comparable to the harm inflicted by cigarettes. A few years ago, the ASL High School had a severe problems with smoking, cigarettes that is. Dean of Students Joe Chodl concedes an unfortunate but “necessary” part of his job was to find students during breaks, such as lunch, and to administer necessary consequences. Bit by bit, most probably because of health education, hazards Chodl, student smokers became infrequent – the ‘trend’ died out.

But today, as a furtive new smoke claims the scene, it seems ASL needs to return to old habits. Education on the topic is scarce, confess both Marchese and Chodl – opinions backed by a 182-student survey where 50 percent of those polled stated they did not know shisha, or hookah, contained a heavy presence of tobacco and so was illegal for consumption under the age of 18.

It seems to be the sheer novelty of flavored smoke centered around open-air lounges (with a lack of general knowledge) that have helped shisha go from an unknown Edgware Road tendency to a popular, sophisticated hobby. But yet, if the Middle Eastern trend repeats itself in Europe shisha smoking will return to its roots and medical consequences will exacerbate the tropical-flavored smokes.
(Editor’s Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of students who wished to remain anonymous.)

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