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Posted 19 December 2003 - 18:47

"Ye Pipes, Play On" By Stephen Kinzer

Ye Pipes, Play On

Time seems to slow in the smoking salons of Turkey

ON ONE OF MY FIRST VISITS TO A NARGHILE SALON, WHERE Turks gather to smoke water pipes, I met a seventy-one-year-old pensioner named Ismet Ertep. He and the men who gather every afternoon at this salon beside the Bosporus, along with the few women who join them, are heirs to a centuries-old tradition. Their worlds revolve around the soft sound of bubbling water; the sensation of drawing filtered tobacco smoke through long curled tubes, and the love of contemplation and understated camaraderie.
"Smoking a narghile is nothing like smoking a cigarette," my new friend told me when I asked him to explain the attraction of this vice. "Cigarettes are for nervous people, competitive people, people on the run. When you smoke a narghile you have time to think. It teaches you patience and tolerance, and gives you an ap- preciation of good company. Narghile smokers have a much more balanced approach-to life than cigarette smokers."
My travels in Turkey confirm these observations. Every time I arrive in a new town, I seek out the narghile salon. It is the ideal place, even better than the barbershop, to discover what is hap- pening and what local people are thinking. The pace in these sa- lons is slow, and time is plentiful. Usually there is not much noise.
Conversation is only occasional, always soft and punctuated by long pauses. The sound of dominoes being played or backgammon tokens being moved is often all that competes with the pipes' gurgling. Some patrons work absently on crossword puzzles and others seem lost in reverie. No alcohol is served, only tea and sometimes coffee. Open windows keep the air fresh.
After a while I realized that I enjoy narghile salons not just be- cause they are good places to take the local pulse but because the sensation of smoking a water pipe is so seductive and satisfying. It starts when the elaborate hookah is placed before you, its bowl cleaned with a soft cloth and then filled with damp tobacco. Some patrons choose strong Turkish tobacco grown on plantations near the Syrian border, but I prefer aromatic apple or cherry blends im- ported from Egypt and Bahrain. After an attendant fills your pipe with the weed of your choice, he comes by carrying a copper tray piled with burning coals. He picks up a couple of them with a pair of metal pincers and sets them atop the tobacco plug. With a few puffs, you are under way.
It takes at least half an hour to smoke a pipeful of fruit tobacco, even longer for the more potent stuff. The smoke is noticeably cooler than cigarette smoke, and lightly intoxicating. Before long the water begins to turn brown; smokers say it is filtering out many of the harmful substances they would normally be inhaling.
Perhaps no habit is associated more closely with Turks than smoking tobacco. Herman Melville reported walking along Istanbul streets lined with caf&s where "Turks sit smoking like con- jurers." By the nineteenth century, when he visited, narghiles had become an important sign of trust, and withholding it could be taken as a serious insult. In 1841 a diplomatic crisis broke out with France when the French ambassador demanded a formal apology for not having been offered a chance to smoke with the sultan during a visit to the royal palace.
Today smoking is not only acceptable but almost mandatory in Turkey, especially for men. "A 'manly man' is one who is brave, loud, virile, does not hesitate to fight for what he believes in, does not show his emotions or cry, and knows no fear," the social historian Arm Bayraktaroglu wrote in a treatise on the Turkish psy- che. "He usually has a mustache, and drinks and smokes a lot."
Narghiles were first used in India, but they were primitive ones made from coconut shells. From India the custom spread to Iran and then to Turkey, where it flowered. A separate guild of crafts- men was established to make each of the narghile's pieces. The mouthpiece is traditionally made of amber, the tube of fine leather dyed in different colors, and the sphere that holds the water of glass, crystal, or silver, sometimes decorated with floral motifs or other designs. In olden days the water itself used to be scented with perfume or herbs, but that custom has faded.
Turks took to smoking narghiles almost immediately after the first tobacco leaves arrived from America in 1601. Smoking quickly became a craze. People indulged at home, at work, and in caf6s. "Puffing in each other's faces, they made the streets and markets stink," wrote the contemporary historian Ibrahim Pecevi.
The authorities were not pleased by this development. At narghile caf6s, then as now, people do not just smoke. They talk. In a society where the sultan's political power was supposed to be absolute and submission to it unquestioning, the specter of leisurely social gatherings where the topics of the day would in- evitably be discussed and debated was unsettling. Ottoman rulers did not like being unsettled, and in 1633 Sultan Murad IV issued a decree that banned smoking on pain of death. An underground immediately took shape. Those afraid of being traced by smoke re- sorted to inhaling the aroma of chopped leaves. After fourteen years the ban was finally lifted. Tobacco soon became one of the empire's main exports, and Pecevi concluded that it had joined coffee, wine, and opium as one of the four "cushions of the sofa of pleasure."
No one believes the narghile will ever regain its supremacy in the tobacco world. Indeed, logic suggests that the narghile salon should be a dying tradition in Turkey. The atmosphere inside is distinctly Oriental, the pace leisurely to the point of torpor. With Turks now turning ever more decisively toward Europe and modernity, they might be expected to shun such places. But although the number of salons is slowly declining, the tradition will not die. Every year brings a new crop of pensioners who have the time and often the desire to spend hours in quiet reflection. On some evenings I even see college students and other young people sitting and puffing. They embrace an experience that is at once solitary and convivial, that evokes nostalgia but also inculcates the values of peace, dia- logue, and tolerance that today's Turks must absorb if their nation is to fulfill its destiny.
In days gone by, some smokers used to fill their narghiles with illicit drugs. Some still do. I know a small hotel in Istanbul where there is a secret back room that the owner opens for friends and special customers. There they don rich Ottoman costumes, sit on embroidered velvet cushions and smoke a blend of fruit tobacco and hashish. The pleasure of such an interlude approaches that en- joyed by the sultans, who smoked a special mixture of opium, in- cense, and crushed pearls.
"The important thing is not what you put in the pipe but who's with you when you're smoking," a sailor I met in one salon told me. "It's a complete experience. In a caf6 like this one you find the good people, the old people, the interesting people. As long as there's a need of company and friendship, as long as people want to stop and think, there will be narghile caf6s."

Stephen Kinzer also contributed "A Dazzling Kaleidoscope" in Part One. This story was excerptedfrom his book, Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.

"Ye Pipes, Play On" By Stephen Kinzer

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