After lunch, I wanted to smoke a hookah. Mohamed, our other guide, laughed. “You mean a shisha, my sister. What kind of flavor do you want?” Shisha (called a hookah in places like Turkey), is tobacco is soaked in molasses. Often, the molasses is flavored, I guess so it’s a little like dessert when you smoke it after dinner. It turns out there are a lot of shisha flavors. Apple, mint, and coffee are the most popular in Egypt, but I have also tried honey, cantaloupe, mango, raspberry, strawberry and new car smell (I’m kidding about that last one). It’s also fun to mix two or more flavors to create a new one, but that’s more likely to happen at the hookah lounges in Vegas than in a little outpost of hookah heaven in Cairo.
For about a dollar a person, the waiter will bring you a huge, standing water pipe, with the flavored tobacco of your choice on the top of the stand, and a hot charcoal disk on top of that. Most restaurant shishas have at least two pipes, long snaked hoses that end in cigarette filter mouthpieces. To share with others in the States, you get a plastic tip that you can take off and put on as the pipe is passed to you, but in Egypt they simply cover the mouthpiece with a bit of foil. This means you are fairly protected from the last group of people who smoked this pipe before you, but you’d better be comfortable with the hygiene of the ones you are smoking with now.
The important thing to remember is that, while you can inhale the smoke, cooled by the water that is the whole point of this method, an unaccustomed smoker (a shisha ingénue) can still get what those in the know refer to as a “harsh toke.” There is nothing more hilarious than seeing your mother trying to French inhale, when she hasn’t smoked in about 40 years, causing her to hork up a lung instead. I, on the other hand, occasionally imbibe a ciggy butt when the mood hits, so I am capable of holding my own on the shisha front. This mightily impressed Mohamed and Emil, who, in addition to the enjoyment of blowing smoke rings on a shisha, also shared a pack-a-day habit.
Eventually, this caught up with Emil, who had a heart attack and nearly died. Both he and Momo quit smoking, but only Emil, touched by death and knowing he narrowly avoided the rigor mortis dance, stayed the course. They both lost weight because of this brush with the Great Beyond, though, which of course only added to their pull with the ladies.
After lunch, we boarded the bus, with more music and dancing (and request for tips) accompanying our exit. Suddenly, those who have had a glass of wine or beer with lunch are dancing with these locals, feeling less intimidated than the rest of us, or else more in tune with the music. We all clap and take pictures and leave the restaurant very happy. And very full. Another chance to improve relations with the Middle East, another successful afternoon!