I had my first sheesha in 2000, a few days after moving to the Middle East. This was before the Hookah Craze took America’s cities, and later its suburban cul-de-sacs, by storm.
Dubai in August. At nightfall it was still a balmy 115 Fahrenheit. My sweat was drinking Gatorade and toweling off. A new colleague took me to dinner and, afterward, a sheesha café. I consulted the menu and ordered cappuccino-flavoured tobacco. A few minutes later, a befezzed gentleman in white robe and red vest brought over two water pipes, set them at our feet. He took both wooden pipes in his mouth—without inserting plastic, sanitary mouth-tips—and inhaled furiously. The charcoal began burning orange and, after 10 or 12 deep inhalations, smoke was coming out of his nose and mouth like a car with a busted radiator. I calculated how many times a night the sheesha sommelier did this, and worried about his life expectancy.
I had a puff. Nice. It really did taste like cappuccino. My colleague enjoyed a raspberry-vanilla. This was relaxing, fun, cosmopolitan. I was urbane and sophisticated. I could acclimate to any culture in the world. I was a traveller, not a tourist. I was swimming in a pool of my own sweat.