|I smoked this classic Middle Eastern tobacco after a hearty meal that included a large flakey turnover stuffed full of seafood, a slice of almond-flavoured pound cake, and thick Turkish-style coffee that you could stand up your spoon in. Feeling wonderfully sated, I ordered a water pipe to be brought to my table, and proceeded to have an unusual and extremely agreeable experience.
A water pipe, hookah or narghilé is essentially a bottle with two tubes shooting out from it. One is connected to a large clay bowl that holds the tobacco, the other to a hose, through which you suck the smoke. As you take a drag, the smoke is forced through the water that fills the bottle, and is thus cooled and filtered.
The attendant in charge of the pipes brings one to you ready-loaded, lights it by placing a number of small briquettes DIRECTLY ON THE TOBACCO, and thereafter tends it for you. All you do is enjoy!
The charcoal briquettes?must be charcoal made from wood, otherwise the carbon monoxide would kill you!?are red-hot embers placed directly on the tobacco and left there as you smoke. The charcoal is usually made from orange wood or casuarina, and has an exquisite smell in and of itself.
If you rested lit charcoal on the kind of pipe tobacco that we pipe smokers normally smoke, it would be consumed in short order. Accordingly, water-pipe SHISHA [tobacco] is especially emulsified so that even with the coals on it, it burns slowly. The preferred emulsifier is MOLASSES, which is what MOASSEL means. In the box, this tobacco has the look and consistency of red Sauerkraut, being long, thick ribbons absolutely DRENCHED in pure sorghum molasses.
After the pipe attendant places the briquettes on the clay bowl brimming with shisha, all you do is puff on the hose. As with meerschaums, the smoke is so cool and dry it is a little disconcerting. You do not feel the taste on your tongue so much as up your nose, and on your lips, as you lick them. It is a mild, smooth, sweet taste. The pipe itself lets off a delicious perfume of burning wood, and the unmistakable smell of sorghum molasses. Very appetising. My companion made positive doe eyes at me.
You can pleasantly puff on this as you would on any pipe. But the native babbus have another way of doing it. They drag in deeply, filling their lungs to the utmost. This produces a serious amount of smoke, but no noticeable sensation in the lungs: the tobacco is water-filtered. Where you feel the taste is in the centre of your head, at the end of your nostrils: a fruity, charcoaly taste that I found deliciously exhilarating.
I puffed slowly and relaxedly, careful not to hyperventilate, and did not have even a hint of light-headedness. What I did experience, though, was Major Relaxation. I loved it.
Whilst Iranians usually smoke their own varieties of exclusively Oriental tobacco?not Nicotiana?in their hookahs, Turks and Egyptians blend their own Nicotiana orientals with home grown Virginia leaf. The Eastern Co. is the official tobacco monopoly of Egypt, founded in 1920 and 80% owned by the government. It not only produces a large selection of flavoured SHISHA (I have had an Apple-flavoured one that was quite light and syrupy) but also cigarettes, cigars, toscani, NEPHA (snuff) and a variety of well-known Western pipe mixtures under exclusive license. Once, in Italy, I smoked Egyptian THREE NUNS (probably contraband) and it was very good.
MOESSEL SALOUM (also transliterated Mu'essel Salloum) is considered "natural", non-flavoured. The molasses, like humidity in a Western tobacco, is an emulsifier, and not, according to the cognoscenti, a flavouring agent.