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Up in smoke: Shisha on Edgware Road

After just five minutes of walking down Edgware Road from the tube station, you would be forgiven for thinking it is just another small high street in London.

The thronging traffic, hurried pedestrians and lines of busy retail outlets form a familiar London scene.

As you continue to walk, the distinct and musky smell of Shisha – also known as Hookah or a water pipe - will hit you.

Edgware road is ablaze with a culture of shisha cafes, where people are sat outside, next to their ornamental pipes, with their faces gradually fading into the plume of smoke that they exhale.

Spreading like wild fire

It is unsure whether the origins of shisha smoking lie in India, Persia or Turkey, but it has spread internationally and is smoked in North America, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa, by Arabs and non-Arabs alike.

The smoke – which comes in a wide range of flavours such as melon, strawberry and apple - flows through a single or multi-stemmed apparatus which contains a glass-based water basin.

Edgware Road is home to a strong community of Arabs and a muslim population. Ibrahim Ali, an Egyptian-born waiter serving customers at one such Shisha café, claims that Edgware Road "is the most Arabic area in the world".

He says that people of all countries and nationalities come to smoke shisha on Edgware Road and the England smoking ban, enforced in 2007, has not deterred fans of the pastime.

Mustapha, a student from Tunisia, says he smokes shisha to have a good time: "It's always good to sit with friends and have shisha.


Sometimes there are people who don't know shisha and I make them discover it and they enjoy it," he adds.

A piece of home

Mustapha says that there is a strong tradition of smoking shisha in his home country, making it an international leisure pursuit. It also means that people like Mustapha are able to find a piece of home whilst living and studying in London.

However, some research indicates that smoking shisha is harmful to one's health. The World Health Organisation found that the amount of shisha smoke inhaled in one hour is the equivalent to smoking between 100 and 200 cigarettes.

But the Guardian newspaper reported Dr Kamal Chaouachi -a tobacco expert who teaches at Paris IX University - dismissing this as being "alarmist".

Mustapha and the people sitting around him in the café do not seem to care. Ali tops up his pipe with charcoal as he sits back and inhales deeply.

Perhaps the overpowering aroma of grape brings him memories of his distant home, whilst adding an air of distinction to Edgware Road.

 

Words & Images by Monica Sarkar
Film by Stefania Barbaglio

Visit Edgware Road, London, W2.
Nearest tube stations: Edgware Road, Paddington or Marble Arch

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