Nargile (Turkish Water Pipe)

Last Updated on December 11, 2022

The nargile (NAHR-gee-leh), or Turkish water pipe, is an old way of smoking Turkish tobacco.

Sometimes called a hookah or hubble-bubble by English speakers, and sheesha in the Arab world, the nargile was very popular during the Ottoman Empirefrom the 17th to the 19th centuries, but saw a fall-off in demand in the Turkish Republic as tobacco-lovers switched to cigarettes.

After World War II, it was mostly old men who smoked nargiles.

In the late 1990s a revived interest in all things Ottoman revived the nargile as well, and now it seems that younger men—and even some women—are enjoying its calming vapors.

The nargile consists of a glass bottle (şişe, SHEE-sheh) into which a metal pipe device is placed. The bottle is half filled with water, and a long flexible hose (marpuç) is attached to the pipe. Atop the pipe are a small metal tray to catch cinders and above it a small cup-shaped bowl (lüle, LUR-leh) to hold the tobacco.

Cool-dude modern smokers sometimes drop a glow-stick into the bowl when smoking at night, to give a soft mellow light to the bubbling water.

specially-formed plug of tobacco (tumbak or tömbeki) is placed in the lüle, and a glowing coal(mangır) is placed atop the tobacco, igniting it. (The coal is of a special type chosen for its long-smouldering life.)

The smoker attaches a mouthpiece (sipsi, SEEP-see, or ağızlık, ah-UHZZ-luhk) to the flexible hose, sucks on it, and draws tobacco smoke down through the pipe device, through the cooling water, along the flexible hose and into the mouth.

The tumbak or tömbeki is a special dark, strong,very high-nicotine tobacco grown near Antakya and Konya. Don't puff strongly as on a cigarette. Rather, suck the smoke gently and don't inhale deeply. The sucking should generate pleasant bubbling sounds in the water, which is part of the fun.

Okay, those are the basics. But "nargile culture" goes well beyond them. Like most smoking implements, nargiles became art objects:

— the bottle may be made of colored glass blown into graceful shapes, then etched or painted or otherwise decorated

— the flexible hose may be embellished with embroidery or beadwork or other woven handicraft art

— the mouthpiece may be of fine porcelain or—most popularly—precious amber, and might even be inset with gems

Antique nargiles are much sought after and priced accordingly. (Read the story of one in an excerpt from Bright Sun, Strong Tea.)

The down-at-heels old-men nargile café is being joined by the chic set as trendy Istanbul cafés add nargile service to go with their espressos and lattes.

—Tom Brosnahan

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