Blowing Smoke

Is hookah on the outs in Istanbul?

By / April 2013

In bustling Istanbul, sit-down cafés that offer hookah are as common as coffee shops in Rome or pubs in Dublin. For much of the Middle East, where alcohol consumption is taboo, the hookah pipe, called nargile in Turkish, has long provided an acceptable public alternative to the bottle and the leisurely confab of bars.

At first glance, the nargile strikes a rather unassuming pose. Its base is a curved bowl of glass filled with water. The slender neck, typically made of metal, holds flavored tobacco–apple, watermelon, and cappuccino among the most popular. On top, glowing coals smolder the leaves, dispensing smoke through the water filter and out a long, hose-like pipe.

Crude versions of hookah can look like nothing more than garage sale leftovers, an antique lamp crossbred with a bagpipe. More elegant styles may have brass or gold fixtures, delicate lines, and hand-carved wooden accents. The flexing pipes are often bejeweled and colorfully woven like carpets. In Turkey, nargiles are both works of art and historical artifacts. They speak of a time apart. A complex and rather clunky apparatus, the water pipe isn’t something that fits a pocket-sized, giga-fast future. It slows the pace, brings people together.

Inside the Bahane Café, a hookah joint in Istanbul’s Bakirkoy district, smoke billows and spills into the alleyway. Waiters streak between tables carrying live coals, orange with heat. At table, a group of young college girls huddle around a water pipe. Placing a hot cinder on the pipe, Ali Singa chimes in, “You can’t have a café without tea to drink and a nargile to smoke.”

But the Bahane and other cafés may soon have to figure out how to do just that. In January, the Turkish government outlawed the sale and use of nargile in all enclosed public spaces. Following on the heels of a landmark decision in 2009 to ban smoking in public buildings throughout the country, this latest legislation took dead aim at the nargile café scene.

Smokers can now incur a fine of $60, while cafés and restaurants can face penalties of up to $3,000. But century-old habits are hard to shake. And the café owners of Istanbul are considering an appeal. In the meantime, many continue to all but disregard the law. The day I first visited the Bahane, its confident 32 year-old owner, Fahri Gokce, sat defiantly on a stool at the top of the stairs overlooking the front entrance, a happy but rugged grin on his broad face.

“It’s pretty clear what we think of the law,” he snickered, exhaling a smooth stream of smoke. “I’m not afraid, because I’m not of the opinion that I’m doing anything wrong.” Gokce, like other owners in town, continues to serve whoever wants to smoke. Gokce has already received a number of fines. He says he now views them like his rent, water, and electric, necessary costs to keep the business going.

Down the road a block away from Bahane, Yesim Yeyin runs the ExiBir Café with her fiancé. “Fortune-telling is forbidden, cigarettes are forbidden,” she complains. “Now a prohibition on nargile. What else are we supposed to do?” Yeyin opened her small basement restaurant in 2011. She says she never would have taken the financial risk if she had known the anti-nargile law was coming.

Supporters of the law, including the Turkey-based Green Crescent Foundation, cite the health risks of nargile smoking. According to the American Centers for Disease Control, “a typical 1-hour-long hookah smoking session involves inhaling 100-200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette.” The additional smoke and carbon monoxide created by the charcoal is said to only increase the danger.

Hanifi Polat, a 46-year-old pizza chef at the Monaco Café, says the law is a positive step. “This is going to affect more than our business. It’s going to affect people,” he says. “They’re not doing this for our generation. They’re doing it to inoculate future generations.”

But the CDC findings about the hazards of hookah smoke have left some unconvinced. The law’s detractors call for more research. They insist that nargile is hardly as harmful as cigarettes and that the new laws are unduly harsh. “You carry cigarettes around with you all the time, smoking everywhere,” insists Gokce. “But the nargile, maybe you only smoke it once a week. You have to come in here [to the café] to get it.”

Since the 2009 anti-smoking laws were enacted, cigarette sales have decreased by 15% in Turkey. Over the last decade, the number of smokers in Turkey is also down 20%. Gokce says the nargile prohibition is having similar sway.

Hookah sales at Bahane have decreased by 70% since January. Gokce says he used to sell fifty nargiles a day; now the number is in the teens. Five employees have already been let go. Gokce is looking to expand his food offerings to stay afloat.

Whether or not the new law stands, Turkey’s smoking culture is in flux. The plumes that once filled buses, elevators, and restaurants, kindling both conversation and coughing fits, are already gone. Sensitivities have shifted. The law has followed. Cafés will soon close their doors. For better, for worse, centuries of hookah culture could be snuffed out in a few generations.


Brian McKanna is a contributing writer to EthnoTraveler.