Pipes of peace: Timeless Shisha ritual helps young Syrians escape the pain of war

Young Syrian men smoke 'nargileh' or waterpipes, which are popular among locals and tourists, at a traditional cafe in Damascus' Old City. AFP
Updated 09 June 2018
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Pipes of peace: Timeless Shisha ritual helps young Syrians escape the pain of war

  • In 2016, the World Health Organization urged Syrian officials to “control tobacco and shisha consumption
  • The hookah-smoking phenomenon has significantly increased among younger age groups in the past few years

DAMASCUS: A seven-year civil war that has left much of their country in ruins means solace can be hard to find for young men and women in Damascus.

But with an estimated 400,000 people killed in the conflict and millions displaced, younger Syrians are turning to a centuries-old ritual to help them forget the sorrows of everyday life: Shisha smoking.
Shisha pipes — water pipes used to smoke flavored tobacco — have a long history in the Middle East, but their popularity among youth in the Syrian capital has grown since the country’s descent into chaos in 2011.
At cafes, restaurants and swimming pools, young men and women can be seen crowding around the pipes amid clouds of smoke, chatting or lost in their own thoughts. Even the elderly have turned to the habit to forget their woes.
Central Damascus, a stronghold of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been relatively untouched by the violence elsewhere in the country, but the war still preys on people’s minds.

Legal
Smoking shisha pipes — also known as hookahs or argilehs — is one of the few legal ways for people to alleviate the strain and boredom that comes with living in a city largely cut off from the rest of the country.
Malak, a 22-year-old out with friends at the Bima Enno cafe in the Old City, told Arab News: “There isn’t much to do in Damascus now that we are trapped inside the city. I first tried hookah in 2012 and now I can’t imagine going out without the smell of its smoke.”
In 2016, the World Health Organization urged Syrian officials to “control tobacco and shisha consumption,” particularly among teenagers.
At an event to commemorate World No Tobacco Day the same year, Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO representative to Syria, warned that smoking shisha is 20 times more dangerous than smoking cigarettes. However, her warning appears to have gone unheeded.
Marwa Al-Naal lived in Damascus until last year, when she moved to Boston in the US. She told Arab News she became addicted to shisha smoking as a result of the civil war in Syria.
“When you ask people — myself included — why they smoke argileh or cigarettes so heavily, they say it’s a way to let off steam because they’re bored and the only thing they can do in their leisure time is go to a cafe and smoke.
“Argileh is being consumed in Damascus at unbelievably high rates. I have even seen pregnant women and children as young as 10 smoking.
“It has become a huge market, with tons of new styles and flavors to appeal to the public.”
The water bubble pipes can be found in spas, public baths and parks, as well as in seating areas outside cafes and restaurants.
They are banned only in shopping malls and inside cafes, where they are deemed to be a fire hazard.
Marah Al-Saleh, a Damascus-based psychologist, told Arab News the conflict in Syria has caused people even in the relatively secure confines of the capital to suffer psychologically.
“Hookah smoking is being used as a way to vent, and relieve anxiety and stress, but at the same time people tend to smoke because of peer pressure and the need to follow the latest social trends. The biggest proof of this is the minors we see smoking in public places in an attempt to mimic adults,” she said.
“The hookah-smoking phenomenon has significantly increased among younger age groups in the past few years.”
For Ali Asikria, a 24-year-old law student, smoking shisha is the best way to unwind after a long day at work and school.
“I make my own shisha at home, it is more economical that way,” he said. “Most cafes and restaurants charge 1,000 Syrian pounds ($1.94) to 1,500 Syrian pounds for one hookah and the sessions normally last 30 minutes.
With my salary, I can only afford to smoke hookah outside the house once or twice a month,” he said.


Displaced huddle in a basement as winter grips Syria

Updated 31 min 38 sec ago
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Displaced huddle in a basement as winter grips Syria

  • Some 40 families have found their way to Al-Bab after fleeing from their homes, a rebel-controlled area near the border with Turkey
  • Their food and other basic needs are provided for by local charities

AL-BAB, Syria: After washing up her family’s dishes over a plastic basin, 11-year-old Cedra sits on the floor of the dank basement in Syria to tackle her day’s studies.
A dark staircase leads from a street in the town of Al-Bab to the gloomy space the young girl, her blind father and some 40 other families have the misfortune of calling home.
“There’s a single room which we use as a kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom,” said Cedra.
She scribbled in her notepad, while crouched against a wall of bare cinder blocks and under a line of laundry trying to dry in the humid cellar.
The residents of this underground camp were displaced by the Syrian war, sometimes several times, mostly from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
Cedra’s family fled the city of Deir Ezzor in 2012, in the early stages of Syria’s conflict.
They took refuge in Raqqa, further west, but the city soon became the Syrian capital of the Daesh group’s self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
The subsequent bombardment of Raqqa, which was almost completely levelled, killed her mother and brother.
The girl and her father fled once more and eventually found their way to Al-Bab, a rebel-controlled area near the border with Turkey.
Cedra does not go school because she needs to help her blind father, but one of the other adults living in the basement has organized classes for her and a few other children.
The war has set her back years in her education.
“I’m learning how to write the letters, it’s only been a few days,” said the girl, wearing a thick, red sweatshirt and a black headscarf.
Each morning, Cedra makes the bed, tidies the room, makes tea and prepares breakfast before studying.
Then it’s time to prepare lunch, after which she plays with the other children before getting to work on dinner.
Blankets are piled up near a flimsy foam mattress in one corner of the small room. A handful of cooking utensils and a plastic broom are tucked away nearby.
“Life in this basement is not easy,” said her father, Mohammed Ali Al-Hassan, who hopes to return to Deir Ezzor.
“There is nothing to do here and no money,” said the greying father, who used to sustain his family by selling fruit and vegetable from a street cart.
A resident of Al-Bab made his basement available to the displaced in mid-2017. The space is now divided in 42 tiny “studios,” one for each family.
Their food and other basic needs are provided for by local charities.
“The initial idea was to have a temporary shelter for people while they look for a housing solution,” said Abu Abdel Rahman, who was also displaced from Deir Ezzor and acts as a kind of supervisor.
The place soon filled up and few of the families ever moved out for lack of affordable options.
“The smallest possible accommodation involves a rent of 100 dollars. Those you see here are those who can’t pay that amount.
“Here, everyone is experiencing a disastrous situation,” said the 59-year-old, who used to work in a textile factory.
Kneeling in front of a white board, a woolly hat pulled tightly down on his head, Abu Omar forms the letters of the Arabic alphabet, which his pupils recite in unison.
He lost a hand and the bones in his left leg were smashed to pieces after an air strike hit his home in Deir Ezzor.
Abu Omar’s disabilities left him unable to work but he teaches 13 of the basement’s children.
He said that number has dropped steadily.
“Many of them just have to go out and work. Because of their social condition, many families have to interrupt their children’s education,” he explained.
Umm Ghassak’s childhood came to an abrupt end when the war erupted and now, at 23, she is already a widow.
Her husband died of injuries sustained two years ago during bombardment on Albu Kamal, a former IS stronghold on the border with Iraq.
“We didn’t have enough money to treat him,” she said.
The young woman and her four-year-old daughter are totally reliant on the assistance they receive. “If nobody helps us, we just don’t eat.”