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Smoke and Water

Smoke and Water

 A favourite pastime of Saudis (and some ex-pats too) is that of smoking shisha. You might know the shisha pipe by one of its alternative names such as hookah or bong. In the UK it is sometimes associated with illegal cannabis smoking. Like our familiar cigarettes, cigars and pipes this involves the intake of smoke-filled air into the lungs. The big difference is the delivery method, as the smoke is filtered through water. A shisha pipe is used, and this is substantial affair and not easily portable. A Saudi one seems to be 2 to 3 feet tall so tends to belong to the establishment where smokers go, rather than to the smoker himself.

The routine – from my observation – requires a shisha-wallah, a person whose job includes servicing the pipes and selling shisha smokes. When a punter calls for a pipe, he will assemble one and fill the water chamber, or he may already have these made up. The smoker chooses what flavour he wants, and these seem to be fruit- or herb-flavoured tobacco mixes. These can be quite aromatic, and from a distance the smell can be quite pleasant in the way some of our pipe tobacco smells are. The tobacco is packed into the clay cup piece that sits above the water, and then a piece of tinfoil is placed over the cup and the edges folded down. Next, 3 or 4 holes are pierced in the foil, and small cubes of hot coal or charcoal are placed on top of it. As the coals are heating the tobacco, a fresh mouthpiece is attached to the hose end, and this is then handed to the smoker. The smoker draws on the air in the pipe which in turn creates a vacuum effect in the water chamber. The pipe from the tobacco end is below water level, so this in turn draws air and heat from the cup, burning the tobacco and the smoke is pulled down into the water where it bubbles to the top and then travels up the drawpipe to the lungs of the smoker. As it has been filtered through the water the air is cooled and ash and other debris remains in the water chamber. No doubt there are technical terms for all the parts of a shisha pipe, but as this is a popular way of smoking in a wide region from south-eastern Europe to mid Asia, there will be many variations. But the principle of the smoking will be similar. Some of the mouthpieces may have dry filters to prevent the worst of the toxins reaching the smoker, but this does not appear the be the norm. Smokers tell me that having a full cup of shisha tobacco is the same as smoking 20 cigarettes. Ouch! The shisha-wallah will attend the pipe from time to time and replace the cooled coals with hot ones, and when the tobacco is spent, will offer a refill, for a price.

Shisha smoking is very popular in KSA, and in many towns and cities the shisha house is the centre of social activity, in the way that the public house is in the UK. In the evenings it is easy to identify the location of a shisha house as there will be many cars parked haphazardly near to it, often restricting passing traffic to the narrowest of gaps. Maybe it was partly for this reason that the city of Riyadh cracked down on shisha houses a few years back and banned public shisha smoking from the city. Actually, they didn’t ban it per se but introduced a licence requirement for selling shisha and the cost of the licence was 300,000 riyals (I am reliably informed), which is approximately £60,000. So smoking was driven underground in Riyadh, or at least driven out of town. On all the main roads out of the city are dozens of shops that sell essentials for those going out of town, and a high proportion of their wares seems to be shisha paraphernalia. Riyadh’s Saudis now head off in the evening to the vast acres of tents that lie in the desert just outside the city limits and smoke to their hearts content. Many western compounds in the city sell shisha quite openly and presumably without a licence, however I have heard of raids where the police have entered the compound to check for such illegal activity.


Shisha pipe and its constituent parts

No doubt many Saudis smoke shisha at home, but it is much more sociable to meet friends at a shisha café. In addition to the acres of tents outside the city are some luxury hotels for the well-heeled who wish to smoke their shisha in an upmarket setting. It’s interesting how society adapts when an activity is restricted.

After an absence of eight months we have now had some rain in Riyadh. This is so remarkable that it is the subject of news articles, social media and the attention of the imams. Last Thursday at 06.00 there were additional early morning prayers in Riyadh and our local muezzins were in full cry for it. One of my Arabic colleagues explained that it was for special prayers ordered by the Grand Mufti to beseech Allah to provide rain. And the prayers were answered with the rains coming on Sunday morning. Perhaps it is entirely coincidental, but from last Tuesday onwards the BBC World News had been forecasting rain in central Arabia from this last weekend.

One of the local newspapers had an article on the subject. Arab News, Tuesday 30th October 2018: “Overnight downpour heralds onset of winter in Riyadh. An overnight downpour in Riyadh led to a drop in mercury in the Saudi capital on Monday. The maximum temperature nosedived to 22 degrees C on Sunday and 23 degrees C on Monday, the lowest recorded temperature thus far in Riyadh during this time of the year. The sky remained heavily overcast in the city and sporadic rain on Monday gave the metropolis a new fresh look. The showers heralded the onset of winter in the capital.

Starting with drizzle on Saturday night, heavy to moderate rain was experienced in the capital on Sunday.

Earlier the General Authority for Meteorology and Environment had forecast that various regions of the Kingdom including Riyadh would experience inclement weather that might continue till Thursday with the maximum temperature predicted below 30 degrees for the entire week.

Besides Riyadh, moderate to heavy thundershowers were forecast for Al-Qassim, Jazan, Asir, Al-Baha, Makkah and Madinah regions, whereas thundershowers preceded by dust storms , causing low visibility, were predicted for the Eastern Province, Wadi Al-Dawasir and Hail region.

Following the forecast, the Directorate General of Civil Defense issued an alert about inclement weather. This was sent via text messages in Arabic and English advising people to stay away from valleys and water pools.

The Traffic Department also advised people to drive carefully and avoid speeding.

However, city dwellers were happy with the welcome change in the weather that gave a much-needed respite. They are enjoying a tryst with winter after a long summer.”

This was followed in the paper by a commentary piece. “Blessing - #RainInKSA   [Twitter symbol] The Arabic hashtag “How does rain make you feel?” was trending in Saudi Arabia on Monday after several cities across the Kingdom received rain. As it is such a rare occasion in our climate, people living in the Kingdom get excited with even a drizzle. People did not miss the chance to express their feeling about the current weather and took to social media to share their thoughts.” They then printed a range of tweets from twits with the following messages: “So happy”; “The rain and I are friends”; “When the weather becomes beautiful, people are in a wonderful mood”; ”The best feeling ever”; Rain is love…life!”; “It’s amazing how the rain can make people that happy…Rare things always have the full impact on a person…It can be life changing”; It is a nice feeling when you look at the rain from the window of your room or when you go out to the street to walk under the rain”; and “Best feeling ever”.

That was Tuesday’s paper, now this is now Wednesday’s excerpt.

Arab News – Wednesday 31st October 2018: “Severe weather in Saudi Arabia kills 14.

Fourteen people have been killed in the extreme weather conditions in Saudi Arabia over the last two weeks. The Kingdom has been hit by heavy rain and thunderstorms and officials said this year has seen some the most extreme weather conditions in decades.

The Directorate General of Civil Defense said one of the deaths occurred in Riyadh, four cases were recorded in Makkah, two in the Eastern Province, one in Asir, one in Tabuk, three in Al-Baha, one in Jazan and one in Hail.

Since Oct. 19, the Command and Guidance Center in Riyadh has received 423 requests for help from the civil defense, as the heavy rain affected 13 areas of the Kingdom, SPA reported.

Civil Defense forces rescued 299 stranded people, including 115 in Makkah. Most of those needing help were trapped in their vehicles, of which 88 people were evacuated and 282 cars were towed.

The General Authority of Meteorology and Environmental Protection warned of further bad weather with rain throughout the Kingdom, and winds and lifting dust in some areas.

Undersecretary of the Ministry of Water, Faisal Al-Subaie, said Saudi Arabia usually witnesses thunderstorms ranging between medium and heavy during this time of the year, but this year the storms have been particularly severe.

Al-Subaie said several municipalities had deployed teams to drain the excess water and clean the fallen trees and debris off the streets.

The Civil Defense has called upon citizens and residents to take precautions and not go near flooded areas or wadis, which are likely to flash flood in heavy rains.”

So, be careful what you wish for!

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