"You know what I like about this place? Everybody comes here. Arab, Christian, Greek, Australian, everybody comes to Marmounia to pull shisha. And why? Because it's just so good!"Ali Al-Amoud, patron.
Marmounia Lounge in Queensway, London erupts into loudly appreciative cries. Brightly coloured shisha pipes are raised in salute and hazy circles blown to Ashraf Yaseen, the manager as he changes the track and sultry songstress Shakira huskily belts out that her “hips don’t lie”. On the lounge next to me, two smoky eyed Norwegian blondes raise languid arms and shake their bodies in fair imitation of belly dancers to rapturous cheering from their party who enthusiastically sing along and clap out the rhythm. My Norwegian friends are firm advocates of the pleasures of shisha. They’ve been at it for the past three hours.
Ashraf Yaseen laughs indulgently at his patrons, “we used to have real belly dancers here and we will again. It doesn’t even matter. See we are as packed tonight, a Tuesday as we are over weekends”. And then he’s excusing himself and rushing away to greet a group of regular customers who have entered the lounge and ushering them towards the comfortable couches.
Ancient Water Pipe
Shisha, also known as hookah, nargileh or hubbly-bubbly is an ancient water pipe that originated way back in the Middle East, Turkey to be exact. It was made for smoking specially prepared tobacco while relaxing with friends and was hugely popular for centuries throughout the Eastern cultures. With the advent of cigarettes however, the water pipe lost its popularity but is now firmly back in rage thus leaving me free to enjoy the rich fruity aromas permeating the air, relaxing and liberating.
If you’ve never smoked shisha, it’s less harsh than cigarettes. The tobacco sits in a little clay pot on top of the pipe, covered with a piece of tinfoil on which pieces of glowing charcoal are placed. When you suck at the pipe, air is drawn through the charcoal, becoming hot and causing the tobacco to give off smoke. The smoke is drawn down to swirl around a glass chamber where it’s cooled by the water that fills the bottom. Traditionally the tobacco is sweetened and moistened with honey or molasses – heady stuff.
Just like the atmosphere in the lounge today - heady and intoxicating. Bright red Arabian décor, prints depicting eastern scenes, lit brass lanterns and pots and hip swaying Egyptian music are reminiscent of the sukhs in Marrakesh and Baghdad. Here the pace is easy, worlds removed from the bustling London scene outside.
Patron’s lean back, sink into couches and give themselves over to the experience. An experience well known to Ali Al-Amoud, a long time patron who calls Marmounia Lounge, home. Ali draws on his shisha and with dancing eyes and great animation tells me “I’ve been coming here for almost three years and I’ll still be here for a long time to come. I love this place. It is good. Just look at them.” He points to an exotic oriental looking couple locked in a passionate embrace and blows them a kiss before turning his attention back to talking to me. Though every few minutes he stops talking, wildly throws his hands in the air, fingers pointing outwards and in typical Arab abandon shakes his shoulders and sings along to the heady, beguiling music. I catch his eye and he bursts out laughing encouraging me to do the same. “Come on, you must enjoy shisha. Allow it to relax you so that you want to dance too. Here, puff on this. This is my favourite, double apple”
Ashraf Yaseen who’s managed the place for the past three years comes over to sit with us and tells us about some of the patrons. “Your friends over there, the blonde group, are from Oslo and the one’s in the corner over there, they’re from Greece and you see that couple opposite, they’re Afghanistanis. See, we have the whole world here.”
Shisha lounge’s once completely foreign to the UK, have sprouted up in every corner of the kingdom and become a permanent fixture in the hottest night clubs and restaurants reaching as far a field as Glasgow and Guernsey. There’s even a sheesha lounge at the Sheraton Skyline Hotel at Heathrow.
A popular piece of Arabia in central London, Edgware Road with its sidewalks dotted by more than 20 shisha café’s is a water pipe lover’s heaven. One such café, Café du Liban, drawing full houses every weekend is a traditional Lebanese coffee bar with outdoor seating and one of the longest surviving shisha lounges in London.
Also in Edgware Road is Al Shishaw, a vast Egyptian-style ahwa (coffee shop) with an over the top interior of mother-of-pearl and coloured stone. Considered pretty old school – its home to the serious sheesha-smoker.
Pulling shisha is the new uber cool. A leisurely social activity advocating patience and tolerance, it’s all about taking time out to appreciate good company. As is evident at Marmounia Lounge where the world’s cultures congregate to share a simple pleasure which transcends borders. And that it would seem is the real secret to its popularity.
So here’s a thought, let’s get the UN to Marmounia Lounge, let them relax amongst its bright intricately woven pillows and soak up the laidback atmosphere, introduce them to the heady fruity tobaccos of shisha and who knows, pretty soon they may all be smoking pipes of peace.