A visit to a salon of smoke

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Clutching a string of glass prayer beads in one hand and a cell phone in the other, Ahmed Abdo sat cross-legged on a low-slung couch at the Enjoyer Cafe in an ancient quarter of Istanbul, Turkey.

It was past 11 p.m., but the night air was warm enough for Abdo and his two friends from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to enjoy a leisurely smoke in the Enjoyer's outdoor living room.

The Enjoyer is a water pipe cafe. Here, on a patch of sidewalk covered with Turkish carpets and furnished with low tables and potted plants, veteran smokers and novice travelers share the ancient tradition of smoking the water pipe, also called the nargile or hookah.

The more efficient cigarette has rapidly replaced the water pipe, but nargile salons can still be found in many parts of Istanbul.

Most are mysterious-looking places frequented by older Turkish men, relaxing over tea and a game of backgammon between puffs.

The Enjoyer in Sultanahmet, the prime tourist area of Istanbul near the Blue Mosque, is aimed at a younger crowd. Curious travelers feel at ease with its friendly surroundings and menu of flavored tobaccos such as apple, strawberry and cappuccino.

An attendant who would identify himself only as "Cici" introduced me and my husband, Tom, to the Enjoyer and the nargile's mysterious pleasures.

"Enjoy your time in Istanbul," he called out to us as we walked past the cafe on our way back to our hotel from dinner one evening. We came back the next day and asked Cici (pronounced chi-chi) for a smoking lesson.

He brought out a beautiful silver pipe with the portrait of an Ottoman sultan etched on its blue-glass base called a "govde."

Attached to the pipe was a long hose made of camel leather, partly covered with a piece of colorful carpet material for holding the mouthpiece.

"No hash, no marijuana, only tobacco," Cici promised us. Folklore has it that the sultans used to enjoy smoking a mixture of opium, perfume and crushed pearls. Today, most smokers prefer a dark, fruit-scented tobacco.

We watched as Cici placed a wad of his cappuccino-flavored tobacco on a small stone bowl on top of the nargile. He crowned the tobacco with a hot coal. As I leaned forward on the couch, Cici instructed me to inhale deeply and blow out.

"Keep smoking," he said, using tongs to replenish the coals the way a waiter might refill a coffee cup.

It was hard for me to know whether I was really inhaling. Long, deep breaths are the key. The water cools the smoke, and some find the experience mildly intoxicating.

For me, a non-smoker, the sensation was more like holding my breath. I couldn't tell that I was inhaling, but I was, and when I blew out white puffs of smoke, I detected a smooth, slightly sweet aftertaste.

Women smoking water pipes in Turkey are rare. Most prefer cigarettes. But when Lara and Rick LaCaille, newlyweds from Utah who were staying at our hotel, told us one night that they wanted to smoke a water pipe, we immediately suggested a trip to the Enjoyer.

"Women can smoke. Anyone can smoke," Cici had assured me earlier.

Abdo and his friends welcomed us.

"Finally we have some technology to transfer to you," one of them joked as the four of us joined them on one of the outdoor couches.

It was almost 11 p.m., but they had brought along their own homegrown fruit-flavored tobacco, and insisted we try some. The typical smoking session can last 20 minutes to an hour or more, the whole idea being to relax, talk and philosophize.

It was a chance for us to ask Abdo about Moslem prayer beads. There were 99 in all, he explained, for praying the 99 names of Allah.

Then Abdo called for tea all around. It was served in tiny tulip-shaped glasses with lumps of sugar on the side. Alcohol, although available in Istanbul, is not usually served in nargile cafes.

We learned a few things about nargile etiquette that evening. Always rest the base of the pipe on the floor, not on a table or on the couch. Don't pass the pipe directly to the next person (as we did), but put it down first, and allow the other person to pick it up.

As we walked back to our hotel, it was nearly 1 a.m. Tom and I decided that we'd get up the next morning and go shopping for a water pipe of our own to take home with us.

Even though we're both lifelong non-smokers and well aware of the health risks of tobacco, we were lured by the nargile's exquisite design and its place in prodding strangers from different cultures to connect in casual conversation.

We found our treasure in the Ali Pasa Courtyard, a former school in the 300-year-old mosque complex outside Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. The area is home to several carpet shops and the Traditional Mystic Water Pipe and Erenler Tea Garden.

It's a traditional nargile salon where pipes are lined up on a counter awaiting regular customers.

At a shop called Oz Truva we haggled with owner Faruk Gulpekmez over the price of a pipe of clear cut glass with a silver top and leather hose. This was not one of the cheap souvenir pipes we'd seen around the tourist shops. This was a pipe that we could really smoke. We paid around $48 for our nargile (with a package of apple-flavored molasses tobacco from Egypt thrown in).

Most people go to Turkey and come home with a carpet. We flew back with a water pipe in our carry-on luggage.

Our nargile sits on the floor of our living room near the fireplace awaiting its first smoke. The pipe is our symbol of what we loved most about Istanbul -- the people we met and the way they savor life.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: No airlines fly directly from BWI to Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, though several offer connecting flights. United flies from Dulles to Frankfurt, Germany, where you can catch a direct flight to Ataturk via Turkish Airlines, and Delta flies direct to Istanbul from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Travel agents and online booking companies can search out the best package for you. Expect to pay $3,000 to $5,000 round trip.

Smoking: Nargile cafes are scattered around Istanbul. Two in the Sultanahmet area are the Enjoyer Cafe at Incili Cavus Sok. 23B, a small street off the Utangac Sok not far from the Blue Mosque, and the Traditional Mystic Water Pipe and Erenler Tea Garden in the Ali Pasa Courtyard, off the Yeniceriler Caddesi near the Grand Bazaar.

When you ask for a nargile, an attendant cleans it and brings it to your table. Prices range anywhere from around 50 cents to $1.60. Tea is extra.

Buying a pipe: Water pipes can be purchased at many shops around Istanbul and in the Grand Bazaar. Prices vary according to quality and size. Smaller pipes and pipes with a metal base are cheaper, but many of these are for decoration only. If you want a pipe you can smoke, be specific, and be prepared to bargain on the price. Expect to pay around $45-$50 for a full-size pipe with a glass base.

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