I am not a smoker.
In my teens in London, I tried to be. Striving for cool, I bought Balkan Sobranie from a Russian tobacconist on the Haymarket; smoked unfiltered Gitanes while eurorail-ing around France, perfecting the lip hang, the rising waft over lidded eyes without tearing up.
Truth was, nicotine made me nauseous; fortunately, for I never made it past dizzyiness to addiction. Maybe it was an ‘in utero’ thing. I am of the generation whose parents Marlboro-ed and martini-ed us into existence. ‘Another Gimlet? Well, I shouldn’t really. Light me, Doctor. Heh ho, he’s crowning!’ Though they couldn’t really have known, I do blame my parents for smoking then, and smoking after, convinced that it gave me my weak nasal membranes, my dodgy ankles. Killed my dad at sixty-nine, though my mum the robust Norwegian gave up smoking in her fifties and made it to 98. She passed away, most peacefully, this past April.
By the time I was 18, unpeeling that last Gitanes from my lip, wiping my eye, I could clearly see a lifetime of abstinence – in that department anyway. I indulged elsewhere, occasionally to excess. But nicotine? Simply not enough bang for my buck.
Which makes my recent delight in the hubble-bubble pipe slightly puzzling.
Is it hereditary, passed down in my code like a tendency to nose bleed? Centuries of ancestors huddled in smoky pubs till they banned it? Is it the association with carefree times when, through a fragrant cloud, you glimpse someone looking back? The ashtray taste on lips? The charcoal waft as the sweater comes off?
Maybe. But I believe I’ve narrowed that delight down to three main reasons: ambience, savour and conviviality.
My favourite place to experience all three is in a narghile house in Istanbul, located between the Grand Bazaar and Constantine’s Column. A narrow arch opens into a large hall, that may have been a madrassa once. There are several cafés within, but I never get past the first one on the left. A vaulted ceiling, rugs on the floor over ancient flagstones almost certainly plundered from the road outside which was once the Mese and ran from the Chariseus Gate, entrance of emperors and sultans, all the way through to possibly the most beautiful building in the world, the Hagia Sophia. Old wooden chairs and divans thick with cushions form separate enclaves for couples, foursomes, gangs to gather. All sorts come. Some tourists, of course, yet the place is mostly crammed with Turks, that nation’s extraordinary diversity reflected by the clientele, by young women wearing hijab or euro-chique, by men in skullcaps telling beads or in fedoras wielding iPhones.
Ah, the joy of reclining there with friends, sharing the pipe back and forth, sucking deep (though hygenically, with your own mouthpiece, a small tube of plastic like a hollow golf tee). To the bubbling of sweet smoke drawn through cooling water, your mind moves gently… over the hand-woven carpet you nearly bought, the dazzling indigo of Izmerian tiles, the culture and history of the place where now you sprawl, the roads that brought you here.
And then there are the strangers, Turks who are fascinated by your origins, your reason for being in the city of which they are so justly proud. On my very first, and several subsequent visits, the soothing smoke lulled me into an exchange of visions with an aged sage, snaggle-toothed and somewhat drunk, a disciple of the Persian philospher, Omar Khayyám. When he mentioned his master I immediately launched into the first quatrain from Fitzgerald’s English adaptation of the Rubyiat, so beloved by the late Victorians. I knew it because my father (third cigarette of the day in hand) often used it to wake my lazy teenage self:
‘Awake! For morning in the bowl of night
Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight…’
Delighted, and even with his limited English, the sage began to translate key verses for me, unadulterated by Fitzgerald’s English rhyming and sentiment. I kept the pages in my city guide; this one, just as he wrote it down, seems especially appropriate given the sense of timelessness conjured in that place:
“Don’t mention the past, and waste your time in vain
For a moment that has not arrived; yet don’t scream.
Past and future is a legendary story
Enjoy the life just right now, don’t fall into misery.”
In the end, what binds us all, friends and strangers, is smoke.
While you rest your feet on history, and gaze up on the vaults of faith, young men weave between cushions and benches with the tall narghile, the white-hot coals in battered tin cans to fire them and the bowls of tobacco to savour in their variety of flavours. Sometimes I choose mint – smooth in the mouth, encouraging of a settling back, a studying of the roof through the fog. For more intricate, leaning-in conversation, apple works beautifully – spicy on the tongue, quickening the pulse. Pairing the right tea is, to a narghile toker, as important as wine pairing to a gourmet. It’s borne to you in tulip shaped glasses, steaming, and in this particular establishment, unlike some, the mint is from leaves and so doesn’t taste like mouthwash. The key is to match opposites – drink mint with apple-flavoured tabacco, drink apple with the mint. Do it the other way and you end up feeling like a toothbrush or a Granny Smith.
There are few better ways to ‘enjoy the life just right now’ in Istanbul; anywhere, truly. Part of that heritage, part of a very special conviviality, the gathering of travelling strangers in the caravanserai. Timeless, totally ancient, completely modern. I wouldn’t want to drink anything but tea there, wouldn’t want anything to come between me and the smoke I’ve discovered I love – the euphoria it produces, the calm it leaves. There is no nausea, no hangover, no regret, only a civilized indulgence; and a sense that, like those flagstones, it will all still be here in a thousand years.
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys is an actor, playwright, fight choreographer and novelist. He has written eight historical fiction novels and has been translated into thirteen languages, including Turkish. His new novel about William Shakespeare’s fight choreographer, ‘Shakespeare’s Rebel’ is out now in the UK and in Canada June 2013. Chris lives on Salt Spring Island, BC. Follow him on Twitter @HumphreysCC and visit him at: cchumphreys.com
Geoff Webb is a video director, photographer and illustrator, currently living in Vancouver, BC.