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Old February 10th, 2010, 07:20 PM
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Default How Hookahs, Medwaks, and Tobacco Forever Changed the Middle East!

[FONT=Calibri]I was recently asked by a few HP'ers to post something about the history of medwakhs and dokha, and as I looked into it, I found they were directly tied to the Ottoman Empire, hookahs, hookahhouses, Christopher Columbus, coffee, pig lard, medical treatments, death sentences, and social upheaval! I hope I'm not covering things you already were aware of, and I hope it's not too boring! [/FONT]

[FONT=Calibri]To start, no examination of Middle Eastern history would be complete without taking into account the inestimable affect tobacco has played on Middle Eastern society. More than any other commodity, tobacco alone was responsible for a dramatic change in public behavior, and perhaps even greater religious tolerance. To understand completely the changes that tobacco, water pipes, and smoking pipes engendered, one must start with a little tobacco history, and a little Middle Eastern history.[/FONT]

[FONT=Calibri]Tobacco was discovered initially by the Spanish and others in their explorations and conquests of the Americas and the Caribbean Basin. The sailors that manned these ships brought the habit of tobacco consumption back with them to Europe, and by the mid-1500’s tobacco was being freely traded by westerners with the Ottoman Empire, and thus was introduced initially into Turkey, Iran, and northern Syria as a most valuable commodity. Interestingly enough, tobaccos initial primary use was not recreational, but pharmacological. Ottoman physicians, having taken their cue from their non-Muslim European counterparts, were touting tobacco as a most versatile medical treatment. By the end of the sixteenth century tobacco was appearing in the Ottomans medical manuals as a treatment for bites and burns, as an antidote for poison, even as an abortifacient.[/FONT]

[FONT=Calibri]It didn’t take long, however, before tobacco usage transformed into recreational usage. A Palestinian scholar noted in the early 1600’s that tobacco was regularly smoked openly in “gathering places of the people, like markets and streets.” Of course, as tobacco was an expensive import at this time, only the more wealthy townspeople could afford this new past time. Much like coffee, which was becoming popular in the Middle East at about the same as tobacco, it was initially the affluent, privileged, and educated from which the number of smokers rapidly multiplied. Of course, the advantage that tobacco provided over coffee was its ease of local cultivation. As soon as the early 1700’s, the regional merchants were growing their own tobacco in Macedonia, Anatolia, and northern Syria. These crops were supplemented by the highly esteemed imports from Iran, where the tobacco industry had taken root, so to speak, in a spectacular fashion almost from the first year it was introduced. Because of this early self sufficiency with tobacco, the price continued to fall, and tobacco saw a pronounced expansion as a consumable good and as a trade good throughout the entire eastern Mediterranean.[/FONT]

[FONT=Calibri]This commercial success meant that tobacco was now much more accessible to the average Ottoman consumer than coffee. Toward the end of the 17th century tobacco was already cheaper by weight then coffee, and by 1800 the difference was better than threefold. Smoking, not drinking coffee, would quickly become the most affordable diversion of the Ottoman population. Inevitably, hookahhouses were established alongside and sometimes in conjunction with the coffehouses of the day. The hookahhouse became a cultural harbor of sorts, where people could enjoy music, literary recitals, and play games such as chess and backgammon. (Sound familiar?) However, this social freedom was a new phenomenon to the Middle East. Not surprisingly, Muslim moralists looked on with horror, and the ‘first anti-smoking’ campaigns began. And they were brutal.[/FONT]

[FONT=Calibri]These moralists had looked the other way when coffee and coffee houses started gaining popularity, because coffee had at least originated within the Muslim world, and was so expensive that only the elite could partake. Tobacco, however, was introduced from the outside, and this fed a paranoia that these early suppliers were contributing to the “Christian contamination” of the lands of Islam. In 1631 the Egyptian scholar Ibrahim al-Laqani published a dire warning for Muslims who used tobacco. He stated, incorrectly, that bales of tobacco were soaked in wine and/or pig lard, and that any Muslim who used tobacco was essentially committing apostasy. This warning was taken most seriously by the sultan himself, Murad IV, who immediately shut down all the hookah/coffeehouses in Istanbul, and in 1633 smoking became a capital offense. The sultan himself became personally involved, and in secret tours of the city he oversaw the strictest application of his new law. Smokers unfortunate enough to be caught red-handed were executed on the spot. Tobacco supplies and the places that stored them throughout the empire were burned when found, quite often with the owner inside them. This and other persecutions continued until the early 1680’s, when one of the most accomplished religious scholars and Sufi adepts of the time, ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, wrote a treatise in 1682 in defense of the use of tobacco, even though he himself thought that such use showed "moral flaws". This treatise basically stated that the sultanic tobacco laws were in direct conflict with religious law, and that no political authority could solely decide the legality of the matter, or take precedence over religious law. This treatise was quickly and widely accepted, and would stand as a landmark in Islamic law and its view of tobacco for centuries. It was no longer against the law to use tobacco in the Ottoman empire![/FONT]

[FONT=Calibri]Again, up sprang the hookahhouses! They soon became the main bastion of a fun activity that had simply not previously existed. For the last fifty years, people for their own safety had been forced to express their conviviality in private, or in orchards, gardens, and graveyards at the outskirts of town that discreetly offered their open spaces for picnics and other social gatherings. No more! The creation of the hookahhouses, these openly social places, was the first step in the emergence of a very different Islamic society, and stands out as a major cultural achievement. The role of tobacco in all this social evolution cannot be understated. In its accessibility and convenience, it was perfectly suited to the task. Coffee was more expensive, and required elaborate equipment and a larger block of time. Tobacco only needed to be stuffed into a bowl and lit, and could be enjoyed at once. Most important to this success was the pipe, or medwakh. Highly transportable, affordable, easy to operate, and quick to use, the pipe would not be surpassed until the invention of the cigarette, another western commodity. One could smoke a medwakh anywhere, at home, on the move, in the market or streets. The hookah offered all the casual leisure of the coffee culture, which was much more sedentary and luxurious. Gradually the hookah became the preferred smoking apparatus as Middle Eastern society continued to relax and allow itself to enjoy such leisure's. Medwakhs, as always, remained popular with sailors as a hookah was not a viable option on shipboard. This is why the medwakh is still so popular and still etched so firmly today in the culture of certain parts of the Middle East, such as the U.A.E., which were traditionally reliant on sea trade.[/FONT]
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