Posted November 16, 2020 9:29 am by

Holy smoke: Waterpipes keep bubbling in Iraqi shrine city

Iraqi men smoke waterpipes at a coffee shop in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala, where the pipes are traditionally made of locally carved wood © AFP / Mohammed SAWAF

Karbala, Iraq, Nov 16 – Iraq’s Karbala is known as a religious pilgrimage site, visited by millions of worshippers, but shisha-smokers revere it for a different reason: its signature wooden waterpipes.

About 120 kilometres (75 miles) south of Iraq’s capital, within walking distance of Karbala’s two Shiite shrines, avid smokers drag puffs of fruit-flavoured tobacco from their tall pipes.

The business of strictly gender-separated cafes has carried on, despite the heavy health risks associated with smoking and a full-blown pandemic that has brought an average of 4,000 new coronavirus cases a day to Iraq.

Cafe owner Hassan Ali is serving endless streams of sweet tea — a must in any Iraqi establishment — to customers sipping on locally-made waterpipes.

When they drag on the hand-held hose, the glass base full of water begins to bubble, cooling the smoke that passes through a half-metre pipe from a clay head, where sticky flavoured tobacco is laid out.

Normally made of iron or copper and imported, the pipes at Ali’s cafe are carved from local white willow wood.

Holy smoke: Waterpipes keep bubbling in Iraqi shrine city

A carpenter in Karbala shaves a piece of wood to make a waterpipe at his workshop using local white willow wood © AFP / Mohammed SAWAF

The hollow upper stems of these waterpipes or nargilehs are called bakkar — and Ali maintains the wood enhances the flavour of the tobacco by keeping the smoke cool, unlike their metal rivals.

“If your tobacco tastes like apple or mint, you can smell it,” he told AFP. “With the others, you only have smoke.”

– ‘A blank slate’ –

One of the last woodworkers keeping the craft alive in Karbala is Mohamed Baqer, a moustached, 56-year-old who has spent 30 years of his life as a carpenter.

“The designs that come out while I’m carving are all from my head,” Baqer told AFP with a beaming smile, surrounded by mounds of sawdust in his sweltering workshop. “I carve what I feel like really.”

Holy smoke: Waterpipes keep bubbling in Iraqi shrine city

Karbala’s carved pipes are said to enhance the flavour of the tobacco by keeping the smoke cool, unlike their metal rivals © AFP / Mohammed SAWAF

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