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  • Mohamed Sadik

No Place Like Home? The Cultural Teleportation of Shisha Cafes

Forget magic and science fiction, Mohamed Sadik argues that shisha cafes have a curious ability to teleport one home for the price of admission.

Illustration: Unsplash/The Pittsburgher

Teleportation has seen many iterations in popular culture, from Dorothy’s magic slippers that take her home at three clicks of her heels, to Star Trek’s metallic circular structure transporting subjects in a swirl of beautiful dancing lights. But I want to leave the worlds of magic and sci-fi behind for a moment and tell you about something real. Across many cities – possibly even your own – there is a door that leads to a distant world. This place, however, does not run on unexplained magic or scientific advancement; its foundation is held together with woven tapestries and it is fueled by grilled kabob dinner plates and fruit flavored smoke. It is your local shisha cafe.

As an Egyptian who has spent nearly a decade in the United States, I have become a frequent passenger of this cultural teleportation device. I remember some days culture shock and homesickness would rain down, leaving me drenched in the middle of the street. But there it was, on the corner: shelter from the storm. The experience is always the same. First, I am pulled in by the signage – a haphazardly created graphic with a name that both panders to Western customers and assures Middle Easterners that this is, in fact, what they think it is. Something along the lines of “Horus Lounge” or “Arabian Nights.” Then I enter the portal. As soon as that door swings open, the teleportation begins. The American architecture behind me starts to fade in favor of Eastern sensibilities, and my ears are greeted with songs from back home. As I walk, the floor transitions from linoleum tiling to handcrafted carpets, probably brought back from wherever the store owner is from.

I make my way to the counter, where I wait patiently beside the duct-tape-covered tablet used to take orders. The store owner is arguing with an employee while filling a shisha with tobacco. The owner is an older man, probably in his late sixties. Even though he is in the heat of debate, there is a warmness in him. He wipes his hand on his stained apron. “When I was your age,” he says, “we took care of our hair by combing it.” The young employee gives a smirk. As I watch their exchange in Arabic, the language offers calm from the chaos that is outside. The owner takes my order and gestures to the available seats. “It will be out in a couple of minutes, habibi,” he says. I sit, waiting for my shisha; the sound of backgammon pieces hitting the board from a nearby table acts as a ticking clock. The cafe is filled with people that look like me, with the outer tables occupied by the occasional white person, perhaps shy of venturing towards the middle. My attention, however, is fully captivated by the backgammon table. Two older men, both balancing their mint teas on the wooden divider of the board, start to increase the speed at which they move their pieces. The game is getting heated. One slam after the next, it starts to sound like an orchestral crescendo of a timpani – BAM! Out of a corner and through the smoke-filled room, the store owner approaches and places a shisha, adorned with soccer stickers, beside me. He hands me the hose while adjusting the coals thoroughly, then leaves with a smile. With the first inhale of that potent watermelon flavor, the last piece of the puzzle is in place. To feel the twirling patterns carved into the wood of the Moorish furniture. To tap your finger to the beat of an oud piece playing on the sound system. To watch the steam dance off your warm glass of hibiscus tea. The massive world outside these four walls begins to disappear, at least for a bit.

So how does this teleportation work? There is something of a blueprint for constructing this incredible device, and it’s all in the details: handmade rugs, aged and characterized by distress in the weave – markers of their history; the staticky sound of an instrumental from an Umm Kalthoum song; the smells of spiced meats and freshly brewed teas. With these few components, the device is well on its way to completion and nearly ready to whisk away its first passenger.

Stimulating our primal senses in such a controlled environment has the ability to achieve what we only read about in fiction. For a foreigner, it is the longing for one’s homeland that acts as the suspension of disbelief. For a Westerner, perhaps it is curiosity. Shisha cafes are a respite for so many people across so many places, and each person carries with them their culture. The personality of these places comes, in part, from the people who strive to create that home away from home. For me, when I enter a shisha cafe I can’t help but feel like Dorothy, clicking her heels three times, waiting to be transported home. ▲

Mohamed Sadik is an Emerson College graduate with a degree in Visual Media Arts. On his quest to one day be a show-runner, he is often distracted by literally anything related to space.

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