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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Zanzibar

Globe and Mail Update
Friday, March 7, 2003
About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe in 2000 as overnight editor of the Web site. After eight months he switched to a daytime slot, where he writes about science, the military, Atlantic Canada and international affairs for

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Pictures from Zanzibar

Ali Mohammed, 15, shows his catch of octopuses in Misali Island, Zanzibar.For generations, fishermen from villages on nearby Pemba Island in the Zanzibar archipelago have been using Misali as a fishing camp and a site for spiritual activities. Photo: George Mwangi/AP

Babuli Kitwawa Sururu, a manager at Vera Club, stands beside sun-bathing beds. Photo: George Mwangi/AP

Passengers arrives at Zanzibar sea port from Dar es Salaam. Photo: George Mwangi/AP

The attendant listens gravely as you explain what you want, asks a few questions and then disappears into a back room. Moments later a small procession makes its way to where you sit.

Two men carry an ornately-carved and intricately-decorated glass and metal waterpipe while a third carefully bears a large ladle full of hot coals.

The men put the pipe down beside you and ask again exactly what you're looking for. Satisfied, they gesture the third man into action. He steps slightly aside and swings the ladle into a widening arc, fanning the coals into an angry red. Selecting one with a pair of tongs he places it gently atop the pipe. One of the other men hands you the mouthpiece of a cloth-wrapped hose and then they all stand back, encouraging you with their eyes.

Lolling back you raise the end of the hose to your mouth and haul firmly, hearing a firm gurgle from within the pipe and watching the coal light up bright red.

The smoke flows effortlessly into your lungs, silkly smooth and without a hint of bitterness. The day's stresses trickle out as you exhale a long stream of sweet-scented smoke. People in chairs nearby smell it, look over and smile. In the late 1990s Nick Tosches wrote an essay, The Last Opium Den , which chronicled his search around the world for any remnants of the Victorian drug of choice. He finally tracked it down in Asia after months of fruitless looking.

He was right to skip Zanzibar - that freewheeling old entrepôt through which slaves, spices, ivory and gold were transshipped for centuries. The Indian Ocean port carries a distinct air of tropical loucheness to this day, but opium is not available to the casual visitor.

But it is still possible in a few places to order a shisha - a waterpipe loaded with flavoured shag. The most common spot for foreigners is the terrace of the Africa House Hotel, housed in the original premises of the British Club and rife with the faded glamour of centuries past.

The staff at the hotel take their role seriously carefully explaining the background of the shisha and painstakingly running through the options available.

You learn at the hotel that the habit began in India (using pipes carved from coconut shells) before spreading to Iran and then the rest of the Arab world.

The pipe became enormously popular, with families gathering to smoke together and innovators experimenting with washing and flavouring the tobacco and adding pomegranate juice and rose oil to the water. The practice was banned for 14 years by Sultan Murad IV and almost sparked a diplomatic crisis when the leader of the Ottoman Empire did not offer to share the pipe with the French ambassador. Even now it's hard to smoke without conjuring up images of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, Sir Henry Burton and Henry Morton Stanley.

The essence of indolence, smoking shisha is not a procedure that can be hurried - the very point is relaxation, a welcome unwinding and reflection. Devotees maintain, in fact, that the habit helps keep them balanced, and that cigarettes are for more nervous and competitive types.

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