‘Salaams bro, can I get my usual mix, please?’ asks a man with a shaped-up beard, clean kicks, and puffer jacket as he joins his friends in a booth.
He, like many other young Muslim men and women, has found his regular shisha spot; a lounge with mismatched sofas and chairs, menus trapped between the surface of the glass tables and heaters above every seating area.
The majority of users would argue that addiction to flavoured tobacco itself is not the main cause of their return – so what is it that makes shisha lounges so enticing?
What is shisha and where did it come from?
Shisha, sometimes known as hookah, is a contraption for vaporising and smoking flavoured tobacco. The vapour or smoke is passed through a water pipe before you can inhale it.
You can get it in many different flavours such as bubblegum, grape, mint, vanilla, apple, and shisha connoisseurs are always experimenting with new tastes, such as paan (a type of beetle nut popular in Asia), as well as more obscure favourites like Code 69.
It is especially popular in Muslim countries, particularly the Middle East, Turkey, and parts of Asia and Africa, and is thought to have originated in India in the 15th century.
Shisha ranges from affordable to seriously high end, available at luxury venues such as London’s Syon Lounge; a stylish rooftop garden offering hookah for upwards of £30, the most expensive option being £130.
Shisha culture means catching up with friends, meeting new people, going on dates, dancing, – all the things pubs were used for before they went into decline.
Live DJs, belly dancers, networking, spoken word events and more are now all part of the culture. Film festivals have even been held in shisha bars allowing customers to smoke and enjoy cinema. All of these make lounges popular on any given night, but particularly on weekends.
Some young people go to shisha every week. Some have a supply set up at home. Ilyas, a 24-year-old teacher, smokes shisha once or twice a week, whether at home or away. He tells Metro.co.uk that it’s a form of stress relief.
‘Shisha places are good spots for Muslims to socialise – I would equate it to non-Muslims going to the pub,’ he says. ‘You do it to socialise with your mates after a long day or week at work and it’s a stress relief.’
Ilyas explains that shisha places are unique in allowing large groups to lounge for long periods of time without judgement, a luxury not always afforded in majority white spaces.
‘Sometimes we go in big groups and it’s a good place to meet new people as well, to network or talk about jobs, careers and we offer each other advice on our lives.
‘One time we helped a friend who was struggling at the time to apply for a certain job and it worked out for them, so that was a positive.’
Many Muslims don’t drink, so going to the bar or a pub doesn’t feel like an option. Most shisha places don’t offer alcohol as they know their demographic isn’t made up of drinkers.
‘I feel like it’s a safe space for minorities as most socialising in non-Muslim cultures is around alcohol,’ added Ilyas. ‘Going to shisha isn’t as formal as going to a meal and sometimes we feel like that’s our only other accessible option to socialise.’
Though originally they were male-dominated spaces, now shisha lounges are bubbling with female groups.
Secondary school teacher Bushra, 25, tells us: ‘For me, it’s affordable chilling. With nice music, chai, and chat with your friends.
‘They’re so popular because they highlight a lack of spaces for young Muslims and the like. The alternative is eating out which is too expensive.’
That’s certainly true, you can chill for up to three hours if you’re in a group of four with two shisha pipes, costing you each about £10 for the evening.
Her thoughts are shared by Yasmin, 29, who says lounges have upped their game in terms of decor, flavours, food, and amenities.
‘I’ve had amazing dates there,’ Yasmin tells us. ‘Shisha lounges are perfect to keep the night going. Me and the girls go every week for our life update session.
‘They’re safe spaces for women too. They’re better in terms of ambience and not as dodgy as they were a few years ago when there would be raids and fights every day.
‘They now have a chilled, grown-up vibe and usually the people are so nice.’
For some people, shisha lounges have meant accessible means of employment. Nahid, 19, reveals that his first job was at a popular lounge in East London which paid him above the living wage at the time.
‘I was 17 and they paid £6.20 an hour. They treated me well and the job was good but wasn’t always flexible, you’d have to come in on the days they needed you.
‘It helped me gain good customer service and cash handling skills which allowed me to move on to other employment.’
But there’s a dark side to the use of shisa lounges as go-to spaces for minority groups – shisha poses health risks. Many petitions have tried to limit the number of lounges, due to noise nuisance, or even antisocial behaviour.
How harmful is smoking shisha?
Shisha smokers are at risk of the same kinds of diseases as cigarette smokers, such as heart disease, cancer, and respiratory disease.
According to the British Heart Foundation, it’s difficult to say exactly how much smoke or toxic substances you’re exposed to in a typical shisha session. People smoke shisha for much longer periods of time than they smoke a cigarette, and in one puff of shisha, you inhale the same amount of smoke as you’d get from a smoking a whole cigarette.
But the question remains, where else can these individuals go?
For some, long gone are the days you could spend hours chilling in the confines of a fried chicken shop. But as these youngsters grow up, there are fewer options for leisurely places.
As adults who need adult spaces, shisha lounges feel like the best option. As long as these lounges continue to foster community feeling, they’ll continue to be popular with adults who know the associated risks but still enjoy each visit.
Those who want to see fewer shisha lounges will need to provide different community spaces that will offer the same welcome.