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Inhale The Pleasure Of An Unhurried Ottoman Past

Stephen Kinzer

New York Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- No matter what kind of storms shake this ancient city, within the smoky and fragrant confines of the Erzurum Nargile Salon all is right with the world. The nargile, or Turkish water pipe, is no longer at the center of Istanbul's social and political life, but the men who gather here each day -- and the scattering of women who join them -- still consider it one of life's great pleasures. They are heirs to a centuries-old culture, and their worlds revolve around the soft sound of bubbling water, the sensation of drawing filtered tobacco smoke through long curled tubes, and an atmosphere of quiet camaraderie.

"Smoking a nargile is nothing like smoking a cigarette," a 71-year-old pensioner named Ismet Ertep said as he looked up from his pipe."Cigarettes are for nervous people, competitive people, people on the run," he said. "When you smoke a nargile, you have time to think. It teaches you patience and tolerance, and gives you an appreciation of good company. Nargile smokers have a much more balanced approach to life than cigarette smokers."

Although many of the patrons at the Erzurum Nargile Salon are of a certain age, and although no one expects the stately nargile (pronounced NARG-EE-LEH) ever to regain its supremancy in the tobacco world, the water pipe culture here is in no danger of dying. Every year brings a new crop of retirees, who have the time and often the desire to spend hours in reflection. And on many evenings, students and other young people join the older clientele.

There are said to be fewer than a dozen nargile salons left in Istanbul, and a few in nearly every other Turkish city. They are the remains of thousands that sprouted here after the first tobacco leaves arrived from America in 1601. In the early part of the 17th century, Turks took to smoking with a passion. In 1633, outraged at the rapid spread of this new vice, Sultan Murad IV banned smoking on pain of death. But this prohibition merely drove smokers underground, and , 14 years later, officials conceded defeat and lifted it.

Nargiles soon became important status symbols. Offering one to a guest became an important sign of trust, and withholding it could be taken as a serious insult. In 1841, a diplomatic crisis broke out between France and the Ottoman Empire after the sultan declined to offer the French ambassador a chance to smoke with him.

The advent of the cigarette, a development that many nargile smokers consider one of the most deplorable in human history, forever changed the way Turks use tobacco. But at places like the Erzurum Salon, named after a town in Anatolia, old ways are still respected and old preasures still enjoyed. There is not much noise inside. Conversation is only occasional, and always soft. The sound of dominoes being played or backgammon tokens being moved is often all that competes with the soft gurgle of bubbling water. Some patrons work absently on crossword puzzles and others seem lost in contemplation.

No alcohol is served, as is traditional in nargile cafes, and smokers usually sip coffee or tea as they puff. Every few hours, the Muslim call to prayer issues from the Molla Celebi Mosque nearby, and about half the patrons leave, returning after their devotions. The Erzurum salon was opened more than half a century ago by an Armenian immigrant whose son, Recep Hacioglu, is the present owner and whose grandson, Yilmaz Hacioglu, 36, expects to follow in the family tradition. When urban renewal forced it to move to its present location near the Bosphorus in 1991, its clientele faithfully followed.

Behind the counter are nearly 60 nargiles, most available to all, but some belonging to customers for whose exclusive use they are reserved. When a patron arrives, the manager, Yasar Guler, selects a nargile, cleans it, and wraps a handful of damp tobacco around the stone bowl. Older patrons, he says usually prefer strong Turkish tobacco grown on plantations near the Syrian border, while many younger ones ask for aromatic apple or cherry blends imported from Egypt and Bahrain.

After Guler has filled the bottom of the pipe with water and attached the brass neck, the bowl and the smoking tube, he delivers it to the patron. A waiter who carries a pot of glowing coals carefully picks up a couple with metal pincers and places them atop the tobacco plug. With a few puffs, the smoker is under way. It takes about an hour to smoke a pipeful of fruit tobacco, two hours for the stronger stuff. The smoke is noticeably cooler than cigarette smoke, and lightly intoxicating. Before long, the water begins to turn brown; smokers say it is filtering out many of the harmful substances that they would otherwise be inhaling.

In days gone by, some smokers used to fill their nargiles with illicit drugs. Sultans used to smoke a special mixture of opium, perfume and crushed pearls. "The important thing is not what you put in the pipe, but who is with you while you're smoking," said Ahmed Metin, a 48-year-old Turkish sailor who makes the Erzurum Salon his base when he is in Istanbul."It's a complete experience," he continued. "In a cafe like this one, you find the good people, the old people, the interesting people. As long as there is a need for company and friendship, as long as people want to stop and think, there will be nargile cafes."