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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


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.

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.

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“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.”

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

He puffs away on a cigarette as he whittles down the light wood, which comes from forests by the Euphrates River.

“Before I put the wood in the turning machine, I’m a blank slate,” said Baqer. “As soon as it starts turning, it comes to me. It turns out beautiful or how the customer wants it.”

The manual labour involved in shaping the thick wood into a polished product is intensive, but makes for a unique product.

He averages about 20 bakkars a day.

A few streets away is Mohamed Jassim, whose father and grandfather practised the same trade, and who is already training his teenage son how to carve.

Employees prepare waterpipes for customers at a coffee shop in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala — complete with the locally carved wooden section © AFP / Mohammed SAWAF

Smokers gravitate towards his craftsmanship because of a sense of history and hard work, but also because the wood makes smoking more refreshing for people living in Iraq’s scorchingly hot south.

“In Baghdad and further north, it’s a bit cooler, so they can use metal,” he explained to AFP.

– ‘Creative’ –

In his workshop, Jassim keeps an old bakkar that his grandfather carved in the 1950s — and he still uses the same family signature in his modern works.

One of his designs is nicknamed “Islamic,” because he digs small domes resembling mosques into the wood.

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Orders for Karbala’s wooden pipes for shishas come from as far away as Germany, helping the carpenters survive the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 when smoking cafes were closed © AFP / Mohammed SAWAF

“If you love your job, you become creative at it,” he said.

Woodworkers are glad to have survived the three-month closure of shisha cafes across Iraq earlier this year, part of efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19.

Orders come from both locally and beyond.

All of the bakkars at Ali’s cafe are from Jassim, who has also shipped his work to various local provinces, and even to Lebanon and as far away as Germany.

Jassim does not fear his craft withering away anytime soon.

“As long as there’s tobacco, we’re always going to be just fine,” he said.

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