a different side of Israel

Confession of a nargila junkie

Nargila Junkie
by David Levy

My favorite place to study is in a little, nameless nargila shop located directly across from the clock tower in Jaffa. The nargila is always fresh, constantly reloaded with charcoal, head and shoulders above the dirty nargilot you get on the Tel Aviv beachfront and half as expensive. The interior is admittedly dull, save for the magnificent tapestry—covering a hole on the wall—of a beautiful Arab warrior-princess, laying topless in a field next to her gigantic broadsword, seductively stroking her pet black panther.

There is a constant bustle in the shop, as groups of Arabs play backgammon and argue loudly, locals yell greetings from the street, soldiers saunter in with their M-16’s and drink the delicious mint tea, occasionally challenging the other patrons to a game of backgammon. The television in the corner invariably plays either the World Wide Wrestling Federation or soccer, and the beautiful Arabic music playing on the stereo challenges the hum of Hebrew and Arabic for the title of dominant background noise. All this is intermittently pierced by the haunting call to prayer from the nearby minarets.

This constant hum is momentarily broken when an American tourist group comes in, and one of the girls asks in accentuated, loud, painfully slow English, “Excuse me, but can we order a hookah and sit here?” – as if by sounding out every syllable the owners will suddenly understand the language. Muhammad and I share a quick smirk, I turn away somewhat embarrassedly, and he smiles and motions the group to a table. All are welcome in his lovely little shop.

I suppose the nargila alone doesn’t account for my frequent trek to this slightly inconvenient locale. Nor, I must admit, is it a particularly good study spot, with the constant rabble and the blaring television and radio. I think rather, I enjoy the mix of humanity here, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, sitting together and smoking, not as representatives of their particular group, but rather as simple nargila addicts, just like me.

Addendum: A Picture (or Lack Thereof) Says a Thousand Words

An interesting addendum to the story on my favorite nameless nargila spot. I spoke to Shadi, one of the owners, about my piece on his place and asked if he would take a picture with me to include with the story. While expressing lukewarm interest in the article, he adamantly refused to be photographed with me. Conversing in our broken Hebrew, I explained to him that the article was completely positive and, aside from praising his nargila, spoke to this unique part of Middle Eastern and Israeli culture. He said that he understood me, but I had to understand him. In the first words I have ever heard him speak in English, he said “no good,” smiled and walked away.

Perhaps Shadi is simply camera shy. I hope this was the case, but I don’t think so. I think he might be somewhat uncomfortable being identified with an American Jewish guy who came to live in Israel, albeit one who has regularly frequented his shop for the better part of a year. And I do understand him, and I don’t begrudge him this. But this seemingly trivial event has caused me a great deal of cognitive dissonance, or rather, a partial retreat towards my more cynical nature, if that makes any sense.

A professor at Tel Aviv University once recounted to me the story of his first official visit to Jordan after the 1994 peace agreement. I say official because he had fought there during the June War, and had come dangerously close to being taken prisoner. Nevertheless, he has enormous respect and admiration for the country, to which he has devoted the bulk of his scholarship since. Needless to say, visiting the country, this time as an invited Israeli academic, was an extremely emotional occasion for him.

Speaking with a Jordanian counterpart with whom he was now meeting for the first time, he broached the subject of full normalization with Israel. “Coming to a peace agreement with Israel,” the Jordanian academic responded, “is an admittance of our historic defeat. Normalization is asking him to like it.”

And, I think, so it goes with Shadi at my little nargila shop. But the idealist in me continues to say, maybe he’s just camera shy.


  1. This is a great article. I would like to think he is camera shy or that there is another hidden excuse for not wanting his picture taken. My experience has been positive for the most part and I was able to take pictures (with permission) of business owners.

    Don’t give up and ask again. I am sure you’ll find that some are more then willing to get a picture taken.

  2. A very interesting article,accurate description of an arab nargila joint
    you can find in the middle east,with their
    special atmosphere and aroma.

  3. Man, I gots to get me to Israel. Sounds great!

  4. very nice piece – so atmospheric – I wanna go too…

  5. good article – enjoyed it!

  6. Great article. Hope to join you again in Israel very soon! We miss you!


  8. Yo, who took that AWESOME picture?! And did you get copyright permission to post it on some random Israel blog? You could have a major lawsuit over royalties on your hand.

  9. What does the Israeli surgeon general say about the long-term consequences of regular nargila smoking?

  10. يا صديقي- متى شربت انا النّارجيلة مؤخّرا؟ قبل سنة! وبعد مقالك الحسن انا اريد ان اسافر الى يافا الان! -ايتاي

  11. this was great, davidge.

  12. I just went and poured myself a cup of Wissotzky Nana tea I’ve had sitting in my drawer here at work for months after reading your article. I’ll be dreaming of the beach in Palmahim as I sip it.

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