I was in a shisha café the other night up the back of Sheraton Helipolis, in the north of the city. It was very chic and urbane, serving espresso and the fragrant, bubbling tobacco pipes. There was even a menu in Arabic and English. Firstly, there were the listings of what flavoured tobaccos they have, ranging from the most popular, the foul-smelling grape, to much nicer mint (think Alpine cigarettes), fruity peach, apricot and cherry, refreshing lemon and girly rose.

Then, at the bottom of the list, was the item ‘Medical Layy’ for LE2 (60c). The layy is the long tube that curls up from the water pipe and to your mouth. Most cafes use disposable plastic mouth pieces to stop germs, but (and you can tell I was out with doctors at this café), the layy is a breeding ground for germs, and one of the most common ways that tuberculosis is transmitted in Egypt. We all got medical layys. Mine was even bambu (pink). Too cute.

Received wisdom is that smoking a full pipe is the equivalent of knocking off a packet of cigarettes in one hit. It’s also common knowledge that photographing yourself smoking never looks great – the drawn-in cheeks and such. So no, I don’t have a decent pic. Here’s some dude I snapped in Midan Hussein, who’s pulling it off a whole lot better.

There is a career pattern in cafes, of which I was unaware, having met shisha boys with degrees, thanks to Egypt’s current economic situation – before the Global Economic Crisis there was the great Egyptian economic stuff-up, it appears. So anyway, cafe (ahwa) career paths: you start on the shisha, then move to the bar and finally as cashier. Just as well, because sucking smoke all day can’t be good for you in a country without worker’s compensation.

If you were going to be a shisha boy, setting up the water in the shisha pipes, balancing coals on the tobacco etc, then having a speech impediment that makes you slur the ‘sh’ sound is not advisable. Yet they’re out there. So the other night, I wanted (ayza) an apricot-flavoured (mishmash) shisha. “Ayza mismish shisha” I wanted to order from the guy. To which he would have had to reply, “La, mafeesh mishmish shisha.” No, there is no mishmish. Naughty, naughty, shouldn’t laugh. Going to hell. Oh yeah… I had lemon.