The number 54 bus from Eglinton station rolls through sleepy single-family Leaside and on into the shisha world of Lawrence East. Here, between Pharmacy and Warden, there's as much Arabic signage as Mr. Sub -- food stores, bakeries, butchers squeezed into the Middle East of east-end Toronto, all with the elegant lettering whose points reach to the heavens like the minarets of a mosque.
It's midnight at the Oasis Juice Bar and Restaurant, and the place is packed with people gathered around 3-foot-high hookah pipes. The roar of end-of-the-week traffic mingles with the bubbles we churn up in the pipe's bottom as we take turns offering up our lips and drawing from the mixture of fruit shavings, tobacco and molasses heated by little pucks of charcoal glowing orangey red on the very top.
Though tobacco is part of the mixture, the taste and feeling of shisha is decidedly different from North America's. This stuff is sweeter to the tongue, and while the nicotine in cigarettes speeds the heartbeat, subtle shisha calms and relaxes. Slowly, I become conscious of my mouth muscles when I talk. Everyone seems to have articulation problems. A Syrian would have trouble understanding the Arabic of Morocco on any occasion, but now it's even harder; at our table, they're always having to break into English.
It's a peaceful sense of well-being that smokers seek with each hookah inhalation, as much physical as mental -- what pot smokers sometimes call a body stone, though this is less pronounced. Shisha, or as it's also called, nargile, referring to the pipe, appeared after tobacco arrived from the Americas in the early 1600s. Eventually, offering the nargile and shisha became a mark of trust. In the East it still carries that social significance, but as the globalized world falls under the tyranny of economic competitiveness, more and more governments are trying to discourage the hookah.
Seems that lengthy, contemplative turns at the pipe discourage efficiency, as if that were a bad thing.
Oasis owner Hussein Ayoub grew up in Beruit, and in the Lebanese capital, as throughout the East, it's still common to partake of the pipe after dinner. "It's part of our life,' he says. "At the end of the day we sit down, smoke it and relax.'
The key to a rewarding shisha experience is to have enough time not to feel rushed, Ayoub says -- an hour at a minimum, three if possible.
Ayoub has been selling cars since he arrived in Canada a dozen years ago, but since last year it's his café that's kept him busy. He rented the empty shell of the building and transformed it into the kind of place he'd find in Beirut -- although there he probably wouldn't have had to spend $50,000 on the ventilation system for the smoking side of the café to bring it into conformance with city bylaws.
From an interior design point of view, this restaurant could be any other; the comfy booths wouldn't be out of place at Swiss Chalet. It's the crowd that's interesting -- Muslim and non, women in hijabs, and a table of people speaking Russian. It's mostly a 30-and-under crowd, and just about everyone is smoking and has the same slightly vacant look, as if their worries have floated into the air along with the smoke.
Our spirits ride on the upbeat mix of North African folk and techno called rai, the music of international star Khaled, who has to live in Paris because the fundamentalists in his native Algeria have issued a fatwa against him. Apparently, not everyone likes music about happy people in love.
Ayoub imports the shisha from Lebanon, and it comes with little plastic tips that each smoker slips on and off with a turn at the pipe. There are eight flavours of shisha, including strawberry, mango and apricot, but here and everywhere apple is the most popular. For $10.50, including taxes ($4 for an extra "head' or portion or shisha for second and subsequent smokers on the same pipe), you may transport yourself to a different mind space.
Ayoub purposely set up shop along this Muslim strip, thinking it would guarantee a supply of customers. It did, but it also attracted the curious and even some who mistakenly thought the café with the hookah pipe was heaven on earth, a place to smoke pot and hash.
News of the café has spread beyond the Middle Eastern strip, and business is so good that Ayoub is even thinking he should open a café downtown and bring the ancient elixir to the people of the modern metropolis. The day after my shisha trip, I take a walk, popping into the local Starbucks for a solo espresso. But I'm not in the mood for the chirpy soundtrack. I quickly escape to the outdoors, where, in my blissed-out state, the sky seems bluer.