Current Issue #488

Beer and Other Sins: Fire-breathing at a Hindley Street shisha Lounge

There’s more to Adelaide’s original shisha lounge than flavoured smoke.

It’s Tuesday afternoon, the temperature is well into the 40s and even though the sun will soon be setting, it still feels like the whole world might be ablaze. A little sign outside Horus Egyptian Shisha Lounge and Cafe on Hindley Street says it is the only air-conditioned shisha bar in Adelaide. I go inside.

Inside, Eleni, 24, leans on the front counter on which stand two pipes shaped like AK-47s and another shaped like a puma.

“People pose with them,” Eleni says. “It’s the novelty. People take photos with them. For birthday parties, people get AK-47 shishas. Why not?”

Shisha, or hookah, depending on which part of the world you are in, is a wet mix of tobacco (30 per cent) and flavoured molasses, which is heated by hot coals. The material doesn’t burn, but is roasted, and the smoke is filtered down through water to cool it before it is inhaled.

Smoking tobacco in this way is said to have started in medieval India before spreading to the Middle East and Turkey. Half a millennium later, shisha bars are just another part of the global streetscape.

Fifteen years ago, Horus opened as the only shisha bar on the Hindley Street strip and the first in Adelaide. On any given night, a tableau of men and women from across the world would sit at the tables out on the street with a pipe at their side and draw smoke into their lungs in search of that pleasant numbness that comes from a nicotine rush.

In cultures where alcohol was banned or frowned upon, the shisha lounge served the same function as a pub. At Horus back in the day, the young would drop past on a night out while the old would sit and watch the world go by. For hours they would smoke, drink sweet tea and talk. They might play dominos or backgammon or cards, and have heated conversations about dominos or backgammon or cards. They might talk about domestic Indian politics or Hosni Mubarak or Tony Abbott, God, their relationships or, the most divisive of all, the World Cup.

Then another shisha bar opened right next door. After that, others had the same idea and today there are at least five establishments along the Hindley Street strip all plying the same trade.

Before they took over Horus, Eleni and her sister Gabriella used to be regulars. It was about two years ago when the elderly Egyptian man who used to own the joint joked that since the pair spent so much time at his café, he might as well sell it to them. Gabriella didn’t see the joke.

“When she asked whether he was serious, he said everything’s for sale and the conversation started from there,” Eleni says.

“There is not a moment this place is open that I’m not here,” Eleni says. “I spend more time here than I do at home. When people come in, it is like inviting people into my home.”

Since taking it over, the pair has renovated, redecorated and started offering snack food. Eleni, who has a psychology degree and a Master of Social Work, works seven days and 90 hours a week running the day-to-day while her older sister manages the books and social media.

The basics of the business hasn’t changed, according to Eleni. People still talk about the same old stuff: relationships, politics, the news, God and religion. Sometimes people come in and ask her for relationship advice. When the UFC plays, they yell at the screen. On Saturday nights, she calls taxis for people who need them. One time, she noticed a girl walking down Hindley Street in tears. Eleni brought her inside, gave her a glass of water and made sure she was all right.

“I’m like the nanna to them all,” she says.

And yes, Eleni says, shisha is bad for your lungs. Inhaling burning anything is going to be bad for you, but she doesn’t think it’s the same as smoking cigarettes. Since shisha tobacco roasts rather than burns, she says it produces less tars and toxins. The World Health Organisation, it should be said, disagrees.

But then it’s never really been about the smoking. The shisha pipe, she says, is just an accessory. People come for the company and the sense of community. Those who are homesick or nostalgic for the old country come for the Indian nights and Afghan nights they sometimes run. Every Tuesday they do a movie night. Some people, Eleni says, come just to drink tea and watch.

“Shisha, it’s not about the smoking itself,” she says. “It’s about the experience. It’s like when you go get a cup of coffee with friends and you wind down and you talk. It’s the centre of a conversation.

“It’s about community,” she says, “because life can be isolating. Life can be lonely, don’t you think?”


Royce Kurmelovs

Royce Kurmelovs

See Profile

Royce Kurmelovs is an Australian freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden (2016), Rogue Nation (2017) and Boom and Bust (2018).

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox