Midwākh: The Opiate of the Gulf Masses

Tuesday 9 May 201710:18 am

A few seconds is all it takes for the effect of the long wooden midwākh to kick in—specifically seven seconds, as Dr Wedad al-Maydour of the Emirati Ministry of Health’s anti-tobacco program. Al-Maydour notes that midwākh is “a tool used to smoke tobacco through the mouth and into the lungs, allowing nicotine to be inhaled in large concentrations, causing dizziness.”

For those who are not familiar with midwākh, it is a long, thin, wooden pipe with a much smaller chamber, though it comes in an assortment of shapes. Initially, smokers used dried animal bones to smoke; however, they soon evolved to use high-quality woods, in sleek, attractive designs. As for the tobacco used in the midwākh, it is called doukha, literally translating to “dizziness” or “lightheadedness”. The box used for storing the tobacco is called the maḍrab, though some simply use their wallets to store their smoking kits, as well as the filters that are used for the chambers. These come in two types; regular and turbo. Arabic tobacco is used in the midwākh, grown in well-irrigated freshwater areas, depending on organic materials to fertilize them. The tobacco leaves are naturally air dried in the shade, relying only on the warm air to dry them. Smoking midwākh is no recent pastime; it is a well-established fixture of Gulf society, particularly in the UAE and Oman, while recently spreading to other Gulf countries. However, its origins are disputed; some say it was introduced into Emirati society as a result of the trade exchange with neighboring countries, such as Iran and Iraq. Others, however, affirm that it is a local invention, conceived by the mountain-dwellers to savor smoking using handmade tools made from the available resources. Midwākh has been known in the UAE for a long time as a smoking tool used by the elderly during informal gatherings, though many concede that the tradition was born in Oman decades ago. Historically, tobacco entered the Middle East around 1500 CE, during the Ottoman Empire. Since then, there have been several attempts to ban the smoking of all kinds of tobacco. Yet, no matter the source, midwākh has been widespread throughout the vestiges of Emirati society, and in particular among youth. Al-Maydour notes that, as yet, there are no accurate statistics on midwākh use, adding that “the existing statistics are on tobacco use, which indicate that 16% of 13 to 15 year olds smoke tobacco.” However, a senior official from Scorpion, a UAE-based company specialized in selling tobacco for midwākh and established in 2010, affirms that the majority of customers are over 18 years old, and have mid to high incomes. He notes that the most prominent markets for midwākh are the UAE and other Gulf countries, as well as the US. According to al-Maydour, midwākh is just as harmful as cigarettes and hookahs, and she refers to it as a social scourge. Many have tried midwākh before reaching the age of 11, or even become regular smokers due to peer pressure, she says. For these youth, the advantages of smoking midwākh are many; the feeling of lightheadedness, and the pleasant smell that does not cling to fabrics the way cigarettes do, making it easy to conceal the activity from concerned parents. The spread of midwākh among young Emiratis is no exception; schools in Qatar and Bahrain have also become rife with the pipes, and the phenomenon has even reared its head in Saudi Arabia. Al-Maydour contends that midwākh is particularly problematic due to the large concentrations of nicotine it provides over a short period of time, affirming that it results in nicotine addiction. Among the possible risks from smoking midwākh are strokes, blood clots, throat and lung infections, as well as gum, mouth, and tongue cancer. Yet, despite these hazards that are commonly associated with smoking worldwide, she states that there is insufficient awareness and efforts to counter the use of midwākh. In this context, she highlights the efforts made in Gulf countries, in particular the law for countering smoking that was declared in all GCC countries, aiming to regulate all types of tobacco, including midwākh. Al-Maydour further points out that raising the prices of midwākh and doukha could contribute to limiting the number of smokers among the youth, noting that its use among young people remains “a relatively recent phenomenon that requires further studies and research in order to be efficiently and responsibly countered.”
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