Dokha, colloquially known as "Dook", is a traditional Middle Eastern tobacco, typically mixed with flowers, herbs, spices or fruits. In Dubai, where it's more common than standard tobacco, it's usually smoked through a wooden pipe. Now, however, as more students from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) move to the UK, it's made its way to British universities and the kind of pipes traditionally used to smoke other stuff typically enjoyed by people who only have to concentrate for a one-hour seminar per day.
"We're now seeing a large rise in sales among British 20 to 40-year-olds, primarily male," says Alex from Enjoy Dokha, the company he started in 2011 to supply Dokha in the UK after spotting a gap in the market. Over the last few years, he's noticed more tobacconists in the UK starting to stock it on their own shelves, too. While it's only a refined form of tobacco – a stronger way of smoking a cigarette, essentially – the hit you get is far more intense. A bowl of dokha, depending on the intensity, contains as much nicotine as three to five cigarettes in one hit. It is, Alex says, like drinking an espresso instead of a cappuccino.
I'm quite a heavy cigarette smoker, but the first time I tried dokha at a friend's house I was coughing and spluttering all over the place, left confused by the whole experience.
Omar, 21, is a student at Birkbeck University. He reckons in Dubai, where he's from, around 70 percent of 15 to 18-year-olds smoke it. He tells me my experience is normal. "The first four or five times that you ever smoke will be filled with coughs. I've seen people who are drunk smoke it for the first time and throw up," he says. "Some people even pass out, which happens more frequently than you think."
My friend Chad, who studies at UCL, has been smoking dokha since the age of 13. He smokes a bowl every day. "It becomes the way that you wake up in the morning. Your entire body just has this feeling of ultimate relaxation, your head just kind of goes back to sleep, but your eyes don't, and you're like, 'Woaah.' And then, 30 seconds later, you're fine and, if anything, a bit more awake."
Chad thinks that dokha might be such a "knock-out" because it feels like the oxygen is being cut-off from the brain. This may explain why I thought it felt similar to laughing gas, which does exactly that. Both of them give a very quick, immediate rush and what Chad describes as an "ultra-light-headed feeling". In Arabic, dokha itself can be translated as "buzz", or is sometimes interpreted as meaning "dizzy". It's this very brief escapism that attracts him to dokha, Chad says: "When you're having a bowl, you're not thinking about anything else apart from maximising and embracing the oncoming buzz with open arms."
Andrea Skye, an art student in London, tells me that if he's really drunk, dokha can enhance the feeling. "If I have a few Long Island Iced Teas and I have a bowl, it makes my receptors very sensitive to everything," he says. "I just become extremely sensitive and then I'm just fucked. I don't enjoy that because I can't communicate with people and I'm just like, 'I'm done.'"
It becomes the way that you wake up in the morning. Your entire body has this feeling of ultimate relaxation.
Dokha easily becomes addictive. Many students from the UAE can't quit when they move abroad, hence its growing prevalence in the UK. "After your first year, you don't get the same sort of buzzes any more, so people start smoking more intense stuff, and more regularly," Omar tells me.
There's a lack of research about the effects of dokha. Mike, 21, is a student at Oxford Brookes. "All the long-term effects or dangers I read about seem to either be unreliable, myths, legends or just assumptions," he says. Thing is, it's tobacco: it's definitely not going to be good for you – and experts suggest it may well be worse than cigarettes, despite the fact it's all-natural and doesn't contain any additives.
What Mike can guess from his own experience is that: "It has a large effect on appetite, on the health of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, on energy, focus and concentration." Both Mike and Omar seem to think that it's worse for you than smoking, based on the fact it contains so much nicotine and "also the fact that we don't really know what we are smoking", says Mike.
Dokha originated in Gilaki in northern Iran in the 1400s. According to Mike, "It was smoked by sailors originally because it was perfect for using out at sea. Over the next few hundred years it was widely smoked in the Ottoman Empire, where there were many attempts to ban and outlaw the smoking of all tobacco, which ironically ended up making the smoking of dokha more popular in the Middle East."
Reason being, it's harder to tell whether or not people have been smoking dokha. There's almost no second-hand smoke, so the smell doesn't stick to clothing or fingers in the same way as cigarettes.
The ritual of smoking a pipe seems to be part of dokha's appeal. "People like their pipes – they like the process of filling it, of carrying it," says Omar. "In the UAE they really take pride in their pipes; there's a lot of personalisation in dokha and ways to express difference." At Enjoy Dokha they sell 30 different kinds of pipes, including a pipe made out of a rare deer horn for £69 [€95].
In Dubai, dokha works much like drinking does here – as a social lubricant. Omar describes it as "a base of conversation and a mutual understanding of what they like – it's a sense of community for them".
Alex from Enjoy Dokha reckons people in the UK like the convenience of it. "For people whose bosses didn't like their cigarette breaks, dokha is very quick," he says. "You smoke it for five seconds and you're done for the day." It's also cheap – about £20 [€27] for a 50ml bottle from a British site, which will get you between 100 to 115 smokes from your pipe. Compare that to a £9 [€12] pack of straights and it's not hard to see why people like it.
But could dokha really replace smoking for some Brits? "It depends on your smoking habits," says Omar. "My uncle actually quit smoking through dokha, because it's more intense than a cigarette."
My own experience of smoking dokha didn't make me want to take it up over cigarettes; I enjoy a cigarette's duration, even if it is only about three minutes. Chad agrees: "It couldn't replace smoking for me; I love cigarettes. If I didn't love cigarettes, I wouldn't smoke. I think it should be viewed as a different thing to tobacco, even though it's still nicotine."
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