BACKGROUND: Throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region (EMR), tobacco is used primarily in two forms: cigarette smoking and waterpipe (called narghile (nar-GIL-eh) in Syria) smoking. OBJECTIVE: To explore whether narghile smokers are different from cigarette smokers in how their smoking habits are embedded in their everyday lives. METHODS: One-to-one interviews with 16 adult narghile smokers and 16 adult cigarette smokers about their feelings, experiences and beliefs regarding their initiation, use patterns, and attempts to quit. FINDINGS: Narghile smokers found that narghile was a pleasurable social experience embedded in cultural rituals. By contrast, cigarette smokers saw their cigarette smoking as a mundane, oppressive, personal addiction. Narghile smokers generally started in their 20s and found that smoking narghile fostered a sense of togetherness and cultural identity, while cigarette smokers started in their early teens, males having started to becoming a "real man". Unlike cigarette smokers who felt stigmatised, narghile smokers generally felt that smoking narghile was socially accepted. Cigarette smokers believed that cigarettes were harmful to their health and harmful to those around them, but narghile smokers believed smoking narghile was relatively harmless to themselves or to others. Unlike cigarette smokers who used cigarettes to manage stress, narghile smokers used narghile for entertainment, leisure, and escape. However, frequent narghile smokers confessed that they felt addicted in much the same way as cigarette smokers. Cigarette smokers and narghile smokers viewed quitting as a matter of will and conviction. Most cigarette smokers had tried to quit. Very few narghile smokers had ever tried to quit, and most were not interested in quitting. Disturbingly, some cigarette smokers had tried to quit cigarettes by switching to smoking narghile, but later relapsed to smoking cigarettes. CONCLUSIONS: This exploratory study suggests that Syrian narghile smokers are different from Syrian cigarette smokers in their perceptions and beliefs about their smoking, and in their smoking patterns and lived experiences with tobacco. Our findings indicate that further in-depth research is need in the EMR to understand both modes of smoking to develop effective mode-specific prevention and cessation approaches. This study also raises concerns about a possible pattern where cigarette smokers are using narghile as a method for quitting cigarettes, and then relapsing.