The History of the Hookah Pipe

Hookah pipes, like many traditional curios shared amongst different cultures, are devices with many names. In the West, the name “hookah” is generally accepted as the term for the water pipe while the word “shisha” is applied to the flavored tobacco one would smoke out of it. In the Middle East, Eurasia, and South Asia (the birthplace of the modern hookah as we know it), the pipe itself is referred to as the “shisha,” while the hookah tobacco is called “Mu’assal,” “Moassal,” or “Tombak,” amongst others. Different names for this fascinating pastime vary depending on one’s geographical location and cultural history.

old_hookah_2-SIn Turkey, for example, one smokes from a “Nargile,” while across the border in Syria one would walk into a tea house and order a “Narguileh” to relax and enjoy the company one is with. Travel further east in a tea house in Iran and you’ll be served a “Ghalyn,” which is enjoyed in the exact same fashion as it is in neighboring countries. In India, the birthplace of the modern day hookah (the term “hookah” comes from the ancient India word “hukkah,” or “coconut,” which is what the first hookahs were made of), you’ll find that the country is seeing a resurgence of Indian youth partaking in hookah smoking, a prestigious activity once reserved only for the noble class.

Recently, the United States and Canada have seen a surge in popularity of hookah smoking, especially amongst young adults in college towns. While the origins of the hookah can be traced back all the way to the Ottoman Empire, it is a relatively new phenomenon in North America. As little as 10 years ago, hookah tobacco could only be found in Arabic grocery stores and specialty smoke shops, and the selection was limited to only a few brands with a handful of traditional flavors.

old_hookah_1-sToday, thanks to the growing population of people of Eastern descent carrying this time-honored tradition over to the US in the form of hookah lounges and cafes, hookah smoking is reaching a wider audience and gaining popularity. Today’s hookah smoker has dozens of brands of hookah tobacco to choose from, in hundreds of different flavors, as well as a large selection of hookah charcoal to fit anyone’s particular tastes. Modern technologies such as online vendors specializing in hookah and shisha products, discussion forums focusing on hookah culture, hookah-related blogs, and YouTube have spread the art of hookah smoking even further.

So what is it about a hookah that is so appealing to people of such diversity? At first glance, a group of friends sitting around a tall water pipe puffing away may not seem that extraordinary. However, any regular partaker of the hookah will tell you that no hookah smoking session is the same – the art of preparing the hookah bowl, the sharing of personal and traditional techniques, the careful and delicate maintenance of the hookah coals one must observe, the miracles of physics that come together to make the perfect hookah smoke, the company – all elements that make hookah smoking more than just a novelty but in fact a traditional pastime that bridges cultural differences in peaceful harmony. To some, hookahs and shisha tobacco can be admired and respected in the same way one would admire a fine wine.

To many, there is no better expression of style and festivity than one experiences with friends, family, and hookah. What will the future bring for hookahs? We can only wait and see…

Hookah Smoking Tips & Tricks

  1. Try putting ice in the glass base of your hookah and get the water ice cold before smoking. This makes for a smoother more enjoyable smoking experience.
  2. While some people smoke the hookah like one would smoke a cigar, others inhale the smoke. Neither way is more correct than the other – personal preference is what hookahs are all about!
  3. When you first start smoking your hookah, try placing the charcoal on the outside of the bowl and working it around the edges of the bowl. The center of the bowl should be the last place your charcoal is placed.
  4. Because of it’s consistency, shisha tends to clump up. Before you pack the bowl, crumble it up in your fingers to spread it out throughout the bowl.
  5. Once you get the bowl packed, take a square of aluminum foil from one of our hookah foil packs. Wrap the foil over the top so that the surface is tight. Use a toothpick or another small pointed implement to poke a bunch of tiny holes in the foil. Place the charcoal on the foil once the charcoal has thoroughly heated up and is covered by a fine layer of ash. Letting the coal burn some before placing it on the bowl will help prevent contamination by charcoal flavor.
  6. When you place the foil tightly over the hookah bowl, make sure the shiny side is facing down so it will retain more heat from the charcoal.
  7. It’s good to always blow out the smoke that collects in the glass base every once in a while so the smoke does not become stale. This gets rid of some of the harsh flavor from the stale smoke, and is said to help remove a layer of carbon monoxide that is said to collect just above the water.
  8. Take a piece of charcoal and split it into 2 pieces or 4 pieces and put them on the corners of your bowl to get a nice even burn. The more coals you use the more smoke you will get and the less coals you use the less smoke you will get. (note: don’t use too much coal though because you start to get a harsh taste).
  9. When packing your hookah bowl line the inside of the bowl with foil and then punch through the holes on the inside of the bowl. The foil lining prevents flavor from soaking into the clay bowl (not necessary for metal or glazed bowls).
  10. If the smoke gets too “ashy or harsh” then possible take off some coal. If you’re not getting enough smoke then add some coal.

Traditional Hookah Smoking Practices

Traditional Practices (not so mandatory) for your average session…

  1. The hookah should always be on the floor or on a level lower than the smokers and the head of the hookah should be lower than the head of the smokers. This is to show that the hookah is our servant in a sense. We should not be slave to the hookah/nicotine. Placing your hookah on a table is also seen as an insult to the people you’re with. It’s telling them they are lower than your smoking pipe.
  2. Hold the hose with the right hand only while smoking. The left hand is seen as unclean in the Middle East.
  3. When passing the hose, point the tip of it towards yourself and gently fold the hose along the handle. Pass the folded and to the next person while averting your gaze. Pointing the tip at someone else is seen as aggressive and pushy.
  4. When receiving the hose from someone else, slightly tap their hand as a sign of “thank you” and “respect”.  It’s a very slight and subtle move that you’re unlikely to see outside of the Middle East. It lets the person know that you’ve accepted the offer while they avert their gaze.
  5. If you (and others) are done, wrap the hose around the shaft of the hookah. Do not simply lay the hose on the table and leave it loose. This keeps everything less cluttered and, at hookah bars, indicates that you’re done so the attendant can check in with you and address your needs.

What is a hookah? What is shisha?

What is a hookah?

A hookah is a water pipe.  It is different than other forms of smoking because heated coals evaporate the tobacco rather than burning it.  One bowl of shisha can last up to 45 minutes.

What is shisha?

Shisha is the traditional name for flavored tobacco smoked in a hookah.  Shisha is high quality tobacco with only molasses and flavoring added.