The Hookah: A History
For most people, the first time they saw a hookah was in the Disney movie “Alice in Wonderland.” I still remember him, all blue and stretched out on that off-purple lounger, blowing smoke in the shape of the vowels as a bewildered Alice looked on. My folks smoked cigarettes so I’d seen that before, but I’d never seen a tall vase with a hose coming out of it being lackadaisically puffed on by a gigantic humanoid insect. Fortunately, gigantic humanoid insects that dryly feed us riddles aren’t real, but hookahs are, and they’re pretty interesting.
The legitimate origin of the hookah is still somewhat contested, although they can be pretty comfortably placed as first appearing during the 1500s, either from Persia (modern day Iran) or the region formerly known as Gurkani which is now Afghanistan and parts of India. The technology traveled throughout Southeast Asia and made its way to the Levant and Egypt. It gained popularity and a cultural foothold in this region and became a closer relative to the hookah we know today.
In India, the hookah became a sign of aristocracy and status. This was after a court physician recommended the system as a way to “purify” smoking after tobacco was introduced to the region. The “cleaner” smoke was meant to be healthier, and eventually smoking became an encouraged practice by ambassadors and the upper class.
Hookah bars have been gaining popularity in newer demographics over the past ten to fifteen years here in the U.S., but in the Middle East hookah use is widespread and often part of cultural or spiritual practices. However, some places like Saudi Arabia and parts of India, especially Gujarat, there have been bans and raids on hookah usage.
The hookah is a unique form of smoking when you consider the pieces most of us are familiar with. Though it bares resemblance to a water bong, the hookah functions by passing super-heated air over the blend inside via burning charcoal and vaporizes it without burning it. The vapor then travels through the body of the hookah into the water jar through a gasket where it is cooled and floats up to hose or hoses where it is inhaled. Hookahs can have one hose or multiple, making them ideal for group situations. One of the most popular substances to use with a hookah besides tobacco is Mu’assel (which is Arabic for “honeyed”) also known as shisha. This is a tobacco mix with glycerol and molasses on it which adds unique flavors.
They range from very simple to rather ornate and complex in design, and a wide array of materials can be used for their construction. Bowls are typically made of clay, glass, or marble and the hoses can be created out of wood, metal, or plastic. Small handheld versions exist as well, although these typically rely on direct flame for use as opposed to the full vaporization setup of a more expansive hookah.
Hookahs are an enjoyable way to spend some time with friends and it’s definitely worth giving one a try if you’ve never experienced it before. I spent many nights in college watching the sunset from a garage while waiting my turn at pong casually taking pulls from a hookah, and always enjoyed the flavor and experience. It’s kind of funny how throughout history smoking accessories begin as status symbols of the elite and make their way to rampant availability for all. Now if it was only the same with, you know, money.