For several months the hookah served as an icebreaker as I worked my way around the Middle East. Embracing the culture, I learned to appreciate the traditions and social norms attached to this symbol of community.
While the beginnings of this exotic device are unclear, several sources from the 16th century mention a “water pipe” being used in Persia and India. I assume the new pastime caught on quickly considering the popular hookah bars and countless smokers you come across anywhere in the region. I’d see whole families park their car, break out their hookah, sometimes alongside a portable grill, and whip up a kebab while smoking away, right on the side of the road. How damn cool is that!
In the States we have a habit to associate ALL smoking devices with marijuana or some paraphernalia. To tack taboo on the alien. It’s a shame as the hookah serves, more than anything else, as a way for people to congregate in a respectable setting, over civil discourse and a glass of tea, a game of backgammon or simply to gossip. I try to liken the experience to going out for a drink, but that usually leads to drunken debauchery… at least in my case (not really)… Moving forward!
In the image below we have the deconstructed skeletal remains of one hookah. On the left you see the hose. This specimen was a gift I collected in Jordan, Bedouin in style of red velvet and gold ornamentation. On the right side we have the stem, which consists of an air valve, a port for the hose and at the top, a tray for ash and the port for the bowl, which you see at the bottom of the image where the “sheesha” or tobacco is placed. Finally we have the vase, basically a reservoir for water in which the smoke, after passing through the stem, bubbles through the water and passes to the hose.
Aside from the body all that’s needed for a good time… is a piece of charcoal and a dollop of molasses soaked tobacco.
I’m not terribly familiar with the various heat sources you can apply as charcoal has always been available to me. Apparently there are other materials you can use which produce a carbon free smoke and cut out any toxins, such as coconut based coal.
Widely known as sheesha or “mu’assel” in Arabic, the tobacco used in smoking hookah is a product of sweet alchemy. Two vastly unique ingredients coming together in perfect unison. Dried tobacco forms the base ingredient which is flavored with a small amount of dried herbs or fruit. The mixture is then covered in honey or molasses before being macerated with a low amount of glycerol to maintain the needed moisture.
“Nakhla” seems to be the preferred brand of sheesha, smoked across the globe. Translating to “Palm”, they supply an army of 50+ flavors. Here I’m sticking with the old standby “Double Apple”.
The bowl, sitting snug atop the stem, is packed with sheesha then covered in foil, which acts as a medium between the wet tobacco and the hot coal.
With a setup like this a typical “session” can run about an hour. In 60 minutes traditions and language barriers become a thing of the past.
Not ready to give up my new pastime i’ve been seeking out hookah bars across Kansas City, finding authentic experiences here and unsavory there. I’m happy with the trend thats caught fire as Middle Eastern cafes pop up and the hookah emerges from the East.
If you’re ever in the area I highly recommend paying a visit to these flagships of sheesha culture in the States.
Aladdin Cafe– Exquisite Mediterranean fare and hookah on demand
Hookah Haven– Open late into the night H.Haven serves as more of a club. A lounge for watching the game over hookah, rather than the typical PBR.
Istanbul, Turkey- My 22nd birthday. Breezing through a lemon/mint concoction. Here you see me with the self proclaimed “Hookah King”.
Aqaba, Jordan- This has to be one of my favorite pictures from the Middle East. On a beach in Aqaba I befriended a gang of hookah enthusiasts who, after passing the initiation, let me join them in the rounds.
As you see below, not much has changed!
Whether in NYC or Istanbul, I would love to hear about your experiences smoking sheesha!