Hookah, also known as Shisha, involves adults smoking flavored tobacco from a water pipe in which they pass a hose and take a puff among family or friends. It centers around conversations and promotes a more connectedness among those participating. Hookah is deeply rooted in a cultural tradition that has been present throughout generations among Persian, Indian, Turkish, Egyptian and other Middle Eastern families. Its gesture is more than an entertaining social activity or means to relax, it’s a way that families, relatives, friends and business associates in these cultures provide hospitality and strengthen bonds with one another.
It was in 16th century when for the first time Abul-Fath Gilani (d. 1588), proficient physician at the Indian court of Emperor Akbar, passed the smoke of tobacco through a bowl of water to purify and cool the smoke and thus invented the hookah. During this period, smoking tobacco also became popular amongst the noblemen in high society. In an attempt to purify smoke through water in a glass base called a “Shisha”, the Hookah was invented. Hookah soon cemented itself as a way for noblemen to show their high social status. Shisha – the word Shisha comes from the persian word shisheh meaning glass. Alternate terms discussed here originate from terms for the smoking material itself but none of them are used among English-speakers with the same frequency as shisha due to its distinctive double voiceless postalveolar fricative.
Shisha is also known as Narghila in classical Arabic, and Argileh in spoken Arabic (Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian accents).
In the 17th century, Hookah became a part of Persian culture where a strong, dark leaf tobacco called Ajami was used. Craftsmen took pride in the aesthetics and redefined the look of the pipe through woodworking. For the first time, Hookah became accessible to everyone and an industry of hookah servants emerged. Even the Shah at the time had his own servants for hookah.
The Hookah tradition spread into the Middle East throughout the 19th century. In Egypt, traditional forms of tobacco seen prior were reformulated into Mu’Assel by mixing honey or molasses with the tobacco. There are generally regarded to be two classifications of shisha tobacco: Mu’Assel and tumbak(ajami). Ajami shisha is made from pure tobacco leaves and is usually more expensive than Mu’Assel. Ajami shisha is soaked in water for 10 minutes and then shaped into an inverted cone and put on the bowl (or the head of the shisha, rass). The cone should be poked in the middle all the way down for allowing air in. A lit charcoal is placed on the top.
Mu’Assel translates directly as “with honey” but this term generally refers to a flavored tobacco as even dried lemon, grape, watermelon, and mint were added. Mu’Assel is made of tobacco, honey, fruits(apple, strawberries, mint, mixed fruit, etc.) and molasses. A deeper bowl is used for Mu’Assel than for ajami, and the lit charcoal is placed on a small sheet of punctured foil surmounting the bowl and its contents, rather than directly on the shisha. Hookah integrated into society so deeply in these parts that hookah cafes were built to house the ever-growing popularity. Hookah promoted a community amongst the patrons, uniting all classes, races, and genders alike. It was used as a way for people to relax, socialize and strengthen bonds with one another.
Throughout the 20th Century, hookah traditions continued to deepen in cultures throughout Persia, India, Turkey, the Middle East, and in neighboring countries such as Armenia, and Pakistan. However, by the late 1900s, hookah has migrated to virtually every continent as immigrants of these countries brought this custom with them to share a piece of their culture to the new world.
In the early 21st Century, a Hookah industry surfaced in the United States as early pioneers found ways to improve the quality of products using modern technology. Innovations in flavors choices beyond the traditional were also crafted to address the demands of current-day taste preference and variety.
Today, in the United States and around the world, hookah has hardly broken from tradition as it is still revered as a way to show respect and provide good hospitality as it was 100s of years ago. Family members, close friends and new acquaintances come together and deepen ties over a hookah in the same way it has been done for generations. Hookah is a part of an extensive community that brings people together despite social class, religion, or political beliefs. While there have been advancements in hookah over the years, the practice remains deeply rooted in tradition. And for many people spanning numerous nationalities, hookah is…a cultural expression.