History of the hookah and why it became so popular!
Hookah is a smoking apparatus that emerges from Middle Eastern traditions that have now become popularized worldwide by both college students and hookah bars alike. The term hookah refers to both the activity and the apparatus used to smoke a mixture of flavored tobacco, shisha, or maasal. What makes shisha or maasal unique to tobacco is that it is mixed with sweeteners such as dried fruit, molasses, or honey in order to add additional flavoring to the smoke vapors produced.
The hookah itself is an intricately designed water pipe designed with recreation and socialization in mind. Traditionally, a group of friends or family members casually sits around a hookah as a means of recreation, slowly passing the hookah pipe from one person to the next. It is a common misconception to associate hookah with illegal drugs and narcotics, but this is not the case. In fact, hookah emerged from South Asian and Middle Eastern cultural practices exercised by both the wealthy upper classes and intellectual elites. Though the hookah is now recognized worldwide as an exotic smoking activity, its origins and diversification throughout Asian, Middle Eastern and world history enrich this now internationalized smoking tradition with interesting anecdotes and cultural nuances.
What is a hookah pipe?
A hookah can be a single or multi-stemmed apparatus for vaporizing and smoking flavored tobacco. Traditionally, hookahs are made of glass although they can also be found made of brass, other metals, or ceramics, and they can be adorned with ornate paintings and intricate designs.
Modern-day hookahs are typically oblong objects that look quite similar to the base of a glass lamp without a lampshade. Though they are peculiar in appearance, a surprising amount of engineering and physics goes into a hookah’s design. Its mechanism operates through suction, passing vapor or smoke through a chamber of water at the bottom of the vase. The suction is propelled by a straw used by hookah smokers. Inside the hookah, coals are positioned to generate heat through suction. These coals are usually covered by a filter, which can be either a metal screen or punched foil, and they activate when the smoker pulls air through the smoking straws, stimulating vapor production. With the passing air, the heated coals emit smoke, which is pulled downward into the underwater basin of the hookah.
Consequently, the smoke rises to the surface of the water inside the vessel as vapor, and then it makes its way up through the tubing and is pulled by the smoking straws into the smoker’s mouth. Some hookahs also include a release valve in order to eliminate excess smoke and to generate a cleaner vapor upon the next inhalation.
What are the hookah’s origins?
As a means of tracing hookah history, the concept of hookah originates along the border of India and Pakistan during the sixteenth century. Linguistically, the modern word can trace its roots from the word “huqqa” in Hindi-Urdu, which was the original term used for the smoking apparatus. Though different names were used, similar smoking instruments can be found throughout the history of other South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures. For instance, in Arabic it was called an argileh, and in Persian it was named a shisha. Examinations of shisha history, hookah origins, and the emergence of its more colloquial nomenclature demonstrate how widespread and popularized the tradition of hookah was as both a cultural ritual and pastime in both South Asia and the Middle East.
Hookahs are first accounted for in western tradition when Roman Catholic missionaries arrived to southern India to convert native Indians to Catholicism during the mid 1500s. The missionaries brought tobacco with them and introduced it to Akbar the Great, the Mughal emperor of the region. It was then that the hookah was invented for tobacco smoking.
Nonetheless, scholars of Middle Eastern history often dispute that similar smoking devices were referenced in other cultures at earlier times. Scholars of shisha history point out that classic Persian poetry in particular makes allusions to smoking devices similar to the hookah. Regardless of place, it is confirmed that tobacco was not popularized in these regions until the period of European colonization.
If hookah smoking did in fact exist as a cultural practice prior to the colonial period, researchers believe that other organic materials were probably smoked. These materials include cannabis, opium, and other herbal amalgams. Initially, hookah smoking was limited to the elite, including nobility, intellectuals, and religious leaders. By smoking hookah, these figures were able to clear their minds, reflect and think deeply about social, political, and philosophical matters with the aims of coming to thoughtful resolutions.
Anecdotally, the utilization of the water pipe is said to have been implemented as a cultural practice in order to purify the smoke before its inhalation, thus inspiring deeper reflection. Despite the veracity of hookah’s true origins, records of hookah smoking can be found in the histories of India, Pakistan, Turkey, the majority of Middle Eastern nations, Middle Asia, and portions of Northern Africa with arabic influence.
Turkey in particular is responsible for integrating the hookah as an additional leisure activity to use in its coffee shops. In fact, the Turkish implementation of the hookah helped to popularize the tradition, placing it in the hands of a wider range of social classes. During the original implementation of hookah in coffee shops, waiters were highly revered for their abilities to skillfully prepare tobacco for hookah smoking. Patrons would spend hours lounging in coffee bars, sipping coffee, and smoking hookah as a means of relaxation and discussion of politics and local events.
Why is hookah so popular today?
In modern times, hookah smoking has become popularized worldwide. Hookah bars are prevalent in large cities and suburban areas. Tobacco and shisha shops are also quite commonplace throughout the world. In fact, many college-aged students choose to purchase their own hookahs from smoke shops in order to smoke hookah independently or with a group of friends. The reason for hookah’s popularity can be attributed to several factors. First, it is perceived as exotic. Emerging from non-western traditions, smoking hookah carries a distinct alternative vibe to it. The fact that not all people are aware of hookah history means that merely seeing a hookah can provoke curiosity and stimulate conversation among peers. What’s more, hookah smoking still maintains its heritage as a social activity, and as such groups can gather together around a hookah and use it to converse, relax, and unwind.
Furthermore, the coffee shop vibe and casual environment of hookah establishments is sometimes desired by young people. Those wishing to participate in nightlife activities may actually prefer the leisurely atmosphere of a hookah bar in order to avoid the noise and fast-paced nature of nightclub hopping and consuming alcohol. Finally, because hookah uses pure, natural tobacco without any additional chemicals or additives, it is perceived to be less habit-forming and therefore less harmful to one’s health than traditional cigarette smoking.
Though it has risen in popularity throughout the world, hookah smoking still carries with it a certain level of exoticism that makes it a unique pastime and leisure activity. Appreciating the cultural origins of hookah only enhances its panache, elucidating some of its common myths and misconceptions, and inviting newcomers to experience hookah for its cultural merit.