History of the Hookah
Many old school Disney kids think of a sassy caterpillar on a mushroom when they hear the word hookah. Alice in Wonderland was an introduction for the ages on that one, even if it wasn’t the most accurate. The picture detailed a vase with a hose and the smoke pluming out in fantastical shapes while the characters do their thing, making for a fluid animation that was both intriguing and eye catching. Though it’s true that the western understanding of this practice wasn't the greatest back in the 1990s, these kinds of representations pose ways to expand our understanding of a beautiful tradition.
The hookah is a water pipe that has been used for the last few centuries by a few different cultures for the purpose of smoking herbs and often flavored tobacco. Throughout time, smoking through a hookah has been a social event, meant for more than one person to enjoy and kick back. Hookah poses an incredible opportunity to get closer to the people around you while simultaneously enjoying the flavors and effects the herbs have to offer.
Though the hookah tradition goes back centuries, the modern era shows no signs of slowing down the spread in interest for the hookah and its applications. The aesthetic of the hookah varies wildly now, leaving a wide expanse to explore for the new user. This proves to be a great opportunity for hookah bars and lounges across the world, but there’s a lot many people just don’t know yet.
With this most recent pique in interest in modern day hookah in mind, we think it’s important to understand the history and experience that hookah holds, and to review the cultural significance of the fantastical looking water pipe. It’s important to know the hookah is not just something to smoke out of, the hookah is a symbol and a staple of many historical happenings. What it represents, how it works, what it’s used for and more are all more than worth exploring.
With this goal at heart, we’ve compiled a brief history of the hookah, what the term means, a brief dive into the modern application of the term, and how to use one.
The Word Hookah
The term hookah stems from a word meaning “pot” or “jar, and “cavity or hollow”. This word is haqqa, which is specifically an early Arabic derivative. While the terms for hookah vary throughout the world, the most common names for this pipe are nargeela, shisha, okka, goza, and more. These names are attributed to different cultures across continents, including Indian, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, and more.
With so many names for a single kind of item, it can be difficult to trace the origin of the term and the item it represents. It’s often debated on whether the hookah originally made its debut in India or Persia, and depending on who you talk to, the story might change. The important thing to note is that no matter where it came from, the hookah is a staple of many cultural settings from many walks of life.
The hookah is a symbol first and foremost. Historically, (as we’ll go over in just a second) the hookah was built for high up officials and sultans to smoke together and talk. It was a push for understanding, togetherness, and friendship.
Hookah Through Time
Believed to have originated in India in the 15th century, the hookah as it is known today was a direct result in an increase in trade with the British East India Trading Company, which provided glass and glass products to India at the time. During this period, smoking tobacco had taken the region by storm and was a widely popular way of spending time. Combined with the status that smoking provided, and a need to better purify the smoke, the hookah trends boomed and spread through neighboring areas.
The 16th century saw the hookah become something of a status symbol. High ranking officials and noble people were smoking through a hookah. During this time, different designs and aesthetics were tried, leading to a widely varying selection of the modern hookah.
The 17th century took the hookah influence and carried it through Persia. At this point, the hookah become more of a mainstream luxury, with hookah use becoming accessible to everyone. There are records of dedicated servants for the use of hookah, including high official leaders.
By the start of the 18th century, hookah had migrated to Turkey, where innovation really started to take wing. While the previous versions included more woodwork and aesthetic features, the 18th century hookah sported metal finishes and brass castings. These new and improved hookah setups were adorned with royal and religious symbols, turning them into family heirlooms over time. Hookah was a symbol of high societal status in 18th century Turkish culture, and was smoked during important diplomatic and royal meetings.
Egypt and other parts of the Middle East started to jump on the hookah train in the 19th century. At this point, traditional tobacco was mixed with honey and other additives to sweeten and brighten the flavor, which was specific to this time. At this point, hookah was so ingrained in the culture of these countries that hookah lounges were found throughout cities. The hookah drew folks in, regardless of social status or other outlying differences. It stood as a unique unifier between social groups.
The 20th century saw further spread of the hookah seed, with very much the same results. By this time, places like Israel, Pakistan, and Armenia had experienced hookah and its properties. With each country, the hookah tradition gained a little more specific attributes to those regions, leaving the next rendition of it all just a little different than the last.
Modern Uses for Hookah
In much the same way that hookah’s influence had spread before, the interest in smoking this way has made its way to the modern era.
With the world becoming smaller and smaller with the help of the internet and the lack of new places to explore, different cultures are starting to really explore one another.
In the United States specifically, hookah is making big waves. With hookah bars and lounges sprouting up across the nation, more and more casual users are learning the greatness that is the hookah. Commonly referred to as shisha, (which technically just refers to the glass part of the pipe) the hookah provides a great and easy to use way of smoking with friends.
Since the United States has age restrictions for tobacco products, anyone admitted to the hookah bar might need to show identification to smoke, so be prepared for that.
Hookah in the modern day is used for a variety of different herb based products. Marijuana can be smoked in a hookah, and provides an evenly dispersed way of sharing if the group has enough mouthpiece hoses. Tobacco is traditionally smoked in the hookah, so many smokers use it for this purpose as well.
Traditionally, hookah is a social event meant to bring people close together. This is one of many aspects of hookah that has not been overlooked. Today, friends and family, acquaintances and others can get together for a session with a hookah in much the same way we did in the days of yesteryear. Though hookah is now much more accessible to the common people, the effect stays the same.
Hookah and You
Though a super common means of hookah use is through a hookah bar, the ability to purchase one for your own home is now more pervasive than ever. Most smoke shops won’t have a hookah readily available, but can order one for you upon request. The variety online is something to consider as well!
Online retailers like Amazon, EBay, Walmart and more might be right up your alley for a hookah purchase. Just like with any other online purchases though, be sure to research the product you’re buying. Hookah setups can be a little pricey depending on the model you choose and the material it’s made of. Cheaper alternatives can seem like a dream come true, but just remember you sometimes get what you pay for.
Smoking through any material without a high heat tolerance and a chemical lined vase can lead to some serious health complications later down the line. While smoking isn’t really the best for you anyway, there are things you can do to protect yourself from adverse effects regardless. Choosing a quality pipe can help to elevate your hookah experience and keep your health at the forefront of your mind. Be sure that if you’re smoking herbs to research the plants before you put them to smoke. Some herbs, when mixed together, can have some damaging effects as well. A good rule of thumb is that if you buy it specifically for smoking, it should be from a reputable source.
How to Use a Hookah
In general, the hookah has many parts. All of these parts should be cleaned and sanitized prior to smoking, since the water and the dark warm environment on the inside can be a great breeding ground for bacteria. Be sure to practice safe and clean smoking when using your hookah with yourself or with others.
At the top of the hookah, you’ll find the bowl where the coals and tobacco should be placed. If you’re familiar with the layout of the hookah, you’ll know that this is then connected to stem release valves, hose ports where the mouth pieces connect, and a vase where the water sits.
At its core, a hookah is ignited using a hot coal placed with flavored tobacco into the bowl at the top. After a few minutes, the user takes a draw from the mouthpiece on the hose, pulling air through the heated coal and into the tobacco, releasing smoke in through the vase. The water at the bottom of the base offers a cooling effect to the smoke, and makes for a creamy fog like consistency for easy smoking.
A good rule of thumb for any hookah experience is to work your way up. Just like any other smoked herbs, smoking hookah tobacco can come with a solid plume of smoke which makes for coughing and an irritated throat.
The biggest thing hookahs need is a hot coal to burn evenly throughout the herb. When setting up a hookah, be sure to evenly distribute the tobacco around the heated coal as best you can. This will ensure that the smoke is as pure as possible and you’re not singing your product.
The colder the water, the more cooling effect the smoke will have. For an extra cold boost, you can add ice cubes to the vase. The cooling sensations help with irritation, burn out, and flavor depending on the herb.
You can also add fruit to the vase for an added boost of fruity flavor to any herb you’re smoking.
All in all, the hookah has been an incredible symbol of togetherness, cultural acceptance, and learning. While the practical uses might have changed, the purpose and sentiment stays the same.
Hookah is a tradition that transcends time, region, and use. Modern applications of the hookah can be directly traced back to the trials and tribulations of the countries the hookah helped to shape.
The hookah started in India and spread joy and acceptance to the rest of the world, using the premise of a good time with good friends.
If you decide to partake in a hookah session, it’s important to join in with an open mind. There’s a lot of history for such a small item, but it means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. While it’s not completely imperative you walk in there knowing everything there is to know about how the hookah came to be and what to expect, having a healthy understanding of a tradition you’re now taking part in can help. It’s also incredibly fulfilling to feel like you’re a part of something as timeless as the hookah tradition.