Pleasures of the hookah : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Pleasures of the hookah

by Angela Waldron

Seventeenth-century Istanbul: An elegantly dressed woman sits cross-legged on a low cushion before her nargile, a Turkish water pipe handcrafted by the finest artisans in all of Istanbul. It is a beautifully decorated Beykoz crystal flacon, ornamented in silver with a long sinuous tube covered in velvet extending from it. The ceramic pipe bowl is filled with dark, strong Latakiyya tobacco imported from Syria. Her servant brings a nugget of oak charcoal and carefully places it on top of the dampened tobacco as the woman brings the tube to her mouth, drawing leisurely on the amber mouthpiece in a series of slow, controlled puffs. The water in the pipe bubbles, along with the small sour cherries placed in it to provide her amusement. The crisp searing sound and smell of heated tobacco and ambergris used to perfume the water fills the room. Upon every draw, the soothing bubbling sound and onslaught of unadulterated nicotine lulls her into a sense of calm introspection. She purses her lips and exhales a delicate stream of smoke. A cloud of smoke wavers in the air as she sighs and slightly reclines.

In the beginning

Centuries have passed since the scenario described above, and while the setting has changed, the allure of the exotic remains. A popular feature of Turkish, Middle Eastern and Indian culture for centuries, nargile, or hookah, use over the last decade has not only experienced a revival in those countries, it has exploded worldwide, particularly in the United States and Europe. Today, in most major urban centers and university towns where there is an international population of students, you’ll find one or more hookah or sheesha lounges catering largely to the student demographic eager to incorporate this stimulating trend of flavored tobacco cooled by water into a lifestyle of lattes, laptops and Wi-Fi access, but hookah also appeals to tobacco connoisseurs and curious suburbanites alike. Typically, such establishments offer a wide array of water pipes to rent, flavored tobacco to choose from and assorted smoking paraphernalia to purchase along with coffee and other nonalcoholic drinks, and perhaps light food. The atmosphere and décor are typically evocative of Middle Eastern culture, replete with colorful carpets, travel posters, backgammon and satellite TV broadcasting Egyptian soap operas and music videos all in an exotically collegial atmosphere.

What is behind this youth-generated global revival, and what challenges face hookah lounges at home? Let us explore the history of this intriguing bubbling phenomenon. The Turkish nargile, or hookah, as it is called in the west, was known as kalyan in Persia, goza or sheeseh in Arabia, and hukka in India, where the hookah is said to originate from, emerging on the Ottoman smoking scene in the early 17th century, around the same time tobacco from the New World arrived  and not long after coffee from Arabia had insinuated itself into the populace.

Nargile is an Arabic word that comes from the Persian nagil, which means coconut, gourd or water pipe. In fact, primitive hookahs were made from gourds, coconut shells or wood with a reed stuck in to draw on. In English- and Arabic-speaking countries you might hear it referred to as a hubble-bubble. The earliest known image of a hookah dates from 1622, published in Tabacologia medico-cheururgico pharmaceutica by Dutch author Johann Neander. Several decades later, an anonymous Persian poet wrote the earliest-known literary reference to the hookah:

From your lips the water pipe draws enjoyment

In your mouth the reed turns sweet as sugar cane

It is not tobacco smoke around your face

It is a cloud that swirls around the moon

Prior to the hookah, tobacco was smoked in clay pipes with long stems, much like European pipes of the time. While clay pipes remained popular with the masses for their portability and ease, the newly introduced mellowed combination of water and tobacco was an instant hit, and the hookah’s popularity rapidly spread through the vast reaches of the Ottoman Empire and eventually to Europe, where it was introduced via the Janissaries—the Sultan’s elite military guard. Further west, over the last century and a half, many of us were introduced to the hookah at an early age thanks to Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar, brought to life by illustrator John Tenniel in Alice in Wonderland. The heyday of the hookah spanned the 17th to 19th centuries, when smoking it became a highly refined art form and beloved tradition satisfying the human predilection for ritual, relaxation and gratification. The hookah’s slow decline began when cigarettes were introduced in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century cigarettes not only changed the physical way people smoked, but also how they thought about smoking.

 Anatomy of a hookah

What is a hookah, exactly, and how is smoking one different from the average pipe? As testimony to the longevity of a well-conceived product, the hookah has seen little change to its physical structure over the centuries. With hookah demand at an all-time high, what has changed is the quality of and materials used and its transformation from artisanal to mass production. While a small group of artisans continue the handcrafted tradition using high-quality materials, the bulk of hookahs available today are mass-produced in Egypt, Syria and China. We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up.

The body of the pipe, or base, is typically made of blown glass or metal, rounded at the bottom and tapering up to a long and slender neck. Bases come in a variety of sizes, colors and decorations, with the average size around a foot high. In Ottoman times, bases were made of glass in the famous Beykoz district of Istanbul. A long metal pipe stem, of stainless steel or brass, often decorated, sometimes elaborate, connects the body and the tobacco bowl. The pipe stem can be up to 2 feet tall, adding considerable height to the hookah. On one side of the pipe stem is the release valve controlling air intake into the hookah. The valve can be closed to decrease the dilution rate, which creates more intense smoke, or to release trapped smoke out of the body. Opposite the release valve projects a socket (or two) where a long flexible rubber hose with a wood or metal end is attached. In the past, the best hoses were produced in Istanbul from high-quality, multicolored tanned leather strips wrapped around a metal rod, with the rod removed after the leather had dried, and heavily ornamented with embroidery or plush fabric. The purpose of the hose is to filter out impurities from the tobacco and soften and cool the smoke as it passes through the water and into the smoker. Given hookah’s sociable premise, pipes with multiple hoses for group smoking—some with lengths reaching up to six feet—are very popular. The tobacco bowl sits at the top of the pipe stem and is typically made from clay or metal and contains either five small holes or one large hole in the bottom.

At the base of the tobacco bowl sits a small metal tray for loose sparks and charcoal tongs. A good seal using rubber gaskets or tape on each connecting part is critical to ensuring an airtight pipe. If smoking takes place outdoors or in a drafty area, brass or stainless “wind covers” are cylindrically shaped hoods that fit over the tobacco bowl and protect the glowing coal ember.

Finally, the mouthpiece, a small tapered object typically made of plastic, is placed at the end of the tube, allowing one to draw from it. In the past, etiquette dictated owning one’s own, mainly for hygienic purposes but also as a status symbol. Amber mouthpieces were preferred over stone or metal, as they turned red upon smoking, the redness a sign that amber’s perceived ability to kill germs was at work. In the Ottoman Empire, everyday mouthpieces were colloquially referred to as goat’s teats for their shape, wide in the middle and narrow at either end. Today, disposable mouthpieces are available at any hookah lounge.

 A dog never bites a nargile smoker Turkish proverb

The hookah is prepared by filling the body with water covering at least 1 inch of the bottom of the pipe stem. Other liquids such as fruit juice, alcohol or even milk will work depending on personal taste. As in the past, some smokers like to scent their water with essential oils or fruit flavorings and perhaps place fruit like cherries or grapes (or even objects like glow sticks) in the water and watch them bob up and down as they smoke. Shisha tobacco is lightly moistened with water before it is packed inside the bowl—leaving a couple of holes exposed—and either a perforated metal cover or tinfoil pricked with a toothpick is placed over it to prevent drafts. After these preparations have been made, the hookah is brought to the customer and placed on the floor or a table. A live coal is placed on top of the tinfoil and the smoker takes slow puffs—the deep inhalations producing a pleasant bubbling sound of the water—and exhales. Inhale, and repeat. If you are sharing a single-hose pipe with several friends, the practice is for each person to slip their own mouthpiece on before smoking.

What distinguishes hookah pipe tobacco from the average pipe tobacco? In the Ottoman era a special dark, high-test nicotine tobacco called tombecki, or tumbak, was grown in Persia and Syria specifically for hookah pipe smoking (note the resemblance to the word tobacco). The leaves came from the base of the tobacco plant and were wood-cured, coarsely chopped and shredded with stems and twigs. Because of its strength and high nicotine content, it was washed several times in water to dilute it. Today, hookah tobacco is grown primarily in Arab countries such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where it is called maasel, and this is where the bulk of hookah tobacco smoked today comes from. Hookah tobacco is almost always referred to as shisha (the Persian name of the hookah that has since come to refer to the tobacco smoked in it), and to be consistent I’ll stick with the vernacular.

Please read the rest of this article in the pages of P&T magazine or in our online digital edition.


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Category: Fall 2011, Feature Article, Pipe Articles

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