For many Westerners, our first introduction to the hookah was the smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. In that film the hookah, like pretty much everything else in Wonderland, was something exotic. In college, hookahs became associated more with bongs and other paraphernalia for “alternative” smoking. The truth is that hookahs have a long and illustrious history and, like pipes and cigars, are a luxurious way to enjoy good tobacco.

The History of the Hookah

The hookah has its origins in the Middle East and Northern Africa, but they are also prevalent in the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. They were originally designed for opium or hashish, and old images of opium dens sometimes depict people using them – it’s this early association with opium that give hookahs their reputation. However, the opium dens are only a small part of the hookah’s history. In Turkey, smoking tobacco through a hookah was very popular among the Persians, and among the upper classes and intellectuals in Turkey. Smoking tobacco through a hookah was so popular that people would make their own blends, or visit hookah bars that had varieties of tobacco blends similar to the variety of offerings in a modern-day coffee house. A hookah bar was seen as a place to relax and share a fragrant and flavorful smoke with friends.

In the early 2000s, hookah bars started cropping up in metropolitan areas across the United States. Like their Turkish and Persian predecessors, they were intended as places for people to relax and indulge, the same way they would at a cigar or martini bar. However, as city ordinances made it more difficult to smoke in public, many hookah bars closed.

hookah_pipe.jpgTypes of Hookahs

Originally, hookahs were made of wood and intended for one person. They had a bulb on the bottom leading to a wooden stem with a receptacle for burning the tobacco at the top. As hookah smoking became more refined, so did both the design and the materials. You can now find hookahs made of a combination of metals and wood, glass and metal, plastics, and even all glass hookahs. Hookahs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can have a single hose, or multiple hoses creating the octopus shape depicted in Alice in Wonderland.

Hookah Tobacco

Hookah tobacco is different from pipe, cigarette, or cigar tobacco in that it is incredibly moist and often contains molasses or honey. The moistness of the tobacco makes a heavier smoke, and also helps it smolder longer. It also gives the tobacco a sweet flavor. Some hookah tobacco also contains dried fruit and other flavorings.

Smoking a Hookah

You don’t light the tobacco directly; rather you heat up a charcoal briquette and place that in the tobacco receptacle on the hookah. Then you place the tobacco on top of the charcoal to ignite it. The bulb of the hookah is usually filled with ice to cool down the smoke and make for a smoother inhale.

Smokers then inhale through the hose, causing air to pass through the charcoal and tobacco and draw smoke through the ice and into the hose. It might take several draws to fill the bulb with enough smoke, and larger hookahs might require all the smokers drawing at the same time to get things started. However, once the smoke starts flowing through the bulb, it’s much easier to draw.

If the hookah sits for a while without anyone smoking, the smoke in the bulb can become stale. If that happens, there’s a valve on the top of the bulb to purge the stale smoke.

Why Smoke a Hookah

Hookah smoking isn’t for everyone. Unlike cigarettes, cigars, and pipes they require a lot of time and preparation. They are definitely more for people who want to chill out and take the time to really experience the smoke, and share the experience with others.

Finding a Hookah

Hookahs and hookah tobacco are available through specialty retailers such as high-end smoke stores, or online hookah vendors. Some people also make their own hookah tobacco, especially if they want more control over the flavor or the quality of the tobacco.

The charcoal is the type used for burning incense. You can find it at high-end smoke stores, hookah vendors, general retailers like Amazon, stores that sell resin-based incense, and even church supply stores.

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