The hookah: it's not just for weed anymore. Actually, it never really was. The hookah is a staple of life in pretty much every end of the Muslim world, and it has been for a really, really long time now. The normal combustible of choice is not marijuana, even though that is the first thing we barbaric Americans think of when we see one, but rather flavored, molasses dipped tobacco, which most Arab speakers refer to as shisha.

When smoked, shisha smells more like an exotic perfume than any smell normally associated with cigarettes or even pipe tobacco. The taste is likewise quite mild and pleasant, as well as being cooled by the water. Shisha is usually flavored with fruit extract and comes in many flavors, including apple, which is the most common, plain molasses, pear, mint, jasmine, cherry, and many more. While it's not necessary to inhale while smoking shisha, and I know many who do just smoke it for the taste, but if you do inhale the smoke, you can develop quite a pleasant and relaxing little nicotine buzz rather quickly, even if you're a regular cigarette smoker. One bowl of shisha shared among three or four friends will last as long as an hour, and makes for quite a fine way to wile away part of a lazy afternoon.

Because the use of alcohol is forbidden to observant Muslims, smoking hookahs has taken its place in many ways; after a good meal, instead of after-dinner drinks, you break out the hookah. There's even a sort of bar culture revolving around hookah bars. I spent most of my senior year of high school in a hookah bar in one of the Arab parts of the DC suburbs, one of three or four white kids in a room full of old Arab men playing backgammon, and it's an experience I wouldn't trade for all the hours of class I skipped.

Because the tobacco is filtered through water in a hookah, many of the harmful carcinogenic chemicals are filtered out, though it's still quite possible to die of lung cancer from a lifetime of smoking hookahs.

As a final note to the incorrigibly illegally inclined, the idea of putting whole marijuana buds in a hookah would make you seem quite gauche to an Arab. The preferred method for using a hookah as a mind-altering device in the middle east is to sprinkle hashish or opium onto a bowl of shisha.


As mentioned earlier, a hookah (also known as a shisha, a nargila, or a hubbly-bubbly, all with various spellings) is a fairly complex pipe used for smoking tobacco. The name "hookah" supposedly comes from the Arabic word "huggah", meaning "glass bottle".

The hookah is composed of 4 parts: Agizlik, the wooden mouthpiece; Lüle, the bowl of the hookah (usually made of porcelain), which holds the tobacco (also, somewhat confusingly, often called shisha); Marpuç, the metal stem; and the Gövde, the glass bottle that serves as the base. There is also usually a tray that fits on the stem under the bowl; this holds the tongs (for manipulating the charcoal) and possibly ash and other coals. The pipes come in various sizes, ranging from about 12" to 35" or so.

There are two main types of hookahs, Syrian and Turkish. The main differences are in the top (the Turkish has a straight cylindrical bowl, the Syrian a more curvy one; the Syrian also has a tray) and in the mouthpiece (the Turkish usually has a more decorated, cloth-covered one). The Syrian hookahs are also usually taller.


a fairly simplified rendition:

         \*****/  BOWL
   \_______| |_______/  TRAY
           | |
           | | STEM
      CARB | |    __     
      (O)  | |   /__>----| |--<==>--<>
       \\ /| |\ //  HOSE    MOUTHPIECE             
        \| | | |/
        /| | | |\ 
       | | | | | |
      /  - | | -  \
      |    | |    |  BOTTLE
      |~~~~| |~~~~|
      |    | |    |

The hookah is lit with a piece of charcoal (or, supposedly, camel dung) left on top of the shisha, rather than lighting the tobacco directly (as is done in a pipe). Drawing through the hose draws the smoke from the tobacco down through the water. The water cools the smoke and filters out some of the carcinogens (and nicotine) from the smoke. The result is a smoother, usually more pleasant draw than most other methods of tobacco smoking can provide.

The carb on the side allows for better airflow. There is a ball bearing within which drops down to block the pipe when one draws on the mouthpiece, sealing the bottle.


The hookah came to the Middle East from India. Originally, as our friend Webster 1913 mentions in hubble-bubble, the body was made out of a coconut. The pipe spread through the region, and finally came to popularity in Turkey. The Turks refined the design in the 1600s, and it has changed little since.

The making of hookahs was raised to an art form in Turkey. Each piece was handcrafted; several cities became famous for making individual parts of the hookah assembly. The Gövde in particular, being the centerpiece of the device, had the most attention paid to it. They were carved of glass and frosted to give the appearance of ice; some were even made of silver. The mouthpieces were made out of amber, for amber was seen as a healthful material. The regions in which these parts were made are still named after these crafters and the devices they built.

The hookah quickly became a staple among the elite in their coffeehouses. As the habit grew in popularity, various rules and rituals grew up around it. People were hounded and criticised for not following the strict procedures that were set up for "correctly" smoking a hookah.

The hookah became somewhat fashionable in the Western world in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It fell out of favor with the advent and spread of the cigarette, but can still be found in cafes in the Middle East, as well as in Arab neighborhoods around the world.


To set up the hookah for smoking:

  1. Disassemble the entire thing; at the very least, remove the bowl from the stem and the stem from the base.
  2. Fill the base about 2/3 with water. (You want to leave a space for the smoke to collect. Cold water is best; some even like to add ice cubes. You may also want to try different mixtures: lemon juice (or even whole pieces of lemon) are a popular addition; rose oil and other juices have also been added in the past for flavor. Some people like to mix alcohol with the water. Others like to add milk, either mixed with or in place of the water. It supposedly makes the smoke smoother; however, it has been known to clog the pipes.
  3. Attach the stem to the base. You may need to run some water along the joint to seal it properly.
  4. Attach the hose to the stem, fitting it with a rubber collar or some other method of making the seal airtight. Also attach the tray, if you have one.
  5. Place the head on the stem, again using a rubber collar. Put your hand over the head, covering the holes. Draw through the hose. You should feel suction on your hand, and the water should not bubble. If this is not the case, go back and check your seals. Draw again with the holes uncovered; the water should bubble now.
  6. Remove the head. Place a small amount of shisha in the cavity on the top of the head. You don't want to pack it too tight, for that would restrict the airflow. You also don't want to use too much; a little goes a surprisingly long way.
  7. OPTIONAL: Cover the top with aluminum foil, and poke holes in the foil. This supposedly produces a smoother smoke.
    ***DANGER DANGER DANGER***. MALTP would like me to inform you that inhaling aluminum fumes may be not quite as good for you as one may think. So you probably want to skip this step.
  8. Light a charcoal in your favorite manner. Place the charcoal (using tongs, of course) on top of the shisha (or foil). It often helps to put it nearer the edge of the bowl first, and move it around as you smoke.
  9. Draw a few times on the pipe to get the tobacco lit. You should be good from here for at least half an hour.
There are a few rules of etiquette still surrounding the hookah. Most of these can obviously be ignored in your home, but they should be kept in mind if you ever visit a hookah bar.

  • Never light a cigarette using the coals from on top of the hookah. This is seen as a serious faux pas.
  • Never place the hookah on a table. This rule is often broken with smaller hookahs, even in hookah bars.
  • Never pass the mouthpiece directly to another person; place it on the table and let them pick it up. A different version of this instructs one to always pass the mouthpiece butt end first.
  • Only tobacco is to be smoked from a hookah. Indeed, only shisha should be smoked; standard dry tobacco (or whatever) will burn faster and irritate one's throat.
Cleaning is fairly simple. You're supposed to change the water after you're done, or at least before you fill the bowl again. The hose should be rinsed out, for ash tends to build up within and if it's not cleaned, the smoker may end up with a mouthful. The holes in the bowl should be cleaned out, and the stem should be rinsed and cleaned with a long brush to remove resin buildup.


Bigger is, ostensibly, better. More size means more water; more water means more filtering; more filtering means smoother smoke. Since proper etiqutte demands that the hookah remain on the floor, a larger pipe also means that the smoker will have less difficulty handling the device. Finally, a larger pipe means that the crafters have more of a chance to show off their skills, resulting in a prettier hookah. Since the hookah is itself a curiousity to most, a pretty one will stand out more; since it also takes up a decent amount of space, you'll want something nice to look at.

Multiple pipes are usually a bad idea. In order to have multiple people smoke from the hookah, only one may draw at a time and all the others must cover the ends of their hoses for the device to work at all.

Try and test it for airtightness before you buy it. It's somewhat of a letdown to have to duct tape the hookah together to smoke from it effectively.


You can usually find hookahs in head shops. THIS IS A BAD IDEA. The hookahs sold there are often lower quality (since they're often sold to stoners who don't know better); at the very least, they are quite expensive.

Your best bet, if this is an option, is to go to your local Turkish or Arab neighborhood. Hookahs are often displayed prominently in shop windows, and you can usually find a beautiful, large pipe for a very reasonable price; charcoal and shisha are often included. You may also find hookah bars, wherein you can indulge your habit. In New York City, the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn is a good place to look.

Going to the Middle East oneself is also a good idea, at least in the sense that you'll find very good prices on hookahs. This noder disclaims all responsibility for anything that might happen because of or during the trip.
HOWEVER, atesh informs me that importing a hoohah into the U.S., at least from Turkey, is illegal, and the hookah will be confiscated.

If you don't have an Arab neighborhood in your town, the Internet is always an option. Searching for "hookah", "shisha", or "nargile" will turn up many sites devoted to educating people on the use and culture of the hookah, and then selling them one. A few are listed below.

Shisha can often be found in head shops, over the Internet, or, of course, wherever you bought your hookah.


thanks to WickerNipple.

This is just a tip on how to make hookah clean up a bit easier. If you place aluminum foil along the inside of the bowl you can just pull out all the burnt, sticky shisha and not have to wash the head. Make sure to poke out the holes at the bottom, though, so the smoke and air can flow through properly.

A tip for anyone planning to buy themself a nargila/hookah - look for one with an unscrewable shaft. This makes both transporting and cleaning far far easier. Also, as with anything, if you are getting it in a market the smaller shops will always have the best deals.

For anyone looking for a nargila in Israel, try and make it to Dalyat-Al-Karmel near Haifa, where I found nargilot for around half the price of those in the Christian market in Jerusalem.

She sucked the smoke deep into her lungs, relishing the soft, soothing air caught in her throat, sliding into her body. She watched it escape from her mouth in wisps, curling, tumbling, transparent and white like a banshee. The room started to spin, she let her eyes relax on a knotted rug. She got up in search of the bathroom, her vision disorienting and dizzy. Gripping the wall to steady her body, she walked in and sat down on the toilet seat wet with pee and water. Graffiti covered the walls. SPOONHER she read, smiling to herself. Back down, she could feel her body drowning under the smoke, she let it engulf her and pull her psyche into its steady, dreamvision arms. She laughed, but it was not the drugs. It was her body. A real laugh that made her feel heavy and her body deep. A boy sat adjacent to her, blowing smoke rings. Curly hair, Jewish appearance. She stared at him and he noticed. It was the tobacco looking, not her. He sat with a strawberry-blonde haired girl who brought the long, wooden snake to her mouth and sucked slightly. She released a small puff of air from her mouth. He kept glancing at her, flattered by the attention. Interested in her looks. It made her nervous and made her laugh. It was not her looking at him, after all.

Alex wanted a cupcake. They staggered through the streets giggling, every word said unchecked by their conscious. Beautiful cupcakes in a warm store. A friendly, black, male shopkeeper greeted them. So many cupcakes! She spun around in a circle and let Tom hug her. You cannot do the same things sober as you can when intoxicated.

Hook"ah (?), n. [Per. or Ar. huqqa a round box or casket, a bottle through which the fumes pass when smoking tobacco.]

A pipe with a long, flexible stem, so arranged that the smoke is cooled by being made to pass through water.

<-- see hubble-bubble; also water pipe -->


© Webster 1913.

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