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WHAT IT IS

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.

HOW IT WORKS

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.

A BIT OF HISTORY

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.

CARE AND FEEDING OF YOUR HOOKAH

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.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A HOOKAH

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.

WHERE TO FIND ONE

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.


Sources: http://www.tierracaliente.com/hookahm.shtml
http://www.tierracaliente.com/hookhist.shtml
http://www.mycgiserver.com/~fatalman/home/setup/setup.html
http://www.byegm.gov.tr/yayinlarimiz/NEWSPOT/1998/Jul/N14.htm
http://www.jerusalemshoppe.com/nargila.html
http://planetexplorer.online.discovery.com/ref/culture/culthookah.html

thanks to WickerNipple.