Arts & Culture

Hot For Hookah

Hookah is not what a Soprano calls a prostitute. Also known as nargila, ghelyun, sheesha, chillam, hubbly bubbly, or simply water-pipe, hookah is to the Muslim world what a pint or a lager or a Bud Light is to Americans: … Read More

By / April 11, 2008

Hookah is not what a Soprano calls a prostitute.

Also known as nargila, ghelyun, sheesha, chillam, hubbly bubbly, or simply water-pipe, hookah is to the Muslim world what a pint or a lager or a Bud Light is to Americans: At the end of a work day, it's what you suck on when hanging out with your buddies. In India and Pakistan, hookah is generally smoked among the older men in the bhaitak – or sitting area – of the house. In the Arab world it is generally done at small shops on street-corners. In the West, hookah is found at swanky bars located in the club districts and dingy holes in the wall in immigrant neighborhoods like Patterson, NJ, or Dearborn, Michigan.

Just to make things political, Israelis do it too — it was brought over by Mizrahi Jews — meaning that the hookah has humanist potential as one of the things Jews and Arabs might one day be able to do together in a social setting.

While the style of the hookah differs in each part of the world, generally every hookah has a base, filled with water; a two-part stem; a bowl, in which goes the tobacco and upon which goes the coal; and the arm, from which you quaff the smoke. Endless experimentation is possible. Instead of water, you can fill your base with milk, orange juice, or wine (my personal favorite is iced water). Your tobacco, meanwhile, can be bitter, regular, or flavored (my personal favorite is vanilla mint). You can even have hookahs that have multiple arms, allowing for many people to enjoy at the same time. I call that the gang-suck. If you do engage in that, please video-tape it and send me a copy.

The physics of a hookah are pretty simple. You inhale, the embers on the coal heat up, they burn the tobacco in the bowl, the smoke goes down the stem, passes through the water, goes up the other part of the stem and comes out of your nose and mouth leaving a sweet fruity or minty flavor on your lips.

Let’s get the froo-froo metrosexual crap out of the way. Hookahs do pose a significant health risk. Some assemblage of dorks called "The Mayo Clinic" says that a typical one-hour session of hookah leads a person to ingest 100 to 200 times more smoke than one cigarette. Also, just because the smoke passes through a filter – water in this case – doesn’t mean that all the carcinowhateverthatwordis get filtered out. Finally, the World Health Organization claims that you can get just as addicted to nicotine through a hookah as you would from cigs.

The upside is that unlike with cigs, you aren’t ingesting arsenic, tar, or crushed glass, which is always nice. Also, though they might make you temporarily woozy, hookahs do not make you high, so when you grope your best friend’s girl (or your best friend for that matter), try and blame something beside the hookah. Also, hookahs are significantly more expensive than cigs, which means you will go broke way before you really have a chance to get addicted – so it all works out in the end. Finally, with hookahs, there is no advertising campaign paid for by Big Hookah* that will make you feel guilty about what you’re doing.

There is a strain of experts who think that hookah isn’t as bad as it is being made out to be — that it could just be a case of medicinal orientalism (imposing Western norms, i.e. cigs, upon Eastern mores, i.e. hookah).

Kamal Chaouachi, a French researcher, has severely criticized the World Health Organization’s Report in the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine. He criticizes the WHO on many levels, but the most damning, at least in my eyes, is the fact that hookah coals burn somewhere close to 100 centigrade and not close to 850-900 centigrade, as does a cigarette.

His other major criticism of the report was that it assumed that a person smokes hookah for one hour, straight, without stopping. This is retarded. Most of the time the dude next to you hogs the hookah and you have to have a fatwa declared on him before he’ll pass the nozzle to you. In a group of four sharing two hookahs, the coals will probably last forty minutes, and you’ll probably smoke no more than twenty minutes max, and even in that time you have to include talking and drinking time.

The other thing that French guy pointed out with respect to the nicotine addiction was that most of the hookah establishments today also serve herbal fruit-flavor tobacco light, which is very low on nicotine. This non-tobacco is composed of 55% sugar beet leaves, 25% white beet leaves, 10% sugar cane leaes and 10% the inner white part of the grapefruit peel. Anyway, enough about health — on the whole, the WHO report, which is what The Mayo Clinic based its conclusion upon, was factually and empirically bad, and a Muslim never relies on bad science (except those guys who want to convert genies into chemical energy).

People like to believe that hookah is just about socialization, but such people are rookies who haven’t yet developed a discerning nostril. Since I’m a Punjabi and nasally well-endowed — which is part of the reason I am accepted at a Jewish website — I will state very emphatically that there is an art to smoking hookah every bit as complex (and bullshit) as the art of wine-tasting.

Hookah smoke should be milky, fluffy and white. If it’s thin or grey — or flaccid as I call it – then the water level is either too low or too high. The smoke should make you feel a creeping tobacco buzz – what I described as wooziness earlier – but definitely shouldn’t give you a headache or make you stumble around like Michael Weiss at a Jewcy party. If it’s too harsh you may need to open up the nozzle a little, blow out a bit of smoke, or repack the bowl so that the coal isn’t burning the tobacco too fast. The smoke should be dewy, ravishing, endowed, and give you a feeling of emancipatory, soft, cushiony, Nirvana (Dalai, not Cobain). Hookah feels like a Haiku (I actually don’t know what that statement means). Finally, if you start to think that you can fly, you might want to ask the attendant if he put a bit of Afghan opium in your bowl.

Like all things, there is seduction in hookah. With the people I generally hang out with, men smoke while women take a few hits and watch. The man smokes for the woman. She watches to see how refined he is, with what distinction he inhales, how he handles the nozzle, how he heats up the embers in the coal, what mastery he exerts and when he relinquishes control to the next person in the circle.

Still, nothing is more seductive than watching a woman, uh, put her, uh, lips…

In the seductive game of hookah, blowing O’s has taken on an almost irrational importance. Most people don’t know this but blowing O’s will lead to a spontaneous Islamic orgy in which you quickly marry up to four women and start producing children in order to win the civilizational battle for procreative potency. (As for the women that are left out, just wave them away and remind them that in the Islamic Paradise when you have infinite virgins – each one endowed with Mystique’s changeling powers – they will be blessed by having just one unchanging husband. If they complain, invoke Allah).

Really though, blowing O’s is pretty easy. You have to make sure that the atmosphere is not breezy – a good hookah establishment has good ventilation but no breeze.

Take a big drag, drop open your mouth, pointing it a bit downwards, and then make punctuated coughs from the back of the throat, while gently pulling your head away from the smoke with each little cough. For a little instructional video — or just someone to emulate — check out Smoke Rings With Sara with Nine Inch Nails in the background. For smoke ring acrobatics, this girl is probably the biggest sensation.

You might think you look weird with your mouth hanging open like that, but you really don’t, because the smoke conceals all. When, after a few hours you finally manage to produce an O, it’ll hang in the air and slowly ripple away from you (like the seventy two dollars you will have spent refilling the hookah). At this point, invoke my name in gratitude, and then order a round of mint tea on yourself.

By the way, according to hookah lore, if a person of the opposite sex next to you starts grabbing your O’s – whether poking or biting at them – start thinking about where you’d like to go lose your virginity. If, however, they slingshot a condom through the O, you might want to consider moving over a few spots.

Happy Hookahing!

*Once a nickname for Ali Eteraz on account of his nozzle.

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