May 19 , 2020
Hookah is widely considered to be a cultural and social export from the Middle East. Also known as shisha, hookah is associated with Egypt, erstwhile Persia and modern day Iran, the Arabian states, Central and South Asia. In reality, hookah did not originate in the Middle East or Egypt for that matter.
Origin of Hookah
The country of origin is India. In fact, hookah is a Hindi word that was borrowed and used in English when the British colonized India. It was the East India Company of the British Empire that brought hookah to the rest of the western world. Before they did so, the use of hookah had already spread from India to Persia and further west to Egypt and Turkey through trade routes. Shisha, the alternate term used for hookah, is also a Hindi word. It literally means glass, which is the default material of choice for the base of hookahs.
Tradition of Hookah in Egypt
In India, smoking hookah was a habit and social pastime. The maharajas or kings and the elite would have elaborate hookahs. Those shishas had gorgeous designs. The ordinary folks had more modest designs. Most used tobacco to smoke, many used cannabis. Like hookah, cannabis too has its origin in India. When hookah was introduced in Persia and then Egypt, it had a similar tradition as in India.
The prosperous traders, wealthy landowners and noble families forming the elite of the Egyptian society paid richly for beautiful hookahs. These would be tall, intricately designed, made from expensive materials and also have a complex system. Multiple stems and shafts, elaborate glasswork at the base, quality hoses and whips, among other special features were common in the hookahs used by the rich. The common folks used hookahs made from cheaper and more readily available materials. Such models were simply functional and not decorative pieces.
Egyptians, like Indians and Persians, developed a social utility of the hookah. It was one of the centerpieces in many types of settings. Families would get together, often in the courtyard, and smoke hookah while chatting. People would socialize over rounds of hookah. Even roadside discussions would be accentuated with a round of shisha. These traditions were more profound from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century than they are now.
Egyptians would welcome guests in their homes, offer some water and set up a hookah. Guests would settle down and unwind while smoking shisha and discussions would begin. Meeting and chatting with people over hookah have continued as a practice till this day. In the United States, for instance, hookah is a social activity for millions.
In Egyptian culture, hookah was more than just an act of smoking tobacco or herbs. Hookah has been at the crux of hospitality, entertainment, fun, social engagement, cultural activities and festivities. Hookah has also been used for therapeutic purposes throughout India, the Middle East and Egypt. Many different local herbs and other condiments are used to concoct interesting combinations. Some of these combinations indeed had and still have therapeutic effects.
Unlike in some parts of India and how the British used hookah, shisha had never been a sign of royalty in Egypt. British officers, noblemen and soldiers would socialize with the Indian royal families over rounds of elaborate hookahs. In Egypt, this was much less common. Socioeconomic differences did get reflected through the choice of hookah and the arrangements around but every stratum had some version of shisha as a part of their daily lifestyle.
Egypt does not have as long a history and tradition of hookah as India or Persia. But it did come up with significant contributions to the evolution of shisha. The Persians experimented with different types of tobacco. The Egyptians did the same and took a step further. Egyptians mixed molasses and at times honey to make the tobacco more flavorful. Egyptians also experimented with other flavors, such as grape, lemon, mint and watermelon. Hookah became a uniting factor in Egypt. It cut across differentiating lines of race, class and gender.
Today, hookah is no longer an Indian, Persian, Egyptian or Turkish phenomenon. Like yoga, noodles and pizzas, hookah is now a global practice and it belongs to all the people in the entire world. It is not a civilizational attribute or cultural practice anymore. Today, hookah has undergone a tectonic transformation, evolution actually. This has been primarily brought about by American companies. Technology has revolutionized the otherwise humble shisha. There are now devices that were unimaginable two to three decades ago. There are flavors now that were impossible to preserve a century ago.