Feb 11 , 2021
There is a consensus among historians that the modern hookah originated sometime in the sixteenth century. Relics from earlier times obtained in certain parts of the world, such as Ethiopia, provide reasons to believe that the concept of smoking tobacco using an apparatus predates the hookah. While the precise origin, whether place or time, may be up for some debate, what cannot be disputed is the cultural significance of hookah, or shisha.
The Indian Hookah
The Portuguese brought tobacco to India. During the Age of Discovery, also known as the Age of Exploration, circa 15th to 17th century, many Europeans set sail for various destinations, most notably India. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Spanish, and the French wanted to find this glorious land in the east. These quests led to the discovery of the Americas, Australia, and many other civilizations.
When the Portuguese traded tobacco cultivated in Brazil at the ports of India, in exchange for spices, textiles, and other goods, the material became popular in a very short span of time. Tobacco was a prized commodity back then, so smoking it was limited to the discretion of the rich. At the time, India was under Mughal rule. Emperor Akbar was at the helm. He was gifted a pack of tobacco leaves as a tribute by an ambassador, Asad Beg. Akbar wanted to smoke it, but his chief physician was unsure of the effects. Abu’l-Fath Gilani, the Persian doctor in charge of Akbar’s health and wellbeing, advised that the leaves should be burned and the smoke must be filtered through water. This made way for the hookah with its glass base and smoking pipe.
Over time, tobacco became cheaper and the concept of hookah spread far and wide. While the rich and noble families enjoyed grand hookahs, the ordinary people of India made their own versions. These hookahs were cheaper but they served the same purpose. The cultural significance of a hookah was to engage with families, friends, colleagues, allies, and others over a session of smoking. It was a social and cultural activity. Offering hookah was a sign of friendliness, basic hospitality, and a clear indication that someone is welcomed in a safe haven.
The Persian Hookah
The Portuguese traded tobacco in Persia as well. Like the Indian Emperor, the Persian royal families also came up with their versions of hookah. The Indian hookah had also traveled to the Middle East by the seventeenth century. In Persia, and later in Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, hookah became a quintessential cultural phenomenon. It was considered to be almost an insult or humiliation if a guest was not offered a hookah. It was almost as customary as offering a guest some water or inviting an ally, friend, or well-wisher to have a meal.
The Persians, like the Indians, also made hookah a social activity. Groups of people would gather and enjoy a hookah, the same apparatus and tobacco, for a sustained meet and greet or an elaborate discussion in the afternoon or evening, at ceremonies or rituals, and during celebrations. Royal families would have fancy hookahs with precious embellishments. These would reflect their social stature and wealth. Middle class people would have ordinary hookahs but they enjoyed their sessions with equal zeal. The Persians, Egyptians, Syrians, and Turks made hookah a customary element in their daily lives. Disputes would be settled over a session of hookah. Old enmities would make way for friendship with the parties enjoying a hookah. Strangers would become familiar with one another while sharing a hookah.
The Modern Hookah
Today, hookah is no longer about royalty, nobility, or any kind of social stature and reflection of wealth. Hookah is just another medium to smoke tobacco, mostly flavored. We still have luxury hookahs with fascinating decorative elements and expensive embellishments. We also have state of the art hookahs with different kinds of technologically advanced features. While hookah has certainly evolved several times in the last five hundred years, its basic purpose remains the same and that is to unwind, ideally with friends.
The modern hookah has two distinct cultural implications. One, people who want to smoke but do not prefer cigarettes or cigars are endorsing hookah. Many such people enjoy their favorite flavors as and when they want, usually at home but also on the go with some portable hookahs. Two, there are hookah bars, lounges, cafes, and shacks. These places draw people of various ages where one can spend some time to relax, enjoy a flavored smoke, chat, sing, share a laugh, and have fun. Unlike cigarettes, smoking hookah is, in its essence and practice, a social and cultural activity.