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Can Someone Please Explain a Hookah to Me?

You’ve undoubtedly seen hookah as in popular media, being common set pieces in far-flung locations in the Middle East, India and Northern Africa. Usually see several men sitting around, idly puffing on one of these, exhaling a thick, unique looking smoke.

But, what are these things? Why are they becoming oddly popular in Europe, the UK and recently in larger cities in the United States? This almost happened once before, of course, when hippie culture co-opted a lot of Middle Eastern and Indian culture, to locations where hookah’s have long-been enjoyed.

Well, for starters, it’s a very different way of smoking. If you’re a smoker, chances are you smoke either cigars, cigarettes or a pipe. With all of these, you have to constantly keep puffing on them to keep them lit, and it is a very hot, harsh smoke. Your burden tobacco directly, and inhaling the raw smoke from this combustion.

A hookah doesn’t work like that at all. They use a very special type of tobacco called shisha. This is a very moist tobacco, often being closer to a paste or a stringy, sticky and resinous substance than what we think of as tobacco. The closest you may have experienced is a moister Cavendish tobacco for pipes, but compared to hookah tobacco, even Cavendish pipe tobacco is bone dry.

Popular companies such as Afzal and Al Waha specialize in these types of tobacco, and are prime examples of where you can experience the traditional middle-Eastern style for which this device was invented.

This tobacco is designed to be slowly roasted/vaporized/burned from an outside heat source, that being a type of charcoal. Thus, it is slowly roasted rather than directly burnt. This produces a moist, fragrant smoke that is then released into a containing chamber usually below the dish where the tobacco sits. From there, it is pulled by users through the connecting tubes, during which journey it cools and mellows even more.

This smoke is very mellow, but also very flavorful and a bit sick due to the added moisture. Companies like Afzal and Al Waha offer various flavors that have long been popular, including orange, lemon, pomegranate and some even more exotic flavors. Of course, just about any kind of flavor you can imagine is available if you’re willing to explore less-traditional producers, but if you want the true experience, you want something like what these companies make.

Given that these are flavored, those used to full flavor cigarettes may find it the hardest to switch to this type of smoking. However, flavorless shisha does exist, though it’s not very popular so it may be harder to find.

It is worth noting that while it produces less secondhand smoke, a hookah does still produce secondhand smoke. This means that any area forbidding the open use of devices which produce secondhand smoke definitely includes the use of a hookah.

It’s also kind of a prerequisite to point out that this is not a safe alternative to cigarettes, but it is arguable that it is less unhealthy than cigarettes. There is a lot of additional stuff infused into tobacco when cigarettes are made, and aside from flavorings, hookah tobacco doesn’t receive this treatment.

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