Five years ago...
"So what is it?" I asked.
We were at The Fez in Philadelphia. We had just finished what I was told was an authentic Moroccan feast. It was the kind of meal where you get up and poop to make room for more food midway through it or you just do like he did and starve yourself all day. It was authentic enough to get his wife in the door, anyway.
"It's mostly crushed fruit, with some molasses and honey to hold the tobacco on."
What was set in front of me was what looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland. There was a base big enough to keep small goldfish in, above that was a golden stem, and on top a simple clay bowl with some substance in it covered in foil. A coal glowed as we passed around a hose ("never towards them") and took tokes from it. I had briefly smoked a pipe care of my father and had a passing relationship with cigars. I found the pipe was only good with a long stem and the cigars were too bitter for my tastes, but the cool, dense and flavorful smoke coming from this marvel of technology was beyond anything I had dreamed of.
The Fez is built with a celebration tent indoors. The word was lost on me, but the effect is that you're sitting in a tent and not a questionable part of Philadelphia. I leaned back and stared into the lantern and toked deeply on the tube. The flame seemed to slow just for an instant as the tobacco worked its magic with the wine. The wine was her choice: Amazir. I was told it was less for the food and more for the shisha.
"Shisha. Yes. You take crushed fruit, you coat it in honey, you cover it in molasses, and you boil tobacco into it. It is about 2:1 fruit to tobacco."
I took another hit. I entertained the idea that Morocco was something other than the Sin City of Africa and wondered why the fuck he married her. Again the flame made the moment timeless. I wasn't here, I was in the desert. There was a grunt from the camels and the wind played a soft staccato melody as it blew over the blue cool dunes and gently pressed the colorful tent against its poles. I was fucking royalty.
"The wine is good. Nicotine is soluble in alcohol, its hitting me pretty well."
"That's good, the wine goes with the shisha, not the food."
I took a final long pull and passed it along, content.
Two years passed.
I wrote the whole thing off as "stories to tell the grandkids". At some point there might have been grandkids. I was dating an Army Medic where 'dating' in the military seemed to mean 'scheduled fucking'. Seriously dating someone in the military involved actually marrying them. This way they couldn't split you two up. That's what they were doing: Dating. He's got the house, the car, the guns, the TVs and she's thrown out. He didn't talk about it but I drove down anyway to help him throw boxes and bitched he couldn't swing me at least a space-a ticket for the trouble. Not that I really felt like taking my chances for a seat anywhere between first-class and being treated like livestock sitting in the dark for six hours wearing earmuffs, but it was the thought that counts. We had thrown boxes into the U-Haul all day and were sitting on his roof smoking whatever shit cigarettes the BX was selling that week. The view was entirely unremarkable, it was just flat and the only excitement was the passing planes.
A few drags passed.
"You want to smoke something else?"
"You know I'm doing inventory control for the services with SAP, I could get piss-tested. Not that I haven't considered jumping ship but I really don't need to be on some jerkwater base with angry armed men already pissed off our shit never works and have my results come back positive for your party-of-the-moment."
He hopped into his bedroom and before the hole could even fill into the trail of smoke he left behind him he was back up carrying a box. He took out a bowl, a stem, and tossed me a can of something I couldn't read in a language not spoken in these parts. Intrigued anyway, I opened the lid and smelled the sweet smell of sugar, honey, and tobacco. He had not one but two hookahs, possibly the best prizes from his failed marriage, and we smoked them long into the night.
I was back in the caravan. It had left me for two years and it would be just as long before it saw me again. The red coals joined the stars glowing unaccountable in the deep purple haze of the milky way.
Some time later.
"Why the fuck are we here?"
"Because it says 'hookah bar' on the door."
"You can read that? It looks like someone set off an M80 on an etch-a-sketch."
"No idiot, I mean the handwritten note behind the plate."
The bar was a hole in the wall of a house someone had decided would serve the neighborhood better as a watering hole on the first floor and flop house on the next. In fact, during the day, you don't even know it's there since you can't see the neon through the windows. When the doors are closed, it looks like any other house in the neighborhood. I had made a habit of moving every few years to try to get the individual flavor of the cultural enclaves and this particular enclave had an unexpected flavor. It tastes like fruit but has the tanginess of tobacco. Mokahs doesn't pride itself on beers on tap. They have a mediocre at best selection of bottled beers and bottled mixed drinks. The bar doesn't even respect itself enough to have an honest bartender; The girl working tonight was simply there to hand you a bottle and take your cash. There was a separate bar where you could get your hookah. A third bar provided food which was a mix of Turkish and Greek cooking. We ordered a two-hose of mixed fruit.
"How bad do you think this stuff is for you? I have to run with the green butter-bar wanna-be's tomorrow."
"Still hollering insults at the ROTC cadets?"
"She's still in the service, I might as well do something productive for her ass."
"It's probably about as healthy as snus."
"Yeah, you can buy them in Granite Run, its a teabag filled with tobacco. You tuck it into your lip. When I was touring Sweden on Uncle Sam's dime, it was all the rage and had the Swedish version of the FDA approval for having no ill effects."
"Yeah, but you're still burning tobacco, right? Surely the nicotine and particulate is worth a few minutes of your life."
"I guess. The smoke is filtered by the water, and the foil keeps the tobacco from really burning. You're mostly sucking on the boiling fruit mash. The tobacco just adds a bit extra. No-one has really produced any studies which are convincing since Americans and Europeans have only really recently started smoking pure tobacco shisha. Even then, it's hard to find people who only smoke a hookah."
"I'm OK with that, the Pussy Farting Cumdumpsters aren't paid to think."
We puffed away into the night, eventually so drunk we were happy we only lived a few hundred feet away.
I decided to buy a hookah.
Buying a hookah wasn't something I did lightly. I was actually going to skip the whole project before one of my Air Force buddies teamed up with an old roommate invited to my wedding to 'put me out of my misery gently and early'. At that point we took his advice and visited the Hookah Kings. They weren't bad, and when they shipped me a broken base, they promptly replaced it. Their customer service is top notch but the product itself isn't that hot. Most if not all hookahs are made in Egypt and the glass and assembly is usually inferior. There are exceptions and most of them are on Hookah Hookah, but the moral is that you shouldn't expect a perfectly formed piece.
From bottom to top, a hookah is made from a base, stem, tubes with mouthpieces, ashtray, and finally crowns in a bowl. The base is the glass bit on the bottom, but I've seen acrylic and ceramic. Other materials are used either to be discreet ("travel hookahs" use plastic) or to keep a better temperature (ceramics will stay cool forever). The base usually comes with a rubber gasket for inserting the stem. If you should break yours, take the gasket to the nearest Target or Walmart or similar. The vase section usually has something close to what you're looking for. Inside the base, water is usually used and should be changed each use of the hookah (and between each flavor of shisha unless you're trying to mix them). Instead of water, I've found that wine also works well for a subtle alcoholic buzz. I have also tried vodka, but the buzz wasn't as great as I expected. Stick to water, wine, or fruit juice. I find orange tang is great too. Make the tang in the base of your hookah and toss the whole thing in the fridge to cool down.
The stem is nothing special, but do understand that longer is better for an adult. Longer means that the stem has more time to cool the smoke, but a longer stem (and hoses) also makes the pulls harder to take off the hookah. Better stems have a ball-bearing airlock in them which automatically closes when someone takes a hit and the other hoses are open. Best stems have dedicated airlocks which also allow you to blow the stale smoke out if you smoke at a slow pace. The only gotcha is that the stem inserts into the base via a gasket and the stem should insert into the bowl on top. The vase accepts the stem, and likewise the bowl accepts the stem. If you buy a stem that does otherwise, you will have problems buying other "standard" hookah parts. The hoses insert into the stem also and have their own gaskets. When not in use, if you have a more economy stem, rubber bungs will go into the hose fittings.
Hoses are entirely personal preference. Pick some that look good to you. Hookah Kings included an extra set of gaskets and bungs. Some people use the 'sanitary' mouthpieces, but I always found the idea silly given that you're smoking. Hookah Kings also included hose-plugs which are little rubber bungs which plug into the end of the hose when someone isn't using it. Instead of taking the hose off or plugging your finger into the hole, just slip it on and drop the hose. The only other thing to know about hoses is that you need to wash the insides out despite what the book says. Failure to do so does not clear the hoses and you will get ash. If the hose says not to wash through it, they mean that the dye is not colorfast and you may end up with dye on your lips if you wash the hose and immediately use it. For a fun treat, wash the hose and fill it a bit with tang. Plug the ends and toss it level in the freezer. More tang! Hoses are considered consumable like the bowls, so buy extra.
Moving up the stem, the ashtray is merely for - you guessed it - dropping ash into when the coals are consumed. Some hookahs do not have ashtrays but if you are at a lounge, be sure to ask for it. It beats dropping hot coal slush into your pants. The ashtray also makes a good staging area for your coal when lighting it. Skip the tongs, they get hot.
On the very top is the bowl. I prefer clay bowls, but some people prefer metal bowls. Clay is broken down into glazed and unglazed. Glazed is slightly more expensive, but doesn't absorb the flavor of the shisha. The unglazed bowls do, however, soak up the moisture and release it when smoking once they are 'broken in'. Pick one you like and buy a few, they eventually crack. The bowl should come with a gasket which mates to yet another gasket on top of your stem. I highly suggest two gaskets, it makes the bowl far more durable if the material is something brittle like clay. Some bowls, you will notice, come with metal screens or wind-guards. The guard is for outdoor use. The screen is if you use lemonwood, the traditional shisha-coal, because it burns cooler.
More on coals, the bowl should be covered in aluminum foil, shiny side in. Punch about 16 or more holes in it. Again, this is a personal preference thing. Some people like more holes, others prefer less just as some also say the foil needs to be shiny side up. Some prefer folding over the foil, others do not. They sell special foil for the hookah, but common supermarket variety also works. The brand of coal is important and I cannot stress this enough. Golden Coals from Holland are the best. They burn quickly so you need a few to smoke a large bowl, but they also do not retain the taste. Three Kings and other brands I have found retain the taste of the lighter fluid much like the grill does. I would rather use more coals instead of ruining the taste of the hookah as the enjoyment and conversation is what smoking this is all about. If you want to improve the smoking further (or are concerned about boiling the shisha instead of burning it), use a metal screen and lemonwood. Start the lemonwood by holding it with the tongs over the burner on a stove and then toss it on the screen. The wood burns cooler and longer and is less harsh to pull ash on. Experiment to find out which you prefer. The third option are the new Japanese brick coals, but I have 1000+ Golden Coals remaining and it will take me awhile to try those out. Finally if you really get into it, there are new electrical heaters hitting the market from Saudi Arabia. I just stick to coals so I can enjoy smoking outside.
As far as poison is concerned, this is where you can choose to vote with your money or just buy what you enjoy most. I personally like Al-Waha shisha as it tends to be moist and is made in Jordan. Other shisha has other properties be it taste, thickness of smoke, amount of tobacco, smoking time or moisture content. There is no scale, but money buys better tobacco. If you want to skip the tobacco entirely, they do make herbal shisha. "Plain" shisha or "mixing" shisha is shisha that is only tobacco and honey. This was the original style before Egypt introduced the fruit flavors. The intent is that you would either smoke it plainly (it is almost flavorless for Five Star brand) or mix in your own fruit. Be sure to mash it up first and keep the ratio of 2 to 1 fruit to shisha. Most shishas are about the same taste minus grape. For whatever reason, grape is either a wine-grape or a sweet-grape across brands, but differs brand to brand. It is acceptable to mix flavors and either cut them with flavorless or wholesale. Layered flavors also work. Put the lighter flavor on top such as apple and a more robust flavor under it such as orange.
Flavor Cheat Sheet (CO Romman Tobacco):
Mint Scream - Mint tobacco plus altoids in icewater
Pink Lemonade - Lemon and Strawberry shisha
Pinetango - Pineapple on top of Mango
Country Peach - Peach shisha on top of Orange shisha with peaches or oranges in the water below
Fruit Fusion - Strawberry on top, Cherry below that, and Mixed Fruit on the bottom
Roseberry - Rose shisha and Raspberry (personal favorite)
Hookah Kings - Great starter packages for 'all in one'. Customer service is great, but the product quality is iffy. The sampler pack deals for 50g of shisha can't be beat.
Hookah Shisha - Customer service is iffy and the site can be confusing, but they have good product. The points system doesn't work.
Hookah Hookah - Carries hard-to-find parts in addition to excellent hookahs and unique shisha. Also one of the few places you can purchase Black Shisha and single serving 'party shots'
"When I was stationed in Turkey..."
"...this ought to be good..."
"...after I got tired of being shot at I was an MP. Turkey is an Islamic shithole where the smoke shops are barely following Islamic law. You were supposed to only be able to purchase herbal tobacco in the coffee shops in the area, but with the American money running around you could have just about anything. What the shopkeep would do is offer you a hookah and you would pick a flavor. If you were in the know at the speakeasy, you would also pick a 'condiment'. Salt was for coke, pepper was for opium, relish was for weed, on it went."
"Sounds like a party."
"Yeah, we had guys come back who couldn't even remember their names. If they were particularly rowdy or pissed off the owner, it wasn't uncommon for guys to be intentionally dropped off at the wrong base. Naked."