Thursday, September 30, 2004

My first date with The Happy Hookah

Here it was, my greatly-anticipated first date with that dusky mistress, Narghile, and alas, I had some ... ahem ... performance issues. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I have always held a fascination with eastern culture, probably cultivated in part by my father's own love for all things oriental. As a child, I grew up in an environment frequently seasoned with asian influences. My father was a volunteer English instructor for Project L.I.F.T. in New Orleans (an English as a second language program), and the majority of his students in the early to mid-seventies were Vietnamese expatriates with whom my family frequently interacted with on a social level. A sizeable part of my early years were formed in the company of almond-eyed, smiling faces with whom I shared perhaps 20 words of common language. I ate at their tables and played with their children - but more importantly, I learned at an early age that there are cultures alien from mine, with their own etiquette, morés and social structures that deserve equal respect and consideration as our own. As a result, I have always enjoyed seeking out those aspects of different cultures that are available to me in my everyday world, and enjoy exposing my own family to them, as well. With few exceptions, I have found that people from around the world are eager to share their culture, and my respectful inquiries have always been met with enthusiastic replies ... and instant friends.

As a child, I remember being mesmerized by the rings of smoke my Grandfather would blow for me as he would pull on the hose of his hookah. He was a smoker, and could almost always be found with a cigarette in his hand as he sat at the breakfast table, reading the Times Picayune in the predawn hours - before the rest of the household would rise and begin making demands on his time. I would pad-foot down the hall, roused by the single light in the kitchen and be lovingly, but disapprovingly greeted in his gruff manner by "look at the head on that nickel! Go back to bed boy, it's too early!" I always stayed though, mindful of the quiet he so loved and would refuse his offers of toast or juice, knowing that to make them for me would be an intrusion on his only personal time when the house was full of family. The only request I can remember making, was for him to get rid of the stinky cigarrettes and bring out the mysterious and fascinating hookah instead. Unrepentant, as most smokers are, he would refuse to stub out his cigarette, but usually promised to bring down the porcelain-vased contraption later in the day for me to see. In the downstairs living room, he would later sit in his recliner, ornate hose held only slightly away from his mouth as he formed a silent "O" with his mouth that would roll in on its smoky self as it sailed toward the high ceiling. The hookah would gurgle and glow as he would pull, his eyes focused on some distant memory as he performed the ritual at my request. Unlike the acrid, stinging smell of cigarrette smoke, the mu'essel in the bowl of the hookah always filled the room with the pleasant odors of fruit and honey.

When my grandfather passed away and I was asked if there was anything of his that I wanted, his hookah that factored so highly in my memories was the first thing to come to mind. Alas, it had already been appropriated by my Great Aunt for her collection of ornate bottles. I saw it not too long ago, when family business brought me back to New Orleans. It sat in the window, looking sad and shrunken compared to my vivid and doubtless exaggerated childhood memories. It's hose was brittle and cracked, and the whole pipe just looked diminished. Somewhat dejected, I decided not ask for it then, but promised myself that I would purchase one of my own someday.

There has been a resurgence of interest in the hookah that has been growing for the last few years. Perhaps it is its exotic nature, or its claimed (but unproven, I should point out) reduction in health risks as compared to other tobacco use, that has seen a sudden rise in popularity on college campuses, and in cafés and clubs dedicated to its use. As a result, I have seen them with increasing frequency in the import shops that are usually tucked in remote corners of shopping malls. Among the incense burners and olive-wood carvings, onyx animal figures and assorted cloisine items gathering dust, there will be one or two poorly-made and ridiculously over-priced hookah pipes. Regardless, I dutifully look them over, wanting them - then walking away dissatisfied.

A recent stop at an unfamiliar cigar shop on the other side of town greeted me with a long-forgotten, but instantly recognizable smell. In the back, seated in the smoking lounge was an arabic gentleman on a sofa pulling contentedly on the hose of a massive hookah pipe. I was drawn immediately by the sweet scent of honey and strawberries that curled up invitingly from the top of its 3 foot height in wisps of dense smoke. Waiting for him to acknowledge me, I immediate set to innundating him with a barrage of questions of when/where/why/how, and was rewarded with a recommendation of a shop in the next town; where not only could you rent a hookah as one of the regular menu items in the café, but you could also purchase one of your own for much less than the decorative-only models I had been teased with for years at the imported-junk shops.

I easily talked by brother-in-law into taking a trip to check out the recommended shops, as he was displaced by a bridal-shower taking place at his house, where he is the token male. He even readily agreed to do the driving. Unfortunately, at each of the shops in which we stopped, all the reasonably-priced hookahs had been snapped up by the growing local market, leaving only the high-end, expensive models that even the shop-keepers suggested were not in my best interests. However, the hook was set, and I turned to the internet to satiate my sudden obsession. A quick google-search turned up so many options that I was truly surprised that it hadn't occurred to me to search it out that way before. Ultimately, I ordered a two-hose unit, social creature that I am, so I could easily share my newfound interest with my like-minded friends.

A day later I received the standard courtesy email informing me that my order had shipped and would arrive in a few days to somebody living around 500-600 miles from me! A quick check showed that I had slipped on my zip code by a single, but very important digit, and UPS was winging my package to a far southwest Texas town - population 59. Needless to say, I was mildly distressed at the thought of my prize propping open the door of a milk-barn somewhere just north of Mexico. A desperate call to UPS resulted in a rerouting order that will get the package to me ... eventually. In the meanwhile, the locally-depleted shops have since restocked their shelves with all manner of products for lovers of all things hookah. Having the patience of a five-year-old on Christmas Eve, I went ahead and bought myself one of the lovely pipes on display to enjoy while I waited.

Eagerly, I brought my prize home, and following as best I could the directions I'd read online, set up my hookah for its maiden voyage - only to immediately break the detachable bowl. Yet one more trip to buy a replacement, and I was finally ready to light the pipe and partake of the sweet smoke. Despite my adjustments and occasional tweaks to the setup, I could never really get the rich, thick smoke I was expecting. Flavor was nice, starting out with banana, but was thin and watery compared to the copious amounts of strong smoke I was accustomed to from my cigars. I could tell that there was supposed to be more, but my setup was somehow wrong, so I decided to try the mint. Results were slightly better, eventually coaxing more smoke from my hookah, but still nowhere near what I was expecting.

At this point, I'm going to tackle this issue two ways:
1. I'm going to solicit advice from one or more of the online Hookah forums, and
2. I'm going to go "rent" a hookah at one of the little cafés, to take note of the proper setup and perhaps get a more accurate set of expectations from my own pipe.

I'll let you know how it turns out.

[Update: After receiving some suggestions and reading the excellent information to be found at, I've determined that I need to make a few adjustments to both my setup and my expectations. Since the tobacco mixture doesn't so much burn as it "cooks," the smoke will be thinner than that of a cigar. Oh, and my wife really likes the way the Double Apple flavor smells, too - enough so, that she had no problems whatsoever with my smoking in the living room the other night. That is ... until I dropped some hot coals on the carpet.]

[Update #2: My two-hose Hookah from Caravansarai Imports finally arrived after a very convoluted route caused by an incorrect zip code (my fault).

I was immediately dismayed when I saw the box. Despite multiple bright red labels all over the box stating "FRAGILE: Handle with Care - Glass," the package looked like it had been used for football practice and was even partially open.

Remarkably, the base was intact, as were most of the parts. However, the metal tube that extends down into the base from the shaft was bent almost 90° and broken almost completely through.

Even if there were no damage, I would've been unhappy with the quality of the pipe itself. In several places the chrome (or similar) plating was missing, exposing the raw copper-colored metal underneath. Welds are rough throughout, and appear incomplete on the hose grommets.

Sigh ...

I sent an email Wednesday evening to Caravansarai Imports detailing the damage and my general dissatisfaction, but have yet to get a reply. ]


Blogger Hookah said...

I love all things "eastern" as well! Hookah Hub

January 08, 2005  

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