Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Living and breathing the hookah culture

This appeared in The SA Times on Saturday.

I've lost (not lost lost) a few colleagues and friends to it so was about time I 'investigated' what the big deal about it was. It bugs me that I slept through the transition when 'smoking' Hookahs was becoming such a big part of our culture. Actually think I've slept through every major transition that hit our culture in the past. Let’s see... I slept through the hippie culture that hit us in the 70s.... actually wasn't even born then so doesn't count. I slept through the MTV culture but blame that on dad. No matter when I found that one spare moment in a day when I was home and around TV while growing up, dad would just magically appear out of nowhere much like characters in Indian epics and make it go away. Then the beauty contest/queen culture hit but I think I played dumb charades all through it. Then globalization hit and permeated through in many forms and I have no clue what I did but I barely noticed. Size zero, living in, mwaah mwaahs, divorces and polygamy (behaviorally) were amongst the latest few but I'd already moved out. And as was evident in my last trip back home, the latest one to have hit us seems to be the Hookah effect.

You couldn't go to a Metro in India a few years back and not visit one of the Mocha Cafes. It's prolly a thing of the past now. And you can't go to a house party in LA and not spot the Hookah equipment. It amazes me how easily we adapted to it. But then we're good like that. Ever so accepting of new fads, harmless or otherwise. Me, I couldn't care less about it but just because you don't swim, it's not like you can't get into the pool party.

If you worked out in my gym which like any other has several TV screens but unlike no other has one screen with trivia questions on auto play (makes me feel so dumb coz I score close to 0 each time unless I see repeat questions), you'd know that hookahs are also known as nargilehs or argeelas in Arabic. Flavored tobacco has been used for centuries throughout the Middle East for filling smoking pipes but in Western and now East Asian countries, to make it more socially acceptable in urban areas, fruity non-tobacco flavors are widely available. Of course in Middle East, it was considered tradition and luxury and everywhere else, just a trend.

I remember one chilly night at an authentic Lebanese restaurant in Glendale where our server who identified himself as a Nargileh specialist (wonder if his occupation read that on his visa form), sat down with us and shared a few insights while a very graceful belly dancer was doing everything in her power to ensure no one would converse amongst themselves. His first insight in his exotic accent was interesting. "Smoking hookah is more than just smoking." The surrounding environment, the music, the conversations and the smoking are just as important as smoking hookah itself apparently. But what was intriguing were the unspoken rules. The Hookah etiquette as he called it. Given my constant battle with my memory, I'm amazed that I could recall so many after months. Or has it been years? Check ‘em out… they’d surprise you. I paraphrase below.

  • When you pass the hose, you must point the tip of it towards yourself. (Umm sure)

  • When you receive the hose from someone else, you must slight tap their hand as a sign of “thank you” and “respect”. (Blah unless you're in Morocco or sthng)

  • If you are smoking a multi hose hookah and you are not smoking from your hose, hold the tip with you finger so the rest can smoke easier. (Ok. Whatever.)

  • Never blow smoke in someone else’s face. (Only Client Eastwood is allowed to do that, no?)
    Pass the hose to next person before they ask for it. (Mommy taught us all to be considerate.)

  • If you and others are not smoking, wrap the hose around the shaft. (Smoking hookah sounds like so much work.)

  • Respect the hookah owner/host/server. (Lol isn't that going overboard?)

  • Do not give advice on how to better make the hookah or pack the bowl. (He must be kidding. It's in our blood.)

  • If you damage the owner’s hookah or property fix it or pay for it. (Haha another good one.)

  • Never smoke cigarettes around a hookah. (Aah sacred rule 1 about avoiding conflicts.

  • Never light a cigarette from the coal on the hookah. (Sacred rule 2)

  • Never ash a cigarette on the hookah’s tray. (Sacred rule 3)

Whoa look at that list! On second thoughts, I should have not given out the story about the Lebanese restaurant. That’d have perhaps established me as a ‘Nargileh specialist’. Oh well. One day I will learn.

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