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Hand Me the Hookah

Ritual smoking finds a foothold, though not without controversy

Dec. 14, 2011
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Hookah smoking has been a tradition in much of the world for centuries. Though its exact origin is contestable, it was in Turkey, some 500 years ago, where the water pipe was transformed into the ornate glass and metal device we recognize today. The hookah underwent numerous alterations as it became a prominent accessory for savoring the sweet and aromatic smoke of shisha tobacco among the upper classes in Constantinople. But the hookah was and continues to be a ritual that transcends class and unifies cultures throughout South Asia, portions of North and South Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where water pipes remain a centerpiece in households and at social gatherings.

After the landmark Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which lifted long-standing immigration restrictions and quotas, hookahs gained popularity in the United States. Water pipes were among the customs of immigrants from the Middle East embraced by younger generations. The trend has seen a resurgence in recent years, thanks in part to the exemptions that hookah bars and restaurants hold in some states' smoking-ban legislation.

“We opened this restaurant with the intention of trying to express Middle Eastern culture as much as possible, and the hookah is a way of life in the Middle East,” explains Alaa Musa, owner of Casablanca restaurant, on his family's decision to include water pipes on its menu. Casablanca (728 E. Brady St.) offers a wide selection of shisha options. Elsewhere, it is difficult to top 2 Sweet International & Delight (2128 E. Locust St.), a Riverwest hookah lounge that carries 72 distinctive shisha flavors that can be purchased by the bowl and preordered by the box. Like Shi Chai Hookah Lounge (832 E. Center St.), which is also well stocked, 2 Sweet International & Delight serves appetizers, desserts and smoothies in a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere.

While hookah bars remain more of a novelty in Milwaukee, cities with larger Middle Eastern populations, and college towns in particular, have seen a considerable increase in hookah use, prompting lawmakers in other states to take action against what health advocates are calling the “newest front in the ever-shifting war on tobacco,” according to a New York Times article. In an effort to deter young smokers and dispel the misconception that hookah smoke is less harmful than cigarette smoke, legislators in Oregon recently passed a bill that would prohibit the establishment of new hookah lounges. Similar legislation has been introduced in California and New York, and Boston, Maine and Utah have gone one step further and ended exemptions altogether.

Hookah smoking has also been confronted abroad, perhaps most interestingly in Turkey, where the parliament challenged a centuries-old hookah culture by enacting a nationwide smoking ban in 2009. Though the ban included provisions for hookahs to be smoked in open areas, the measure was still controversial in a country known for its tobacco production and consumption. A visit in spring revealed that the ban, at least in regards to water pipes, has largely been ignored—and that whether the hookah is considered a bad habit or a celebrated tradition depends on who you ask.

Emily Patti is a freelance writer living in Milwaukee. She enjoys the occasional hookah.


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