What’s Your Hookah Story?
My fist experience with hookah began when I worked in a coffee shop in San Antonio, Texas. This city, colored vibrantly with Southwestern culture and attracting many people from around the world, and balanced its regular fiesta time with plenty of siesta time. However, there weren’t many places to go after 10pm. My friend told me about a cafe that stayed open late and they served hookahs. I remember my delight at finding the small cafe tucked in the corner of an out-of-the-way suburban shopping center.
It was with mixed self-consciousness and excitement that I found myself the only Caucasian, non-Arabic speaking patron, piling my college textbooks on the table between men bent over an expanding web of dominoes, or blowing idle smoke rings towards a television broadcasting a Middle Eastern news channel. Trying to act as though I had done this millions of times before, I casually pointed to the first flavor on the menu: Double Apple shisha tobacco. To this day, the classic Double Apple remains one of my favorite flavors, though at the time I couldn’t even imagine owning a hookah of my own.
I would visit this cafe every week or two for years, seeing their popularity grow without advertisement. Additional tables popped up out on the lawn like toadstools overnight as more and more students and patrons of all culture discovered hookah sessions as appropriate for studying as socializing. I eventually moved across town, and quit visiting the lounge, but not before I purchased a hookah of my own – an Egyptian Pharaoh with a green base, from the company that I’d coincidentally end up working for some time down the road.
Sadly, I had little idea how to properly tend the hookah at the time, and unable to figure out why my smoke was harsh and unpleasant tasting – I packed up my hookah and left it in my parents’ attic where it was forgotten along with the cafe in San Antonio.
Eventually I found myself in Shimokitazawa, Japan, ambling comfortably about the market streets in no particular hurry to be anywhere. Right there, squeezed between two hip clothing shops, an open door issued the smell of a distinct sweet smoke. “Nothing to do today but smile”, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, and what better way to savor it than watch it pass, reposed with a pipe?
The small, single 10 x 12 room was open, with a low bench running along each of the four walls. The hoses were hung behind the on-end wooden box that served as the counter. Aside from a few posters advertising concerts that had already occurred, the clean wooden walls were unadorned – though the bebob jazz and mid-tempo electronica created a cozy atmosphere amid the floor pillows. Initially, I was the only patron in the shop, but a group of three entered shortly after my hookah was served. Though I spoke no Japanese, and they no English, I gestured to a chess board, hoping to bridge the language barrier with some friendly competition. They shrugged apologetically and shook their heads – they didn’t know how to play chess. They picked up a backgammon board, and gestured in my direction with it; it was my turn to shrug and shake my head: I didn’t know how to play backgammon then. We laughed, shrugged a final time, and smoked peacefully without conversation for a while. Another group enters shortly after, and overhearing their English, I entered into conversation with them and soon we were smoking our hookahs on benches in front of the shop, watching the traffic on the street.
An elderly Japanese lady walked by and scowled scornfully at our smoky repose. It was explained to me that, like America, much of Japan still associated the water pipes with the paraphernalia seen in drug cultures. But I didn’t mind her misunderstanding of what we were sharing that day on the street, I just smiled and and took another puff.