A hookah is a single- or multi-stemmed water pipe originating in India around the turn of the 17th century. It became extremely popular throughout the Middle East, where it is more often called shisha or narghile. Today, smoking with one of these devices is also popular in Europe, North America, and South Africa, particularly at Middle Eastern themed hookah bars.
The hookah was invented by physician Hakin Abul Fath in an attempt to lessen the ill effects of smoking tobacco. It consists of a water jar, often made of glass, connected by a tube or body to the bowl at the top. Tobacco is placed in the bowl and covered with burning charcoal. Smoke is drawn through a hose leading from the water jar. The hot air is drawn down through the tobacco, and the resultant smoke is filtered through the water before the smoker inhales it.
The tobacco typically smoked in a hookah differs from that smoked in a traditional pipe. It is often sweetened with honey, molasses, fruit, and/or aromatic oils. There is a great variety of flavors, including blended flavors. They also come in different strengths of tobacco. Some blends are tobacco-free.
Though the pipe originated in India, hookah smoking was not always widespread in the country, being limited to rural areas until very recently. Rather, it has become a tradition of countries in the Arab world and surrounding countries. In the past ten years or so, hookah bars have become trendy among the youth of countries around the world.
Though the hookah was intended to be healthier than other ways of smoking tobacco, research suggests that it is not significantly safer. It is typically smoked for 20 to 80 minutes, and one study found that a 45-minute session delivers about 5 to 10% more carbon dioxide and tar than a pack of cigarettes. The effects of hookah smoking and how it compares to other methods of tobacco consumption are not well known, however, and more studies are necessary before conclusive claims can be made.