Photo by Lee Woolcock
The hookah is gaining a following in Barcelona, and that’s no surprise in a cosmopolitan place increasingly open to the influx of exotic pastimes and and customs of immigrant populations. Barcelona is attracting a diverse and open-minded blend of people from all over the world, and when they converge and need a place free of alchoholic blunders and second-hand industrial-strength tobacco smoke, a hookah bar is a good place to converse and philosophise.
With its flexible tubes and extravagant curves, the hookah is used for smoking special tobacco that differs greatly from that of cigarettes and cigars. Hookahs use whole, unbroken tobacco leaves that have been dried, soaked, crumbled and then scented. This tobacco blend is then placed in the bowl of the hookah on top of smouldering charcoal or coals. In poorer countries, dried camel dung would be used instead of charcoal. Smoked for flavour and relaxation, rather than a nicotine fix, the hookah experience is much different than smoking a cigarette. While the idea that smoking a hookah is healthier than smoking cigarettes is a myth, the flavoured smoke doesn’t hang in the air or on clothing like regular cigarette smoke.
Rachid Hamidouch, proprietor of the eclectic Medina Azahara hookah café in the Raval, told Metropolitan that most customers are not cigarette smokers. “Not having cigarette smoke creates a better environment for people to relax and enjoy each other’s presence. And people tend to smoke cigarettes individually while the hookah can be shared.”
Sharing is what hookah users have been doing for over 2,000 years, ever since tobacco was discovered as a smoking herb. In the Arab world, the hookah café serves many of the same functions as the Western pub. It is a gathering place to watch sporting events on television, or just a place to meet friends and converse. Each country has its own unique customs and terminology. In India, where it originated, smoking the hookah was traditionally a sign of privilege, but today it’s a popular pastime.
Beginning smokers should be aware that a common confusion of terms faces most novice hookah users. Many Westerners incorrectly refer to the tobacco that is smoked in the hookah as shisha. This derives from the common request in the Middle East for a ‘flavoured shisha’, which simply means a hookah with flavoured tobacco. The hookah (or shisha) is actually the water pipe, the serpentine smoking machine. ‘Hookah’ stems from the Arabic word uqqa, which means small box, or jar. Other synonyms for hookah include ghalyun, arghile and nargila. Narghile comes from Persian and means coconut, which is logical since the original hookahs were sculpted out of coconut shells.
A session can last between 20-90 minutes, and most cafés also offer snacks and teas that go well with the flavoured smoke. A number of Middle Eastern restaurants offer the pipe as an add-on after a meal. The price ranges from €5-€12, depending on the tobacco chosen. For those who just can’t stand the thought of directly inhaling anything carcinogenic, it’s also possible to smoke tobacco-free herbal flavours made of sugarcane bagasse, which doesn’t have any harmful nicotine or tars.
And for those who want to take the experience home, individual hookahs can be purchased for between €20-€70 depending on their quality. Upper-end, high-quality Egyptian style hookahs are sold by Kamir Hassam at El Escarabajo Azul, in Gràcia. “People from all over the West come here to buy hookahs,” he said. “They see it as art, and an exotic tradition that is easy to emulate.”
Carrer de la Lluna 29
El Escarabajo Azul
Xiquets de Valls 2 (Gràcia)
Other places to smoke hookah:
La Cera 57
Tel. 93 302 4118