How To Smoke A Shisha

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

November 20th, 2015


Shisha, the Hubbly-Bubbly, Water-Pipe, Hookah, Bong, Chillem, Argileh…we are all familiar with such devices but how best to indulge? Probably invented and originally using a coconut shell in Persia in the 7th century, (the Persian term for the Shisha is Argileh, derived from the word Nargileh, meaning coconut) its use soon spread throughout India during the Mughal era, and west towards Egypt, Morocco and the Levant. Shisha also have that alluring romance of being used in the past for the consumption of what are now in many countries illegal substances – opium, hashish, and tobacco.

One of the most famous users was of course the Caterpillar in “Alice In Wonderland”, who smoked a Hookah while observing Alice.

“The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

‘Who are you?’ said the Caterpillar.”

Which lead to a long discourse on who Alice was, and the same for the Caterpillar, whose life of had changed from Chrysalis, to Caterpillar and was leading towards Butterfly, and as a result was not in the least surprised or concerned about Alice’s constant changing of height.


Today, the usage of Shisha is prevalent throughout the Muslim world, and I have enjoyed the occasional waft of aromatic cannabis as I have wandered the bazaars of Cairo, Casablanca and Istanbul in the past. Today though, the Koran forbids the use of such drugs, yet mindful of the fallout should the Shisha be banned entirely, Mullahs have permitted the use of dried fruit flavoured molasses instead as a compromise, although some are still cut with tobacco depending upon the regional interpretation and strictness of the words of the Prophet when it comes to the use of stimulants. (A useful discourse on the use of stimulants, including alcohol, from the Koran is here although the writings appear to suggest ‘intoxication’ is the enemy, not the actual participation, which may be a moot point but doesn’t appear to expressly forbid them. Partake in moderation seems to be suggested, although we all know where that can lead. So better be safe than sorry).


Stimulants being if not outright banned, then certainly unwise in the Muslim world, we consequently get a wide variety of Shisha flavours, with Double Apple (my personal favorite), Strawberry, Grape, Mango and so on all being available.


However, the odd thing about smoking a Shisha is that it does induce a buzz, a mild high, and make the user slightly soporific. This is because the voluminous amounts of smoke created when using one properly equate to a lack of oxygen reaching the brain which itself leads to an induced state not unlike a mild narcotic. Yet without stimulants. So that’s OK then, although the resulting brain damage undoubtedly inherent in long term daily users doesn’t seem to be mentioned much by many Muslim clerics. Nonetheless, I am not hear to lead my dear readers astray. Moderation is key.

Most Shisha bars will have staff provide a menu of flavours, and prepare the Shisha for you. The main reason for them having a water chamber is as it has always been – to remove harmful impurities from the smoke. However, not all toxins are removed, and it is important to use a personal mouth piece, which again most bars selling Shisha will provide. The real trick though as a user is not to treat it with a mild inhalation. The Shisha is not a cigarette, there’s a lump of burning charcoal at the end with aromatic fruits to be consumed on top of it. A good decent lungful is required, and be prepared. Knowing how to, or learning to breathe in a circular fashion is useful in this technique as otherwise the charcoal will expire. An experienced Shisha indulger will be quite able to produce vast clouds of aromatic smoke while contentedly puffing away.

However worry not if you find you cannot master the technique. The British expatriate William Hickey, writing in his Memoirs in Calcutta in 1775, explained

“The most highly-dressed and splendid hookah was prepared for me. I tried it, but did not like it. As after several trials I still found it disagreeable, I with much gravity requested to know whether it was indispensably necessary that I should become a smoker, which was answered with equal gravity, “Undoubtedly it is, for you might as well be out of the world as out of the fashion. Here everybody uses a hookah, and it is impossible to get on without …I have frequently heard men declare they would much rather be deprived of their dinner than their hookah.”