The Ottomans introduced shisha to the world in the 16th century, and it quickly spread from the Far East to North Africa. Customarily used by men, shisha smoking became deeply rooted in the traditions of the Middle East. In cultures where alcohol was prohibited, shisha smoking attained a spiritualistic association. "A dog does not bite he who smokes the nargile and thieves do not enter his home," quotes an old Turkish proverb.
But the appeal of the shisha transcends cultural boundaries. Its popularity is increasing not only on campus, but in the United States in general. Hookah bars are popping up all over the country, and in a college community where over 65 percent of students study abroad, cultural awareness simply happens.
St. Olaf College has yearly programs to India, where the nargile allegedly got its start, to Turkey, where the shisha first became established, and to Egypt, home of the hookah bar. In Cairo, Egypt a shisha bar sits right outside the Cosmopolitan Hotel where both the Global Semester and Term in the Middle East programs stay. The first time I smoked it was in Egypt, said Thomas Russert 06, a Global Semester participant last year.
Shisha is a booming business in Egypt for both tourists and for locals. Last year, Egypt Today reported that Egyptians spend about $1 billion on tobacco products each year, with shisha smoking a significant percentage of that total.
The shisha is especially common during the month of Ramadan in many Middle Eastern countries. During the day smoking is generally prohibited, but once the sun goes down, the food and hookahs come out. The practice is becoming so accepted in society that even women smoke in public, especially in Egypt where almost half of the adult population smokes, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population.
Though the craze is nowhere near that prevalent on campus, students may get together and enjoy a hookah from time to time. Its a very social thing for me, said Erin Forsythe 06, a student of the 2004 Term in the Middle East. Forsythe brought back a hookah from Egypt. I thought it was kind of mysterious, she said, adding that her family was equally interested in the device. It was something they wanted to try and were curious about.
Jeremy Schowalter 06 also traveled to Turkey and Greece on a Carthage College-sponsored Interim program in January 2003. I went to a little cafe called Tea and Waterpipe near the Hagia Sophia. Thats where I smoked the first time, said Schowalter, who has since purchased two hookahs.
An appreciation for the culture and community of hookah smoking he found in Turkey has prompted Schowalter to create a group on Facebook called Hookah Smokers. The group currently has 82 members and is meant to be a forum for organizing hookah-smoking engagements. The ultimate goal is to get people together for a community smoking session, Schowalter said, also adding that he will definitely get official St. Olaf approval before making this move.
Yet despite their increasing popularity, many people are confused as to what a hookah actually is or does. Hookahs are often confused with bongs, which are marijuana-smoking devices. The hookah burns a mixture of about 30 percent tobacco and 70 percent molasses and fruit, often honey mixed with mango, apple or coconut. The tobacco is placed in an earth-baked cup, upon which is set perforated tinfoil and hot coals. The coals heat the slow-burning tobacco mixture, which is then filtered through water in the base.
The satisfying product of burning honeyed tobacco is an intriguing alternative to cigarettes and cigars, which are often not popular in a St. Olaf culture full of choir members and vocal performance majors. One cigarette and I can feel it the next day, but the hookah seems softer, a little smoother, said Rusert, also a choir member. Hookah smoking can often be just as harmful as cigars and cigarettes, depending on the type of coals burned and tobacco used. But in a country where smoking warnings traditionally have little resonance with smokers, it is impossible to imagine that the hookah fad will abate any time soon. Hookah smoking may not be healthy, but it can be good clean fun. Hookah smoking is sweet, said Jake Erickson 06, staring intently at the hookah before him, a sentiment that will surely be echoed by the current Global Semester and Term in the Middle East students upon their return. If you ask them nicely, they may even share their travel experiences over some tea and shisha.