A Smokin' Good Time: The Sweet Small of Hookah
A Smokin' Good Time
The Sweet Smell of Hookah

By Alex Lee

Smoking cigarettes and even cigars in some countries is on the way out. It's just not as fashionable as it used to be in many places, including Kazakhstan, to pull out a cigarette and start smoking at your restaurant or nightclub table. But there is one form of the burning smoke that has been around for centuries and continues to gain in popularity – hookah.
"Hookah's great. We usually ask for one when we go out and I think most bars and restaurants have it now. They also have a lot of flavors. My favorite is blackberry and apple,"said 27 -year-old Astana resident Marina Koltsova while puffing on a sweet apple flavor.

Hookah goes by many names. In Russia and many former Soviet republics it's often called "kalian." In Arabic countries it's mostly known as "shisha," or in some countries such as Syria it's called "argila" or "narghile." Throughout much of the United States and Europe, it's asked for by the name of "hookah." The word hookah comes from the original Indian name "huqqa."

But no matter what you call it, hookah is a centuries old practice that is going to be part of your night if you go out in
Kazakhstan. By definition, hookah is a slim, often colorful metal contraption up to one-meter tall in which smoke – generated by flavored tobacco – passes through water before being inhaled. Legend has it that it was first invented in the 1500s by a Persian in India who was the first to inhale smoke through water. He found that doing so cooled and purified the smoke, making it more palatable. That cool flavor is what continues to attract today and hookah pipes are used primarily to smoke sweet tasting and sweet smelling tobacco flavors. "My favorite flavor is strawberry with banana. I don't know what else to smoke. It's the only one I get and they have it everywhere," said hookah fan Vitaly Li of Astana.
In Arabic countries, hookah is an integral part of daily life and culture and has long been popular. You can often see groups of elders sitting together over long evenings chatting and sharing the pipe among two or three friends. The practice is so ingrained in the culture that women, prohibited from certain activities in some Arabic countries, can also enjoy hookah in many places.

Hookah in Kazakhstan
Hookah doesn't hold the same cultural significance in Kazakhstan, but it has caught on as a way to socialize and share an experience among friends. And it's not just for nightclubs. You'll find the sweet smelling pipe offered at some of the country's best restaurants and many of its coffee houses and bars.
One reason behind its popularity in Kazakhstan is that in October 2009, the country joined many other nations and municipalities, such as New York City, in banning old-school cigarette smoking in public places. People caught lighting up faced fines from $85 to $500 and the ban was enforced by the country's highest law enforcement agency. To offer a smoking option, bars and restaurants were forced to build special rooms or undergo reconstruction of their public spaces. But hookah was never banned in public and the public didn't seem to mind. And its sweet flavor has attracted many who don't like traditional tobacco. "It's great that I can puff at the table and I don't have to go outside, especially in the winter!" Koltsova told EdgeKz. So, gradually more and more bar owners began to offer it as an alternative and now rarely a social evening goes by without someone proposing a bit of hookah.

Puff Like a Local: How to Smoke Hookah
Hookah is a social event and most often shared among friends. It usually follows a meal or accompanies a night of cocktails. At a club or bar, you would simply ask the waiter for hookah as you would a drink and specify the flavor of tobacco you'd like. Many clubs even offer hookah menus. The waiter will bring the large hookah pipe to the table, and – with practiced skill – place the flavored tobacco on top of the pipe, light it and take a few puffs to get the smoke flowing before turning it over to the group. The waiter will also bring small, individually wrapped mouth pieces for each member of the party. When it is your turn to take a puff, you place your mouth piece over the hookah pipe hose and then remove it
before passing it on to the next person.

A typical round of hookah usually costs about $24 to $34 dollars at most bars and restaurants and lasts for about 40 minutes to an hour. Some of the most popular flavors include apple, banana, strawberry and blackberry. You can also buy your own hookah pipes at many local shopping malls where they range in price from about $50 to $500 dollars depending on their size and the number of hoses. On the downside, hookah is tobacco based and carries similar health risks. But because it's not portable, it remains largely a special occasion and social event.

So if you're going out in Kazakhstan or entertaining friends at one of the country's better venues, order up some apple, some peach or some banana and enjoy the sweet smell of hookah.