Thick clouds of aromatic smoke fill bars and cafes around San Antonio as students relax and chat around large water pipes. Hookah may have recently become both a much-loved pastime and a hobby for American students, but the hookah itself has a history stretching back over a thousand years.

The hookah began in India and ancient Persia. Hookah, also known as a “water pipe,” was a favored activity for nobles in the court of the Mughal emperor, Ackbar (a.k.a. Ackbar the Great), in Persia. It soon became popular among the affluent members of neighboring areas as a status symbol, and it quickly spread across the Middle East.

Around 50 years ago, Middle-Eastern immigrants popularized water-pipe smoking in Europe and opened the first hookah cafes there. It has been only in the last decade that hookah cafes have gained popularity in the U.S., mostly with young adults.

In 2004, Marwan Qashou, owner of Hookah Café (14543 Roadrunner Way, just up the road from UTSA’s main campus), opened one of San Antonio’s first hookah cafes at Thousand Oaks.

“I was trying to come up with something new in San Antonio,” Qashou says, referring to his unsuccessful attempts with other business ventures. He explains that his business spread through word of mouth and that soon, hookah cafes were opening up all over San Antonio.

“It’s the kind of thing where people are getting together-getting to know each other,” Qashou explains. In this way, hookah cafes are much like regular cafes or even coffee shops. Cafes generally have pretty relaxed atmospheres. Qashou says it is not uncommon for students to come to his cafe, order some coffee and just study.

Most cafes sell specialty drinks (coffees, teas, bubble teas, etc.), and many also serve food, often Mediterranean style.

The operation of the hookah is a bit different from most tobacco-based products. Hookahs burn a flavored molasses and tobacco mixture called mu’assel, which is more commonly known as “shisha.”

At the top of the hookah, the shisha mixture is placed in a bowl, covered in foil, with coals placed on top. The coals heat the tobacco so that it can be smoked, but they do not burn it as cigarettes do. There is usually a tray under the bowl to catch ash from the coals.

The smoke runs from the burning bowl, down a pipe and into a water jar. The smoke then escapes through a valve and runs up a hose and out the mouthpiece. The water cools the smoke so that it is not as harsh on the throat as are other forms of tobacco smoke and also helps to filter out harmful chemicals.

Shisha comes in many flavors and brands, even some tobacco-free ones. Many shishas are fruit flavored, but flavors like chocolate, mint and bubble gum are also popular. Some people have even mixed in actual pieces of fresh fruits with the tobacco and molasses. Mixing several flavors at once is a common practice. Some smokers even experiment by using other liquids in place of water: Kool-Aid, milk and even wine.

It is not hard to find a hookah aficionado or guru on campus. Many devote time to perfecting hookah-prepping techniques and creating tricks surrounding hookah, such as hookah smoke bubbles or smoke rings. Although it is of an ancient and foreign origin, this pastime is a local favorite for UTSA students of any background. 

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