As you walk through the front door of the Aromatic House of Kabob at 113 Chestnut St., you’ll see a magnificent display of hookahs (water pipes) on the left wall ready to be packed with a rich flavored tobacco.
Each hookah stands against the mural backdrop as if it were a royal figure on display in front of its subjects. One has a furry red hose snaking away from a dark blue acrylic water chamber. Another poses with a clear base and matching mouthpiece connected by a gold and black hose.
Dim lighting and relaxed conversation surround you in the restaurant and hookah bar. From each table a hookah’s intricate, colorful design is dancing between customers as the hoses are passed around. The smoke that rises above this Persian patio setting consists of scents ranging from apricot to coconut.
The rhythm of the circulating mouthpiece at every table is structured around three simple notes: puff, puff, pass. Smoking hookah has found recent popularity with the American social scene.
With its deep roots stretching to India (when the hookah was constructed from a coconut shell), its foreign appeal has attracted hookah smokers to enjoy its social benefits in coffee shops and bars.
Helen Mojgani, owner of the Aromatic House of Kabob for the past two years, explained that American college student customers are interested in hookah culture because in most cases it is something that they have never experienced before.
“People that come from [Iran] and the Middle East have had this experience already,” Mojgani said. “For Americans it is something new. They all want to try it and are very excited about it.”
Mojgani also stressed that although many young Americans are attracted to smoking hookah, she still receives a diverse gathering that consists of Arabic, Indian and Pakistani customers. The hookah is a tool that acts as a link between individuals and their shared cultural experience.
“The hookah is a great conversational piece,” she said. “It makes the conversation go on and on.”
The hookah may help with table talk, but it also assists in catching a buzz as well, not to mention the attractive list of flavored tobacco available for smoking.
“It gets your head,” Mojgani said. “It has a buzz to it and relaxes you. It’s like smoking fruit salad. It’s very tasty.”
Twenty-one years ago, Dia Sawan, owner and manager of the restaurant and bar Byblos, at 114 S. 18th St., came to the United States from Lebanon. The hookah reminds him of his Lebanese heritage.
“It’s closest to home,” Sawan said. “[In America] it is becoming a fashion. But it’s a good thing because it brings Americans a better understanding of the culture surrounding the hookah.”
According to Sawan, people in America are attracted to smoking hookah because people visit places in the Middle East and see how smoking hookah is integrated into the society and social atmosphere. They then want to continue sharing in that custom when they return to the United States.
“So it becomes accepted with young Americans like soldiers and engineers, when they experience it in places like Iraq or Jordan,” Sawan said.
What’s at the heart of experiencing the hookah smoking custom is that it establishes a true connection between people. Whether an older couple is smoking at a Philadelphia hookah bar, or some Temple students are puffing on the lawn outside of Beury Hall on a sunny day; the hookah is something that people can share while learning more about each other and the Arab custom they’re experiencing first hand.
“What I’ve noticed about smoking hookah is that people do it for social reasons,” said Rob Dewey, a Spanish instructor at Temple.
“It’s just a way of connecting with somebody that people are craving. And so it makes perfect sense that younger generations would pick up smoking hookah just like that,” he said. “People need that connection with other people, they want to bond over something.”
According to Dewey, rich cultural customs such as smoking hookah play an important role in today’s often depersonalized, isolated world.
“I think it’s super important and I think that’s why even older people are gravitating towards things like smoking hookah,” Dewey said. “They’re responding to a very real and present need that we have.”
T.C. Mazar can be reached at email@example.com.