Saudi Arabia and the Hookah Culture


When coming to the Kingdom (as well as most places in the Middle East/Arab world) you will hear and see references to the hookah or hubbly-bubbly or sheesha. It is not unusual to come to a home or to an estraha (small farm) and be offered to smoke the hookah. It is generally accepted for both men and women to smoke the hookah and does not have the same negative stigma such as perhaps smoking cigarettes or cigars.


In Jeddah there are now many coffee shops or “hookah bars” when men and women can sit together. They can not only order their non-alcoholic beverages but have a hookah brought to their table as well. In addition to being offered the wide variety of coffees, teas and juices they will find an assortment of hookah tobaccos to choose from as well.


So what exactly is the origin of the hookah and how did it all get started?


According to

Hookah History


The origins of the hookah come from the north western provinces of India along the border of Pakistan in Rajasthan and Gujarat nearly a millennia back [map]. These hookahs were simple, primitive, and rugged in design, usually made from a coconut shell base and tube with a head attached. They were designed to smoke opium [more], and hashish [more]. The hookah made its way through the Persian Kingdom [map], which also included Pakistan, Afghanistan, much of Middle Asia and Arab parts of Northern Africa. The hookah acquired tombeik on its way through Persia. Tombeik is a dark tobacco grown in modern day Iran. Tombeik is rinsed and packed in the large older style heads where hot coal is applied directly to the wet tombeik, which gives it a strong flavor. These heads and style of hookah, referred to as “ghelune” in Persian [more], are available on our web site. The hookahs designed in the Persian Empire are still hand crafted with each one being cut from a piece of wood. In the 19th century, cigarettes were made easily available and mostly women smoked the ghelune because they were not on the go. Women used the ghelune in the home for entertaining and as a past time.



Whereas states: Hookah History

Hookah was originated in India and was called Nargile. If translated to English, Nargile means coconut. That is exactly what hookah was made from – coconut shells. The Nargiles were simple, primitive, and rugged in design.

Nargiles popularity spread to Iran and then the Arab world and Turkey. However, it was in Turkey – in around 16th century – that hookah was developed and advanced close to what it looks like today. This was mainly for the fact that the Hookah was more popular among the upper class and the rugged design had to change.

Hookah started its main popularity in Turkey coffee shops. A hookah bar waiter was treated as a chef as its preparation was complex and had to be done carefully.

Hookah culture then migrated to other Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirate, Morocco, and others. It was know as different names in different countries:

  • Saudi Arabia – Hubble Bubble
  • Egypt & Morocco – Shisha
  • Lebanon & Syria – Argile
  • Iran – Ghelyoon

Hookah is now a very popular smoking device used all around the world.


Now in order to smoke the hookah there are some steps that must be taken in preparation (the hookah lounge website accompanies these instructions with graphics):

Following is the instruction on how to prepare a hookah along with tips on how to get the best out of your hookah.

Before you start the following steps, wash your hookah thoroughly. This gets the old tobacco smell and dirt (and coal ashes) out. Don’t ever use the old water in the vase.

<!–[if !supportLists]–>1. <!–[endif]–>Fill the vase with water

<!–[if !supportLists]–>2. <!–[endif]–>Place the middle section in place

<!–[if !supportLists]–>3. <!–[endif]–>Place the tray on the argile.

<!–[if !supportLists]–>4. <!–[endif]–>Put the hose on the hookah

<!–[if !supportLists]–>5. <!–[endif]–>Pack the bowl with tobacco

<!–[if !supportLists]–>6. <!–[endif]–>Place the aluminum foil on top of the bowl

<!–[if !supportLists]–>7. <!–[endif]–>Put holes in the aluminum foil

<!–[if !supportLists]–>8. <!–[endif]–>Light coals and put them on the hookah head

<!–[if !supportLists]–>9. <!–[endif]–>Smoke the hookah

The tobacco which one smokes with the hookah comes in many flavors. When buying the tobacco it is usually in a clear plastic pouch or bag and moist to the touch. Most hookah tobaccos are based on fruit flavors and extracts.


Now I cannot comment personally on smoking the hookah but I do enjoy being where the hookah is smoked. I find the aroma of the tobacco to be very pleasant and the sound of the bubbling water as one draws upon the hookah to smoke to be a relaxing and soothing sound.


34 Responses

  1. My husband usually plays cards with his African buddies on Friday or Saturday night and one of them smokes this thing. I don’t know what they call it in Africa. I don’t know what it smells like when someone is actually smoking it but when my husband comes home his clothes wreak of it. He usually takes his clothes off as he enters the house and they go right into the washer. It could be because they play cards in a very small apartment?
    My husband said that evidentally this thing has been accidentally knocked over numerous times while hot and this poor guy has very little carpet left in his apartment because of it! I think there were a few times they thought they’d catch the place on fire. Also there was a time when he was smoking it on his balcony and the police came and thought he could be smoking some “wacky tobacky” in it. He reassured them that it wasn’t and offered them a smoke from it!
    I’ve always been curious, perhaps someone knows, what is the purpose of it? Does it give some kind of “buzz” such as a cigarette?

  2. I’ll take my best shot at responding Tina and hope that others will chime in too. As I understand, hookah is an altermate to cigarettes or cigars. One still smokes tobacco which is filtered through water. The tobacco is generally scented or flavored with fruits which to me seem to amplify the scent (hence your spouse coming home with the smell on his clothes). Due to the unique shape of the hookah with the hot coals perched at the very top, one does have to be careful. If the hookah is not on a flat secure surface or if someone bumps it, it is not unusual for hot coals to fall out which quickly can burn carpets!

    I can’t speak on the “buzz” or not as I’ve not smoked the hookah but I would not refer to it as “wacky tobacky.” I don’t smoke cigarettes either but am guessing that one would likely receive whatever is the same effect as smoking a cigarette. I believe the hookah tobacco contains nicotine just as the traditional cigarette tobacco.

  3. There’s two different versions popular around here, each with their own “hookah” shape.
    There is stinky “sheesha” which is more straight up tobacco and from what it sounds like, is what Tina’s husband was smoking. It is smoked in a taller, pointier hookah.
    Then there’s “maasil”, the fruity one, that is very mild and has a pleasant smell and is smoked in a shorter, more stout looking mainly decorated glass based hookah. I love the smell of maasil and have tried it before with my husband (although I wouldn’t admit it to the women around here). This is buzz-free unless you forget to breathe regular air in between toking the hookah.

    Attitudes vary greatly across the kingdom on the “hookah” issue, especially for women. My Hijazi friends would light up a hookah for the ladies at get-togethers and think nothing of it while the Najdi women present would feign absolute horror at the thought of a WOMAN smoking one…only bad boys/girls would do that! Secretly, many of them are smoking with their husbands after the kids go to bed at night, they’d later admit to me in confidence. In my area there is a stigma attached to it for both men and women although, as with many many things, it’s more acceptable for a man but unthinkable for any “decent” woman.

  4. I used to be addicted to smoking the “Hookah” when I first went to the U.S. for school in 1999. I used to carry with me in my luggage two or three Hookahs ( In case the glass of one of them breaks or something) and boxes and boxes of tobacco and artificial coal (Interesting is made in Japan). That was before Sept. 11 when knowledge about Saudi was minimal at best. I used to live in the dorms, and it turned out to be a people magnet:). My roommate got shocked when I first assembled the Hookah in the room, thought the tobacco was some form of weed, but of course, he never hesitated to try it out:). In a short period of time, the word got out, and everybody in the building new me as the guy with hookah, I made many friends thought it, and friends brought with them friends, and my stach got depleted significantly within weeks. I don’t know why i shared the story, but your blog brought back the memories:) .

  5. Thanks so much for sharing Shadow Whispers!

    Where did you attend school? Now in the US, hookah bars have also become quite popular, even in a post 9-11 world.

    You also remind me a funny story shared with me about hookahs. A Saudi diplomat whom I met through my former diplomatic career told me about his experience when he was the Saudi Consul in Los Angeles. He had requested for some of his favorite hookah tobacco to be couriered to him from the Kingdom as it was not available in the States. Not surprisingly it got held up in US Customs. He had to go and explain to the customs officers that it was not some kind of narcotic but simply scented tobacco. They were good-natured about it all and ultimately released the shipment to him but told him not everyone may be as understanding as them about shipping unusual tobacco into the country.

  6. Interesting… ‘a 45-minute session of shisha corresponds to smoking 40 cigarettes’ from here:

  7. yikes…that’s scary!

  8. My wife occasionally smokes the fruity kind of hookah (ma’asail), and I’ve taken a few puffs out of curiosity. It does have a pleasant flavored feel to it, but not something I would do out of habit. Sheesha on the other hand is VILE. Though I got used to it, since it seems to be the national past time of my extended family.

  9. My wife and I both like the ma’asail, although we havent smoked it since she was pregnant with Sinan, almost four years now.

    The last time I had it was at a Jordanian friend’s house, I sat in the kitchen with her teenage kids and their friends after they invited me to smoke with them.

    I like the lemon flavour, it is the best. But our poor thing has been sitting there on the shelf for four years now.

  10. Even in my provincial neck of the American woods, the hookah bar has made an inroad, but only in university neighborhoods, where young people embrace new and exotic ideas.

    My girls love to smoke the sheesha. When they come to my area, they want me to take them to dinner at a good Middle Eastern restaurant with a hookah bar. I don’t know what they see in the practice, but I do enjoy the scent of the various fruity tobaccoes, and the design of the hookah itself is charming. They always want to me to try it, but I refuse. Most fun for me is to see the delight on my girls’ faces as they pass the hose back and forth!

  11. The most popular tobacco right now at least in the Kingdom seems to be the French apple flavored.

  12. LOL at “wacky tobacky”……….it’s funny cuz for some odd reason I do notice that when Americans try this at restaurants, they start acting a little odd. In my mind, I am thinking they are thinking that it is giving them some kind of “buzz” or something. Then I look at the table to make sure there is booze or something and sure enough there isn’t. So, I am seriously wondering if they think it is giving them a “buzz” of some sort??? Because all that a hooka gives you is bad breathe, nothing more and nothing less……!

    I used to be a smoker and I quit and let me tell you, it is the best thing I have ever done in my life. I did smoke the hooka for a while and quit it all together since I became pregnant with Sinan. I am not sure if I will ever smoke it again period. In my opinion, it is all really bad for your health, smoking it or sitting next to someone who is smoking it………

    So, yes, Abu Sinan, if you want to smoke in the future, the deck is calling your name and you are going to be alone…………lol!!!

  13. My girls say they get no feeling akin to what they think a “buzz” might feel like. I suppose smoking sheesha / hookah is bad for the health, but one does not inhale, so how can it be any worse than bakhoor? Maybe bakhoor is also bad for the lungs. I wouldn’t be surprised. Anyway, moderation is the key to everything, both healthful and unhealthful, no?

  14. What I have heard from those who do not routinely smoke a hookah is that after trying one they have a headache.

  15. I am surprised at the innocence with which you paint Hookah/Sheesha smoking.

    Smoking is smoking, whether cigarettes, cigars, or hookahs. It’s all tobacco being burnt. The smoke, flavoured or not, invades the lungs of smokers and non-smokers (passive smokers) in the surrounding area.

    By now, we should ALL be aware of the fatal dangers of smoking, even (and ESPECIALLY) on passive smokers and children, so I won’t go into that here.

    Hookah/Sheesha smoking poses another significant health risk: due to air-borne tuberculosis (TB) transmission from pipe sharing and uncontrolled, manual preparation of the pipe.

    For more informantion:;f=2;t=016061

    Wishing you a healthy smoke-free environment!

  16. This makes me laugh because i was never big on cigs but give me a sheesha anyday with flavored tobacco! Well not anymore because after the past four years of preg and breastfeeding it’s a big no-no. But I do like to smell it as I pass by a room where they are smoking it. Also in moderation (like rarily) it doesn’t cause you to crave it.
    The dizziness comes from not breathing enough regular air as you bubble your troubles away lol. You get a massive headache just after about 5-10 minutes if you aren’t taking a break every so often y passing it around. I think it’s a nice informal way to “swap spit hahaha” with new friends. Though really awkward if a male in-law passes you his hose. I decline until a female has hit it or his wife😉 So if you’re going to do it have a few same sex buddies and take turns so you don’t geat a headache.
    In the future i loook forward to trying it again but i’m not an addict maybe just like once in a blue moon sorta things. But I know some adicts to it who can’t visit a person’s house or go an evening without it, it’s a habit.
    As for health risks of course there are it IS tobacco. But there’s a lot less additivves that they put in cigs. Sheesha’s have the extra calming effect too of the water bubbling…. i like pinapple flavor best.

  17. When I was a kid (and yes, that was many moons ago), we called it a bong, and smoked dope in it. Some had the hose, others didn’t… but the use was always the same. Just call it a cultural difference…

  18. Lofter- I do recall in my teenage years a bonafide redneck having a massive hookah they called “The Swami”; it was as tall as a grown man and was a “bong” in every aspect.

  19. actually my same friend who was the Saudi ConGen in LA has this hookah which is very unique; it is at least 5 feet tall and has a hose which extends for more than 25 feet. He can be in one room smoking the hookah with the hookah itself in another location.

  20. looool .. Carol,

    the hookah you refer to in your latest comment is the original “Sheesha” or “Joraak”. And i agree with Saudi JAwa, it is our Hijazi national past time, although it is worst for your helath than cigarettets and “Mea’ssel” combined !!!

    i went to school in Knoxvilee , Tennessee … yeah for real:) … imagine the looks on these young country boys faces when they saw the hookah for the first time. However, everybody was willing to give it a try, unfortionately i graduated before it became a “Big thing” around campuses, but i think it is just a matter of time, before regulatory bodies start to control the spread of these bars around campuses.

  21. Shadow Whispers — I’d love to ask you some questions about your experiences as a Saudi student in Appalachia, USA!

  22. Yep in Holland they put weed in it, very rarely flavored tobacco. I smoked apple-tobacco once and liked it. And there are more modern versions, on electricity, popular especially who smoke weed for medicinal purposes.

  23. You mean people smoke weed for something other than medicinal purposes? Really?
    Who knew… 😉

  24. Guys,

    Guide me on some hookah bars in Riyadh. I am new to this place….

  25. Hi Pat and welcome to Riyadh.

    The hookah bars in Riyadh are all outside of the main city limits. For example, if you drive North on Takhusseesee towards Thamamah, once you are past Kingdom Hospital, Imam University and the airport, you’ll start to see some on either side of the ride (for men only of course). Alternatively heading East you will find them on Damman Road as well.

  26. […] or sheesha. It is not unusual to come to a home or to an estraha small farm and be offered to sm attracted 228.000 GCC tourists in 2007 AME InfoThe Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development […]

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  29. Daisy! Alhumdiallah!

  30. love it. thats all i have to say about hookahs
    i live in a suburb of chicago and it seems liek its the it thing to do i picked it up a while ago and tho yes its bad for your health if you do it in moderation its fine try putting ice in the bowland ice bucket if you have one with alittle bit of lemon juice or some lemonade its absolutely wonderful tho only with lemon flavored hookahs and by afar the best flavor ive had is melon mango

  31. I don’t smoke the hookah myself but I do indeed enjoy the smells of the tobaccos. I don’t know if the melon mango is available here…or most likely noone I know has used it hence I’ve not smelled it.

  32. […] hookah culture continues to grow in its popularity and use not only in Saudi Arabia but in America too. However […]

  33. I love hookah and learning new things about it. and to see the way it is changing as a new hookah culture in the US embraces it.

  34. Welcome Dehgo,

    Yes, I have seen the hookah become increasingly popular particularly in Texas and the WDC/Virginia area of the US.

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