I remember thinking it was a genie lamp when I was a kid living with my father – back when I was a typical Daddy’s Little Girl. This was back when prayers written in Arabic were nothing more to me than magical spells that I loved to memorize and repeat, always winning me a smile of approval and then yet another line to learn. “Mashallah,” my father would say. “Praise be to God.”
The hookah sat upon the mantelpiece alongside a few photographs above our fireplace, one of the many oriental-looking adornments that were dispersed throughout our home, distinguishing it from the average “American” household, and serving as the topic of many questions from my school friends during playdates.
“No one in my family smokes,” I’d explain, defensively. “It’s just a decoration.”
The hookah was there because my father, a Pakistani man, had made sure to bring bits and pieces of his country with him when he crossed the ocean, from hand-woven prayer rugs, to intricately carved tea kettles, and left no surface untouched by the place that raised him. He was terrified that he would start to forget the details as time took him further and further away from his home. In doing so, he gave me the gift of his home.
I was sixteen when I asked my father about that specific decoration. His eyes wrinkled at the edges when he smiled, and he spoke to me as though I was far older than I really was – as though he and I were friends.
“The one thing I want you to remember, is that hookah is nothing like smoking a cigarette. When I smoked hookah, it gave me time to think. It taught me patience and tolerance, and gave me an appreciation for good company.
Hookah isn’t about feeling high, or how it makes you look. It’s all about who you’re smoking with – you pass around the pipe, taking turns, and when it is in your hands, you are smoking silently. More importantly, you are listening.”
I imagined him and his friends sitting together in a circle, conversation sprouting in between each intake and exhale of smoke, like blossoms on the crowded branches of a tree. It must have been beautiful, just like the political discussions of Kings many years ago, during which hookah, according to my father, gave rise to some of the most important decisions in history…
I sit with my friends now, all of them ranging in age from freshmen to seniors, celebrating our collective survival of the first week of college classes. It’s my first time at a hookah lounge, and it’s different from what I expected. I can’t put my finger on which country this place is trying to mimic. The walls are made of large bricks, with low couches and ottomans placed in circles here and there, embroidered with tiny mirrors. The inset lighting gives the hookahs a mesmerizing glow, as if there really are genies waiting inside.
Red drapes hang from the windows, tied with golden strings, and paintings hang from the wall, depicting beautiful but unidentifiable desert landscapes dotted with silhouettes of camels. A waitress with a thick Egyptian accent carries a pot of glowing coals to our circle, and carefully placed one atop our hookah with metal tongs, making eyes at the guys I’m sitting with.
I am trying to figure out which time and place the whole place feels like, wishing there had been some kind of historical plaque outside to give me all the answers, just like in a museum, when the voices of my companions interrupt my mental wanderings.
“Dude, it’s nowhere near as bad as cigarettes!”
“Yeah, the flavors are all natural -”
“- and it’s washed down, so that there isn’t any nicotine or tar left.”
“But then how do you get buzzed!?”
Laughter erupts, and the conversation ensues as I hold the pipe, taking deep breaths from it’s tip, filling my lungs with the flavor of apple and mint. The guys proceed to talk about how they could try filling the base of the pipe with cooled coffee in order to enhance it’s flavor.
“You look so good smoking that thing,” one of my friends tells me. “It’s a part of your culture, right? It totally shows!”
I half-smile at her, and then exhale particularly slowly, allowing the smoke to linger right in front of my eyes, blurring my surroundings momentarily.
“Mashallah, mashallah!” A Hindi song begins to play on the speakers, repeating the phrase to the sound of Arabic music, as the waitress, now a veiled belly-dancer, moves along to the beat. My head is spinning like I’ve just been blindfolded and turned in circles – like I’m swinging my baseball bat in search of the right direction, desperately hoping to hear the satisfying thump of my bat against a piñata, but there’s nothing there.
As the music grows louder, I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, and glance down to see the words, “Dad Calling.” I put my finger to the top right corner of the phone and silence it, and then press the tip of the pipe back to my lips. I blow out the smoke, and then watch it evaporate, trying not to hear anything.