Hookah Bars: A New, Ancient Tradition

By Teenaz Javat

The term ‘hanging out’ in most middle eastern cultures would mean sitting at small round ornate tables in a hookah bar, inhaling tobacco or flavoured smoke from a sheesha, or hookah. The warm weather helps, allowing patrons to spill out into the street for most of the year. And the laws, if any, banning youngsters from inhaling tobacco or derived products are seldom followed.

As people move, so do their traditions. Toronto has benefited immensely from this interplay of diverse cultures, more than any other city in Ontario. Keeping pace with the tandoori and Hakka Chinese joints, the Greater Toronto Area has seen the arrival of hookah bars in areas with large Middle Eastern populations.

“Back in the home country, hookah bars and baristas were found in neighbourhoods both rich and poor,” says Maryam Nabavinejad, an Iranian-Canadian media blogger who now lives in Toronto’s east end. Though she’s not a fan of hookah per se, she can find the ambience of a hookah bar just steps from her home on Danforth Avenue.

“There has been a spurt in hookah bars on the Danforth, which to me is a clear reflection of the change in ethno-racial demographics,” says Samira Moheyddin, owner and manager of Banu Iranian Kabob and Vodka Bar on trendy Queen Street West, who talks to me in between seating patrons over the busy lunch hour. “And, no it’s not the Greeks who have taken on the habit,” she adds, “Its people of Middle Eastern origin, mostly Muslims, who have moved there, and mainstream white Canadians - for want of a better word - who are flocking to these bars as well.”

Although Banu is not a hookah bar, Mohyeddin offers it as an add-on. “If my guests request it I have a dozen hookahs on standby. They can indulge.”

Hookahs, or water pipes, originated in India when it was ruled by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 15th century. According to the Encylopaedia Iranica it was Abul-Fath Gilani, a Persian physician at the Indian court of Akbar, who first passed the smoke of tobacco through a small bowl of water to purify and cool the smoke, and thus invented the hubble-bubble, sheesha, or hookah.

Though the hookah is now entrenched in mainstream culture, it was initially used as an implement to inhale hashish and opium.

“It was only in the mid-1850’s that tobacco was introduced into the equation,” says Mohyeddin as she steps aside to welcome more guests arriving for lunch. “The practice of adding flavours, such as apple, cherry, blackberry, or mint is relatively new, and has really taken hold just over the past 20 or 30 years.”

While Mohyeddin makes sure her patrons choose a flavour to complement their meal if they request a sheesha, she does not particularly encourage high school students to party at Banu simply because if offers sheesha. “It does not make economic sense to me for a bunch of teens to sit in my space for hours sucking on a water pipe at $10 each.”

There are approximately 80 restaurants, bars and cafes that offer hookah in Toronto. A distinct sign that a community has evolved is when the food and flavours of newcomers’ home countries arrive and thrive your neighbourhood.

Top 10 sheesha flavours: apple, bubblegum, strawberry, cinnamon, mint, grape, fig, plum, pear and mango.