Hookah Hunt

It's easier to find Middle Eastern tunes and tobacco than you'd think

Think of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. Not the spooky, psychedelic depiction you might find displayed under a black light in a head shop, but the huggable Disney version who puffs out fluffy vowels and silhouettes of crocodiles from a questionable water pipe that rests on a giant mushroom.

Now imagine that caterpillar is your father. The mushroom is your mother's mahogany coffee table, and you've just innocently walked into your parents' living room only to find what appears to be a gigantic bong coastered on the latest issue of AARP: The Magazine and an old Victoria's Secretcatalogue.

You're aware your parents were somewhat hippie-ish back in the experimental Sixties, but wonder, as your father places the tip of a hose into his mouth and your mother dumps a cup of ice down the shaft of the hookah, whether this is the appropriate time for them to be nostalgic.

This happened to me, a few months back, and I cannot even begin to describe the relief I felt when, after he took a long draw, my father exhaled a cloud that smelled less like the hallways of my freshman dorm and more like fruit. Apple, to be exact, and I immediately beamed with excitement. Shisha-smoking had finally made its way down to Miami.

A shisha, narghile, hubble-bubble, or hookah is a water pipe that, despite the grandiose models embellishing the interior of Kendall's Tobacco Breeze, was originally constructed from a mere coconut in India. After the hookah made great strides in Iran, its popularity flourished throughout the Middle East and became perfected in Turkey.

This perfected apparatus one would see today consists of a glass base, pipe, bowl, and hose. The base holds water, frequently chilled with ice, and is connected to a pipe topped with a bowl.

The bowl houses a tongue-and-lung-tingling tobacco called maassel. Descended from jurâk — a shredded tobacco leaf that was soaked and sweetened with molasses, semidried fruit, or honey — maassel burst onto the traditional Middle Eastern smoking scene in the Eighties when Egyptian tobacco companies began experimenting with flavored tobacco in an attempt to appeal to more women. The women responded, along with the men, and maassel is now available in flavors that read like Cold Stone Creamery's menu: strawberry, banana, vanilla, coffee, mint, bubble gum, and beyond.

Once one chooses the maassel of his or her predilection, it is placed under a burning charcoal in the bowl. This bowl is connected to a pipe that is plunged into the water inside the base. Also connected to the base, above the water, is the hose where one inhales, thereby burning the tobacco, filling the base with smoke, and filtering the smoke through the bubbling water.

"And the taller the hookah, the better the draw," Jorge Vasquez, manager of Tobacco Breeze, whispered to me over a glass counter in the very same store that sparked my hookah hunt.

Being a fan of flavored tobacco since I discovered it in Paris during a backpacking excursion, I was pleased to hear that Tobacco Breeze not only sold hookahs and maassel but also provided a shisha lounge where customers could come in, buy a bowl, and enjoy a smoke. I figured if there was a shisha lounge in Kendall, there had to more scattered throughout Miami-Dade.

After a little research and a short stroll from CocoWalk down McFarlane Road, I found a crowd gathered on the patio of Oasis Internet Café; I wasn't the first person to catch a whiff of the narghile buzz. Often crammed with University of Miami students, Oasis offers a comfy patio complete with plush couches and a variety of diversions, such as sipping a cappuccino, nibbling falafel, swigging a beer, smoking a hookah, or catching the live rock band that performs every Saturday night. Inside are a fax, a scanner, full Internet access, a CD burner, and the lovely Fabrizia, who is more than happy to attend to your every need, except don't bother asking this Brazilian what kind of vodka Oasis uses for its screwdrivers, because she'll simply reply, "Don't worry — it's very good, and very strong."

Another, more authentic, place to partake in some hookah delight is South Beach's D'Vine Cyber Lounge. This chic Internet/wine bar/shisha lounge co-owned by the Herman sisters is the only tobacco retailer in the area that offers handmade maassel. These homemade blends, kept fresh in Tupperware, are slightly more expensive ($25 a bowl) than the commercial brands they provide and found elsewhere ($18-$20). Although pricey, these exquisite and aromatic flavors, which include white peach, double apple, and their signature mountain blend, pull in the regulars, many of Middle Eastern descent. In fact only at D'Vine was I was able to speak to actual regulars, rather then curious stragglers, who explained the social culture of shisha smoking.

Rudy Aboujaoude, a Lebanese regular, explains that for him, smoking a hookah is a rite of passage. "It's in you," he explains between sips of Heineken. "It's just the thing you do. It's a tradition." His friend and fellow regular Felipe Arcacha takes the social appeal of shisha-smoking one step further: "It's actually a way to spend time with your friends and engage in conversation; [you] spend a long time with them talking about real things, versus when you're getting drunk, within a half an hour people are just being stupid."

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