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What’s In a Name? – Shisha, Hookah, Nargileh and the Evolution of Water Pipes

April 18, 2018

Image of hookah pipe

Shisha, Hookah, Nargileh, Argileh, Qalyan, Mada’a, Chillim, Lula, Jajeer, Hubbly Bubbly… Whatever you call it, however you spell it, there is no mistaking the sweet, sweet swell of smooth molasses as you wade through the smoke-filled bar, or relax at home for a soothing evening with friends. The fact that there are so many ways to refer to the bubbling pipe that we all love is a testament to how widespread it has become. Shisha history stretches back around 500 years, and its journey has seen it permeate the cultures of virtually every region of the Near and Middle East. More recently, Westerners have discovered the pure joys of this time-honoured pastime, with Shisha bars and lounges popping up to spread their alluring, bewitching aroma in cities across the globe.

Here in Australia, with a level of cultural diversity that is as rich as the thick, languid smoke flowing through a hose, it was inevitable that Shisha would become part of the local scene. In our hometown of Melbourne alone, dozens of bars have opened their doors in the last decade or so, and have become well and truly entrenched parts of the scenery.

Seasoned devotees need no lesson in nomenclature. However, new initiates to the fellowship can at times be left scratching their heads as to what to call our magnificent, treasured pipes. Since we have recently launched our stunning website, we thought that would be the perfect place to start with our first blog. So, sit back, grab the hose and deeply inhale as we travel through time and geography to enlighten you:


While most Westerners may be more familiar with the term Hookah, Shisha is the preferred term in the majority of countries in which the practice is common. This includes pretty much all the Arabian Peninsula as well as North and East Africa. Yemenis sometimes call it Mada’s, but only when used for pure tobacco, not the sweet, flavoured stuff we love. Interestingly, the word Shisha, in fact, derives from the Persian word for glass. In an ironic quirk of historical fate, the Arab world overwhelmingly uses a Persian term, while the Persians themselves call it something altogether different (see below). Also fascinating is that Baltic nations universally use the word Shisha to refer not to the pipe, but to the tobacco that they smoke in it.


Hate to break it to you children of the 80s, but foreign types with their hookah pipes are walking like Indians and Pakistanis, not Egyptians. All due respect to the greatest girl band (and corniest music video) ever, but huqqa is the straight-up Hindi/Urdu word for our beloved pipe. So, how did hookah come to enter common parlance in the West? We have those empire-building Brits to thank for that one. No sooner had they wrapped their stiff-upper-lips around a hose and had a quick spot of tea, then they were writing home about it and regaling their loved ones and mates with tales of arguably the best-kept secret ever. As this was the rest of the world’s first introduction to the concept, the name stuck. Wey oh, wey oh, indeed!

Diagram of hookah pipe

Argileh or Nargileh

As mentioned above, this one is the designation of choice in the Balkans, extending as far West as Turkey, Azerbaijan, those former Soviet republics whose names end in “-Stan”, and as far East as Mesopotamia and the Levant (Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Territories). If you know your geographical history, you’ll realise that this essentially constitutes the bulk of what used to be the Ottoman Empire, a fact that also explains why neighbouring Romania, for hundreds of years the last bastion of Christendom against the Ottomans, also go with the Narghilea as their preferred name. Apparently, the protagonists were not too distracted by centuries of brutally slaughtering each other to share a relaxing smoke now and then. In yet another example of cultural cross-over, the word Nargileh originates in India via Persia from the Sanskrit/Farsi word for coconut. As it turns out, the very first water pipes were apparently crudely constructed from coconut shells.



Despite serving as the source of the words Shisha and Nargila, Persians use neither term and instead opt for Qalyan, sometimes pronounced Galyan. This name’s origin is shrouded in some degree of mystery but may stem from the purported inventor of everyone’s favourite smoking paraphernalia, Hakim Abu’l-Fath Gilani, who hailed from Gilan Province in Northern Persia. Gilani was a doctor and somehow ended up becoming the court physician to the Mughal Emperor at a time when tobacco smoking had recently been introduced and was becoming all the rage among the local noblemen. Apparently, he came up with this insanely awesome idea as a way of purifying the smoke and reducing what he believed were adverse health effects. Whether this yarn is true or not, it seems to have been sufficient for the Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians, who have adopted Qalyan as their own. In any case, G-d bless all ten of his tiny tootsies for being such a legend.  

There you have it; everything you never even realised you wanted to know about Shisha, and more. There are numerous other names out there from various parts of the globe. Whatever you call it, we reckon that the convoluted evolution of Shisha’s use and nomenclature perfectly represent what is best about the experience: bringing different people from all walks of life together to share a common pleasure, with friends, great conversation and relaxing times.

At Shisha Works, our passion is Shisha, and our mission is to supply Australia and New Zealand with the finest tobaccos, pipes and related equipment on the planet. To find out where you can get your hands on our products check out our list of stockists. If you’re a retailer looking for the absolute best in everything Shisha, contact us today and we’ll be delighted to welcome you to the family and share our love of everything Shisha with you.

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