First it was coffee bars, quiet places where people could socialize over a superb cup of coffee or cappucino. Then came Internet cafes and cigar bars, with a more specialized appeal. Now, America's trendiest gathering places are "hookah bars." These are cafes, patterned after Middle East lounges, where people gather to smoke fruit-flavored tobacco from water pipes.
In Morocco and India, the water-pipe apparatus used to burn pungent, fruit-flavored lumps of tobacco is called the hookah. In Lebanon, it's the narghile. Turks call it a chicha. Many British and Americans who embrace the hookah like to call it "the hubbly bubbly." And almost everyone who's tried the experience uses the same word to describe it: "relaxing."
For hundreds of years in the Middle East and parts of Asia, older men, more often than women or young people, have socialized over bowls of sweet tobacco mash smoked through the hookah. The apparatus consists of a glass water reservoir resting on the floor, through which fruit-flavored tobacco smoke is drawn and inhaled. A lump of glowing charcoal keeps about ten grams of the smoking mixture in a clay or porcelain bowl constantly burning. The chopped tobacco is combined with fruit essence, glycerin stabilizer, and a dab of molasses or honey.
Hookah lounges are popping up in college towns and big cities across America. There, trend-seeking young people have joined the older crowd of Middle East, African, and Asian immigrants in smoking the hookah while playing chess or backgammon, sipping mint tea, and listening to Arabic or Indian music.
The lights stay dim in one such lounge, the Prince of Egypt Café in Falls Church, a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC. A Middle Eastern mural covers one wall, a rack of cassette music tapes dominates another, and a third is painted bright red. Somewhere, a black light trained on the café tables turns every white piece of clothing and the dice on the backgammon boards a glowing white. It's a Wednesday night, well after nine o'clock, but the place is filling fast, and it will stay open until four in the morning, six on weekends.
Owner Hala Asah says hookah smokers are a late crowd. "Ninety percent of my customers now are American. Everybody likes hookah, likes fun. Hookah's better than cigarettes. It's like fruit, 20 or 30 flavors. Apple. I have strawberry. I have apricot, berry, mixed fruit, mango, orange, lemon. Too many, too many! Everybody loves it, you know," he says.
Twenty-one-year-old Tim Cosgrove, an engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Station, is one of the Prince of Egypt's American regulars. "We just like to come and hang out. It's a nice, relaxing place. Nice people. They'll have a group of, I guess, Middle Eastern people come in," he says. "They really know the music. They know the songs. They'll start clapping and dancing and singing along to it. It's an interesting experience."
A friend, 21-year-old Chris Goodman, is an engineering student at Virginia Tech University. It's five hours away, but Mr. Goodman says lots of people at the college know all about hookahs and the Prince of Egypt Café. He says he's not normally a smoker.
Goodman: "I actually can't breathe around cigarette smoke. It bothers me a lot."
Landphair: "So did it absolutely surprise you that you were able to smoke this?"
Goodman: "I just started because of my friends. I tried it, and it's completely different. I've tried cigarettes, too, and the burn in the back of your throat is terrible. But this stuff, it doesn't do it. You take a few hits of it, and you just sit back and play cards or backgammon, or whatever, and just have conversation. And a lot of times we'll drink [beer] when we do this, too, and it's like a second buzz, I guess. We've met tons of people here."
Both Mr. Goodman and Mr. Cosgrove also smoke from their own hookahs at home.
Twenty-one-year-old Sarah Robinson is Chris Goodman's girlfriend. "Cigarettes make me feel dirty, and this doesn't. And it's kind of fun, 'cause it's ethnic, and you feel kind of cool, like you're doin' something that not a lot of people do. And I think it's more sociable, because you can pass it around and socialize with your friends while you're doing it," she says.
Twenty-five-year-old Feben Sahle is Ethopian. She works in a doctor's office and is celebrating this particular evening, because the following day she will take the oath as a U.S. citizen.
Sahle: "It's just relaxing. You keep changing the coal up there, and it will last hours."
Landphair: "What does it cost for this much tobacco?"
Sahle: "I think it's $9. But it lasts. It's worth it."
Seven years ago, an American college student of Egyptian descent routinely slept the night on Venice Beach in southern California so he would have a good spot from which to sell hookahs the next day. Today he and a friend, a former Egyptian investment banker, sell 4,000 to 5,000 hookahs, plus tobacco and fruit flavoring, each month to hookah bars and shops around the country. And the business, called "Hookah Brothers," is based, not on some beach, but in Beverly Hills, perhaps California's most affluent community.
Twenty-six-year-old Ahmed Roushdy is the founder's friend and co-owner. "You do inhale, and you do blow out smoke. However, when you walk past a hookah bar, you're not smelling cigar or cigarette smoke that upsets you. You're smelling smoke that's flavored, whether the person is smoking strawberry or apple or peach or raspberry," he says. "So it gives this sweet aroma around you. It's not heavy, because the smoke goes through the water. Most of the smokers who used to smoke cigarettes who try to smoke it give me this strange look where they haven't felt anything. They look at me and they say, 'O-K, so where's the smoke?' And while they talk, you find loads of smoke coming out of their mouth. It's so smooth you don't feel it."
Hookah Brothers' Internet website describes the experience as "a healthier and smoother way to smoke." Mr. Roushdy says he may have to change that wording. Hookah smoke emits little to no tar, he says, but he admits it contains addictive nicotine.
You bet it does, says Dr. Tom Houston, a medical doctor who is director of science and community health at the American Medical Association. "People are sitting at these hookah stations for 30 or 40 or 60 minutes, and the amount of nicotine that goes into the smoker during this period is quite significant," he says. "The young adult smoker is particularly, these days, a target of the tobacco industry. And I worry that the hookah bars may be the first step down Tobacco Road for many of these young college students who are attracted to this phenomenon and then switch to regular cigarettes."
Ahmed Roushy and his partner at Hookah Brothers import parts for their hookahs from the Middle East and flavor essences from Germany and France. The tobacco comes from the U.S. state of Virginia. They assemble the hookahs and package the sweetened tobacco. They say their biggest obstacle has been getting the hookah materials into the United States.
"Because this is such a new thing here in the U.S., and people have been so used to seeing only marijuana or crack cocaine smoked from a [water] pipe, they immediately associate it with that. I've had whole containers of my components to be stopped by Customs," he says.
Young Mr. Goodman, the college patron of the Prince of Egypt Café, says it's understandable why authorities would be suspicious. Water pipes, sometimes called "bongs," were a staple among hashish smokers during the so-called "hippie days" of the 1960s. And Mr. Goodman says plenty of his friends use hookahs to smoke dope today. "I've introduced this to some of my friends who smoke marijuana, and before they try it, it's like, 'Oh, it's just tobacco.' And then one guy couldn't get the hose out of his hand [he enjoyed it so much]. I'm scared of cops seeing this, 'cause I think they'll take it if they see it," he says. "I mean, who's going to listen to a 21-year-old guy saying it's just tobacco?"
Several U.S. cities have banned indoor smoking, but some hookah bars in those cities have cleverly sidestepped the regulations. Those in warmer climates offer outdoor patio smoking only, or open an entire side of the lounge. Or the hookah lounges make every employee a partner. That often qualifies them as family operations, exempt from smoking bans.
Hookah-bar devotees insist these cafes are not a passing fad destined to ebb in popularity. Quite the contrary, they say. They believe today's enthusiasts, like those in Egypt, India, and elsewhere around the world, will become older, even mellower, hookah fans for life.