- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 22, 2005

As the winter sun sets on the District, a new light brightens the Egyptian-inspired interior of Prince Cafe in Georgetown. Sparkling coals crackle atop ornate glass pipes, illuminating tables laden with Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Groups of young patrons inhale fragrant tobacco from multicolored hoses that stretch from the water-filled chambers of the tall pipes. They hold in the smoke for a few seconds, drinking in the sweet taste of pomegranate or the refreshing zest of lemon, and then exhale slowly, watching white rings rise up and blanket the mint-colored walls.

Arabian nights are no longer reserved for soldiers and diplomats overseas. The District’s cosmopolitan and curious have begun dipping into the traditional Middle Eastern pastime of smoking at hookah bars, where they gather to relax, socialize, eat and puff flavored tobacco from decorative water bongs.

The practice, which began in India almost a millennium ago and later proliferated around the Arab world, is one of many Middle Eastern cultural activities that Americans have adopted in the wake of September 11 and the Iraq war.

The term “hookah bar” actually is a misnomer. Hookah is a Hindi name for the tall glass pipe from which the tobacco is smoked — the proper term for Middle Eastern pipes is shisha. Nevertheless, the word hookah has become so mainstream that most area cafes use it so as not to confuse patrons, says Ehab Asal, owner of the Prince Cafe franchise, which has seven locations in the area.

“Bar” also is misleading because, in keeping with Islamic religion, most cafes do not serve alcohol. Mr. Asal says the booze-free atmosphere attracts guests who don’t drink and youths ages 18 to 21 who can’t frequent bars but want a place to hang out at night.

“It’s safer for them than coming to a bar or buying liquor with a fake ID,” Mr. Asal explains.

(Little research exists stateside about the risks of smoking hookah, partly because the trend is still relatively new here. According to a report published by the Israel Ministry of Health in July, tar and nicotine levels in hookah smoke are just as high as in cigarette smoke and sometimes higher. However, because hookah is a social activity and enthusiasts smoke less than cigarette smokers, there is a smaller chance of getting hooked.)

For most, the main draw of hookah bars is culture. With September 11 and the war in Iraq came a surge of interest in all things Arab.

“Everyone is focused on the Middle East right now, and people are curious,” says Khalid Raji, manager of Soussi, a hookah bar in Adams Morgan. “They come for the whole experience of smoking out of that unusual thing.”

Soussi charges patrons $15 for a hookah filled with about an hour’s worth of tobacco. The cafe, which serves Mediterranean and Moroccan food, is one of the few hookah bars that actually has a bar.

Toward the front of the restaurant, three well-dressed adults sit around a circular table laughing and passing around the hookah hose. It’s Biljana Milenkovic’s first time at a hookah bar, and her friends are teaching her the proper way to smoke.

“I like to try new things, and I like traditional things,” Ms. Milenkovic, 29, explains of her decision to try hookah.

She says she heard about the stuff in her native Serbia but always associated it with Middle Eastern mob bosses. When she saw hookahs stateside, she became curious.

“Now I just need to learn to keep smoke inside my mouth and not inhale,” she laughs.

In the corner of the smoke-filled bar, 26-year-old Harry M (his full last name) takes a long drag, listening to the water gurgle inside the pipe’s chamber. Then he closes his eyes, throws his head back and starts blowing rings in rapid succession. Some collapse into puffy clouds, but others billow through the air like sugar-covered Cheerios, hovering a few seconds before they dissipate in the dark.

“I come way too often,” says Mr. M, who began smoking about three months ago. “Last week, I came four times between here and Prince Cafe.”

Mr. M says he doesn’t drink much, so the hookah bar is a good compromise because friends can drink at the bar while he perfects his smoking technique. “It’s all about blowing the rings, so hookah is where it’s at,” he says. “The smoke is thicker.”

The smoke also is tastier than cigarette fumes. The tobacco used in hookahs is soaked in honey and molasses and flavored with either fruit or herbs. The selection at Soussi includes mint, melon, grape and mixed fruit. Prince Cafe has 34 flavors, the most popular of which is apple.

The unique experience of legally smoking from a bubbler, coupled with the tasty tobacco flavors and Middle Eastern cuisine, has attracted a broad range of patrons. On weekdays, Prince Cafe is filled with area professionals who pop in for lunch, Mr. Asal says. On weeknights, young people drop by on dates or to relax and play chess or backgammon. On weekends, families frequent the cafe with young ones in tow.

The cafes often are most crowded late at night with partyers who aren’t ready to go home after bars and clubs have closed. Because most hookah bars don’t serve liquor, they don’t have to shut their doors or close their kitchens at 1 or 2 a.m. As a result, business is hot until 4 or 5 a.m.

At Queen’s Cafe and Hookah in Adams Morgan, managers are trying to close up for the night. It’s only 2 a.m., but it is a Wednesday, after all. A group of Ethiopian men huddle at a table finishing their last game of gin rummy and dragging from two hookahs that guard the table like watchtowers.

“Come on man, just a bit more,” one of the men whines as a worker tries to pry away the pipe. Pata Fiseha, 42, has been coming about twice a week for the past two months. He says there is always someone here to play cards with or watch soccer.

“It’s kind of calming, and it gives you a little buzz,” he says.

Although the popularization of Middle Eastern culture and the unusual practice of smoking from a 3-foot water bong have attracted Americans, a core of area hookah smokers are Middle Eastern natives nostalgic for their traditional practice.

Mr. Asal says that when he opened the first Prince Cafe in Falls Church in 1995, the bulk of the patrons were Middle Eastern diplomats and ambassadors. They would come for lunch or on the weekends to indulge in what had been a familiar pastime at home and was nearly impossible to find stateside.

Until September 11, Mr. Asal estimates, 90 percent of his guests were Middle Eastern. After the attacks, Americans became curious, and the breakdown changed dramatically.

“After the Iraq war, the media started talking about the Middle East a lot, and people wanted to see about this culture,” Mr. Asal says. “A lot of people wanted to find out who these people are. Are they terrorists, or are they good people?”

Now, about 60 percent of the cafe’s patrons are American. With each wisp of hookah smoke, they are transported further into Baghdad, Cairo or any other Middle Eastern city.

District hookah cafes — at least a dozen inside the Beltway — have become an interesting footnote to the ongoing D.C. smoking-ban debate.

The D.C. Council voted 12-1 on Dec. 6 to ban smoking in public places within the District, with the exception of “cigar bars,” defined as establishments that generate 10 percent or more of their sales from tobacco products.

Hookah bars fall well within the requisite 10 percent — Prince Cafe owner Ehab Asal estimates that about 35 percent of revenue comes from tobacco products.

Now, Ward 1 councilman Jim Graham is lobbying for an amendment to the bill that would include the specific words “hookah cafe” along with “cigar bar” as exemptions from the smoking ban. His rationale is that confusion over what a hookah bar is may get the establishments in trouble with officials if they are not explicitly mentioned in the bill.

When Mr. Graham first suggested the amendment on Dec. 6, other council members requested more information. He has since met with area hookah bar owners, and the amendment will come to a second vote on Jan. 3.

Provided the exemption is granted for hookah bars, it will only apply to establishments built before a certain date — either Jan. 1, 2006 or Jan. 1, 2007.

That decision also will be made Jan. 3.

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