- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

Maher Elmasri put little stock in talk that Virginia - a state with historic ties to tobacco - would ban smoking in bars and restaurants.

However, he now worries that his livelihood could be wiped out. Mr. Elmasri’s restaurant, Lebnan Zaman, in Vienna, owes its popularity to the hookah, a water pipe popular in Middle Eastern culture. Virginia’s newly passed smoking ban, which awaits the governor’s signature, unlike some others across the country, makes no exception for hookahs.

He says the ban kills an old cultural tradition.

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“It’s not just about the smoking,” said Mr. Elmasri, a Palestinian immigrant. “It’s about people getting together, getting a sense of back home.”

His customers - a mix of young and old and several nationalities - said the hookah lounge provides a social setting that is difficult to replicate. Most nights his restaurant is packed with customers playing cards, drinking coffee and eating traditional Middle Eastern food such as kibbeh while they puff leisurely on their pipes.

The hookah is a tall, ornate pipe. Smoke is drawn through water before being sucked through a long tube and mouthpiece. Customers pay $10 to $12 to rent the pipe and purchase sweetened tobacco that comes in dozens of flavors.

“We don’t drink. And not everybody drinks coffee or wants to hang out in coffee bars,” said Omar Kalifa, 25, of Falls Church, sitting at a table with a half-dozen friends he met at Mr. Elmasri’s place.

Tarik Mousa, 27, of Annandale, couldn’t believe the Virginia legislature passed a smoking ban that would take effect in December.

“I didn’t even know they were trying to pass a law,” he said while smoking a less traditional flavor - peaches and cream. Mr. Mousa, like Mr. Elmasri, thought Virginia was tobacco-friendly, especially compared with neighboring Maryland and the District.

Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, says he will sign it into law, which will affect at least a dozen operating in Northern Virginia.

Mr. Kaine had failed for two previous years to pass a ban, which in part prompted Mr. Elmasri to open a second hookah lounge in nearby Fairfax a few weeks ago. Even if smoking in bars and restaurants were outlawed, he figured lawmakers would make an exception for cigar bars and hookah lounges, or perhaps include a grandfather clause for existing businesses.

When the District passed its ban in 2006, cigar bars and hookah lounges were exempted. But Virginia’s legislature made no such exception.

While hookah smoking is particularly popular in segments of Northern Virginia’s sizable Arab-American community, it is not limited to Middle Eastern restaurants. In Arlington County, Latin American restaurant Guarapo has offered hookah smoking for several years, and it has proved immensely popular, said spokeswoman Jessica Gibson. “It’s something that differentiates us from the other places,” she said.

While Virginia is the first state in the South to ban smoking in bars and restaurants, it is one of about two dozen nationally. But the rules on hookahs vary. New anti-smoking regulations in Nebraska that will take effect in June exempt hookah lounges. In Long Beach, Calif., the City Council went the other way. After passing a pioneering anti-smoking ban more than a decade ago, it recently exempted hookah lounges.

The Virginia law makes some exceptions to allow smoking sections in separately ventilated rooms. Mr. Elmasri, who recently spent more than $10,000 to put new air filters in his restaurant, said he cannot envision a way to reconfigure his small shop into one that will comply with state law.

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