Smoking ban will snuff out hookah bars, too
Voter-approved measure makes no exception for Mideast tradition
Nadia Nijim says she doesn't smoke cigarettes, and the other day she chastised a friend smoking on the next couch, "Why do you smoke those things?"
She voted earlier this month for the anti-smoking initiative.
"I hate the way my clothes smell after I come out of a smoky place," she said. "I hate having to walk through all the smoke from the people standing outside work just to be able to get in and out. I don't like the smell coming from the people around me at work who smoke."
Then, she sucked on the long skinny pipe coming from a hookah, bubbling the water inside, and letting the tobacco smoke with the slight scent of apple waft luxuriously from a corner of her mouth. And she said hookah bars such as Zaina Food, Drinks & Friends, on Third Avenue near Pine Street in Seattle, should be exempt.
The new Initiative 901, which bans smoking in places such as restaurants and bars, as well as immediately outside the doors, will spell the end of smoky clubs and bars in about a month. But it will also mean the demise of a culture more ancient but also just emerging in Seattle.
The ban will mean the end for the three hookah bars in Seattle, where mostly young people have been attracted by the Middle Eastern tradition of gathering around the hookah, an ornate vessel that operates like a bong, taking turns smoking tobacco mixed with overripe apples, bananas and other fruits.
"A friend of mine called me a hypocrite last night," she said. "But I think it's different than smoking in a bar. It's cultural."
Nijim, 27, had grown up in Saudi Arabia where strict limitations on alcohol make hookah bars the equivalent of neighborhood pubs. Friends would gather to share a hookah instead of a pitcher and maybe play a little backgammon.
The other day, she stopped by at Zaina to visit a friend and sat down on one of the couches. Shaher Abuelkhair, who owns the restaurant and another by the same name at First Avenue and Cherry Street, filled the tray on top of the hookah with a glop of tobacco mixed with overripe apples. A smoldering coal is placed into it, and the smoke is pulled through a chamber with water and out the hose.
Nijim said the hookah doesn't make her feel jittery, as cigarettes do, and it's not the same thing as smoking a pack a day. At $15 to share a hookah for about half an hour, it's not the kind of thing she does every day.
"It's like going out for really good sushi," she said.
Her friend, who is from Jordan, chatted, alternating between English and Arabic. Middle Eastern pop music blared in the background. The sweet smell of hookah smoke hung in the air.
"It makes me feel at home," Nijim said.
Abuelkhair's restaurants serve falafel, baba ghannouj, kebobs and other Middle Eastern food, but he said losing the income from hookah "will devastate me." Still, he said, the restaurants had been operating before he starting offering the hookah.
He reached in to show a visitor an apple stem in the mixture. "It's all natural," said Abuelkhair, who grew up in Jerusalem.
He said it comes in banana, grape, peach, raspberry and strawberry. The apple was the first flavor mixed with the tobacco, so the old-timers will only take their hookah plain or with apple.
Matias Valenzuela, spokesman for Public Health -- Seattle & King County, said the initiative has no exemptions for hookah bars, so they will be prohibited.
And Michael O'Sullivan, government relations manager for the state chapter of the American Cancer Society and a steering board member of the initiative campaign, said the smoke from the hookahs is still harmful.
P-I reporter Kery Murakami can be reached at 206-448-8131 or firstname.lastname@example.org.