Hooked on hookah

Despite health concerns, the allure of the waterpipe remains strong.

click to enlarge "ABOVE ALL, IT'S COOL": Carmen Valle smokes a pipe at the Babylon Hookah Lounge. - Mohamed Othman
Mohamed Othman
"ABOVE ALL, IT'S COOL": Carmen Valle smokes a pipe at the Babylon Hookah Lounge.

Smoking hookah has long been a favorite pastime in Arabic countries, where a waterpipe filled with aromatic tobacco provides a relaxing complement to an afternoon spent sipping tea and shuffling dominos.

In recent years hookah has become popular in the West, too. Between 10 and 20 percent of American college students are waterpipe smokers, according to one survey. A University of Montreal study found that about 23 per cent of the 18-to-24-year-olds interviewed had smoked hookah at least once in the previous year. And in Tampa Bay, hookah lounges have proliferated over the last decade, particularly in the vicinity of USF and Ybor City. (The first such establishment was reportedly the Meridian Hookah Lounge in Temple Terrace, which opened in 2004.)

"I like it, it is fun, relaxing and tastes good, and above all it's cool," said Carmen Valle, 28, as she waited for her order at the Babylon Hookah Lounge on Busch Boulevard. "I try to smoke whenever I can, sometimes once or twice a week."

The server placed a large pipe on her table, and she began to puff on the blackberry-flavored, water-cooled tobacco. She discovered hookah a few years ago.

"My Arab friends invited me to an Arabic café," she said. "Since this, I always meet my friends here."

The hookah pipe is known as Shisha in Egypt and most of the Arab Gulf, and as Narghila in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey.

In U.S. cafes, owners (many of them Arab-American) serve tobaccos in exotic fruit flavors like peach and banana to appeal to Western tastes.

"We have been serving hookah for more than two years," said Wissam Bahloul, owner of Babylon Hookah Lounge. "At the beginning our customers were only Arabs, and now they are a mix of Arabs and Americans."

She believes that hookah is healthier than other forms of smoking. "A cigarette sometimes has poisoned materials, but hookah is only tobacco and flavor and so I think hookah is better."

That sentiment is echoed by many smokers.

"It's cheaper and healthier," said Jaleel Khan, 21, taking a deep drag of his peach-flavored hookah at Ybor City's Habibi Cafe. "I like it more than cigarettes."

But the University of Montreal study, which was released May 10 by the journal Pediatrics, raises doubts.

The senior author of the study has suggested that hookah is potentially more harmful than cigarettes because the smoke is high on carbon monoxide and carcinogens and contains great amounts of tar and heavy metals. In addition, a World Health Organization report said that a 200-puff hookah session is equivalent to smoking 100 cigarettes.

But for many smokers, particularly Arab expatriates, such concerns are outweighed by the pull of tradition.

Badran Hammad, 21, smokes hookah every day at Bab Al Hara, another café on Busch. "It's a traditional thing," said Hammad, who is from the Palestinian Territories. "I was raised up seeing my uncle and father smoking hookah."

Mano, an Egyptian waiter at the café, spoons a white-hot charcoal briquet onto the top of Hammad's hookah to burn the peach-flavored tobacco. Still new to Tampa, Mano has 15 years' experience in Egyptian cafés in Manhattan, where most of his customers were tourists and Americans, and Brooklyn, where Arabs predominated. At Bab Al Hara, patrons come "from all walks of life in America; Latinos, African-Americans and Hispanics."

When told about the Canadian study, he agreed with its findings.

"Based on my years'-old experience, I throw my weight behind this study," he said. "I can say frankly hookah is worse than cigarettes."

But he also understands hookah's appeal. Smoking the pipe is a fresh experience for Americans, he says.

"They like the Oriental feature, especially if the place gives them the Arabic and Middle Eastern atmosphere like the Arabic couch and music," he said. The menu at Bab Al Hara features typical desserts like baklava and a cream-filled cake known as basbousa to give customers the complete vibe.

The Babylon Hookah Lounge also provides more than just hookah. "Americans have a taste for other cultures," says owner Bahloul, and she cultivates that taste with amenities like dark Arabic tea, Egyptian movies on a large projector screen and music from Egypt and Lebanon.

The allure of hookah remains strong. And the price is right.

"Sometimes the price of [a single pipe] in Manhattan could reach to $35," said Mano. A pipe at Bab Al Hara runs $6-$8.

Creative Loafing intern Mohamed Othman is an Egyptian Fulbright scholar studying digital media production at Hillsborough Community College.

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