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Hip Americans Get Hooked on Hookah

Published Sunday, January 1, 2006

SEATTLE (AP) - The Rabbit Hole is a maze of sofas and sectionals, mismatched, some worn to threads in places, full of soft spots that sink low to the ground. The lighting is low and dim; the music is usually alternative rock, played at a volume to match the light.

No alcohol is offered at the Rabbit Hole - just soft drinks and hookahs.

"Hookah" refers to the practice of smoking flavored tobacco through a tall, ornate pipe that sits on the floor; the hookah pipe has long been a popular pastime in Amman and Alexandria and all across the Middle East.

But this is Roosevelt Way in Seattle, cater-corner from University Mazda and down the street from Mamma Melina?s restaurant. And that is something new - even as the United States is at war in the Middle East, this bit of the Middle East has found a place in America.

In liberal and literate Seattle, hookah lounges have opened on trendy downtown blocks and in predominantly white neighborhoods in the outer city, where the Rabbit Hole is located. Its customers are not middle-aged Egyptian men but white kids from the suburbs.

"I?d almost call it an epidemic," said Sean O?Neill, 20, a personal trainer who lives in Tacoma, Wash., and first tried the hookah last spring.

The contagion might stall - in November, Washington voters enacted one of the nation?s strictest smoking bans. The law could shutter places such as the Rabbit Hole; similar bans could imperil hookah parlors around the country. The laws are universally aimed at cigarette smoking; they might not specifically target hookahs, but there is no exception for the parlors, either.

The parlors first opened in the United States decades ago in the immigrant quarters of New York and Los Angeles, in neighborhoods such as Astoria, Queens, and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. For years, they were patronized mostly by men of Egyptian, Lebanese or Syrian descent and occasionally a curious American who recognized the pipes from a trip he might have taken.

In the past year or two, parlors have opened in college towns all over in the country, in Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin, often operated by foreign students from the Middle East wishing for a piece of home.

But in recent months, the hookah has spread to the world of hipsters and yuppies in cities in all regions of the country. Customers can smoke tobacco in a hookah pipe in the Chi-Cha Lounge, a trendy, Latin-themed restaurant on U Street in Washington, D.C., or at Mantra, an upscale French-Indian restaurant in Boston?s Ladder District.

At the Chicago nightclub Zentra, hookahs can be enjoyed amid techno music and belly dancers wearing body paint. There are hookah lounges in Denver, Houston, Las Vegas and Miami, complete with glass tables, plasma televisions and oxygen bars.

"It's at its largest demand ever in this country," said Brennan Appel, who runs Florida-based, an online purveyor of hookah pipes and tobacco. "I don?t think it?s going away anytime soon."

In cities where only one hookah lounge existed, there are now seven or eight, Appel said. Where there were none, there is at least one. Because a hookah pipe is typically shared, friends introduce it to others. Even the Iraq war has played some role, Appel said; he suspects soldiers posted in the Gulf tried the hookah, liked it and sought it out once they returned home.

"I haven't yet heard of a hookah lounge opening and going out of business," Appel said. The biggest demand for the hookah, he said, is in California, Arizona, New York, Texas and Virginia.

Most of the tobacco is imported from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; as a way of catering to Western tastes, tobacco manufacturers are introducing flavors such as kiwi, watermelon and blackberry. Handcrafted pipes made of glass and brass are produced in Syria and Egypt, although China is making less expensive pipes.

The tobacco is held in a bowl near the top of the pipe, kept lit by red-hot charcoal. The smoke is drawn through water before being sucked through a long tube. Pipes can have one tube or as many as six, so that many people can share the tobacco.

Pipes cost between $50 and $180. In lounges and bars, the tobacco is sold in batches for as little as $5 or as much as $20. One batch can last a person an hour or longer.

"I can smoke hookah at home, but coming here is like a treat," said Brenda Wright, 20, one of a group of friends who visit the Rabbit Hole often. "I?ve noticed it?s gotten a lot more popular just in the past two months."

The scene is different at the Egyptian Café on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens. On most nights, the clientele in the Egyptian Café is predominantly Middle Eastern. There are few frills, just chairs and small tables and men poring over backgammon and dominos.

The time spent in the immigrant hookah lounges is workaday and routine. Said Elmekabati, 35, a businessman from Brooklyn, often entertains clients at the Egyptian Café. Hesham Amin comes here almost everyday. It is like an extension of his living room.

Amin, 38, who was raised in Egypt, is a customer. Sometimes, he says, he sees more Americans than Egyptians.

"Everybody comes here," he said, pointing the direction of a young couple canoodling in a corner. Jose Ocampo is 19; Sanjana Chowdhury is 18. For them, the hookah was an acquired taste. The smoke made them light-headed. But they grew fond of the flavor and the effect.

There has been some backlash to the hookah craze. In Anaheim, Calif., city officials attempted to regulate some hookah lounges after complaints by neighbors of noise and rowdiness. The owners, primarily Middle Eastern immigrants, accused officials of cultural bias.

But the biggest problem for owners of hookah parlors are smoking bans in many cities. New York?s 2003 ban at first did practically nothing to limit the hookah dens in Astoria and Bay Ridge. Although the places violated the law, officials generally looked the other way because it was obvious that customers frequent hookah bars only to smoke and because the ban was not aimed at hookah smokers.

Days after the ban went into effect in Seattle, owners of the Rabbit Hole continued to offer hookah-smoking, not so much defying the law as ignoring it. A new sign on the front door read, "private club members only inquire within." One of the Rabbit Hole?s owner declined to answer questions about the ban, saying only that he intended to continue operating his business.

The effect of hookah smoke on health is an issue. Medical research is scarce on the effects of hookah-smoking, although doctors agree that smoking any kind of tobacco is not healthy.

"It?s worthy of scientific study," said Norman Edelman, chief medical officer with the American Lung Association. "I can tell you none have been planned. But it is tobacco. And all tobacco contains any number of chemicals that are harmful."

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.