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New generation finds age-old pipe-smoking a fitting habit. The latest buzz among area youths is a pastime they say is tastier and safer than cigarettes.

By Sheba R. Wheeler
Denver Post Staff Writer

Hip-hop rocks the dimly lit Marrakech Cafe, where a dozen rowdy, college-age youths have squeezed around a table meant to seat four.

They laugh and talk as hoses attached to three ornately decorated glass water pipes are passed around. Each person savors the pipe in turn; some inhale, some don't. Soon, apple-, peach- and mango-scented tobacco smoke transforms the air.

Move over, coffeehouses, martini bars and sushi dens.

Metro-area youths say lounge smoking with hookah water pipes is this generation's answer to pretentious Internet cafes and played-out mocha Frappuccinos at Starbucks.

The fad reinvented the restaurant and nightclub scene in California and New York and has made its way to Colorado. More than half a dozen establishments have opened in Denver and surrounding suburbs, most within the past six months, with more in the planning stages.

Customers say they like the novelty and exotic communal ambience.

"It's a bonding experience, a different way to get to know each other," says Russell Blackburn, 19, who shared a hookah with three friends at Cheri's Place on East Colfax Avenue, a popular hot-wing and Middle Eastern food restaurant frequented by high school students.

Owned by David Asaf and his wife, Cheri, the eatery opened 14 months ago and draws students from as far away as Littleton to try 60 varieties of flavored tobacco with such names as "Mile High" - made up of jasmine, rose and grape - or another favorite, "California Dreamin"' (peach, orange and coconut).

"This place is getting to be so popular that we had to wait 15 minutes to get a table and a hookah the last time

Nate Brigman, 18, blows smoke rings at Cheri s Place, 911 E. Colfax Ave. The eatery offers such hookah tobaccos as "Mile High" (jasmine, rose and grape) and "California Dreamin' " (peach, orange and coconut). (Post / R.J. Sangosti)
we were here," says Jess Smith, 18.

Hookahs heat and evaporate shisha, a blend of tobacco and honey, molasses or semi-dried fruit. They've been used for centuries across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia - everywhere from palaces to prayer rooms.

A burning bed of charcoal heats the tobacco. Smoke is inhaled through the body of the pipe and out a hose. Water at the base of the pipe filters the smoke that produces, say hookah users, a smoother buzz and a tastier experience than they get from cigarettes.

Safer than cigarettes

Although businesses must card people who rent hookahs to make sure they are at least 18, it's not surprising to find 16- or 17-year-olds sneaking a puff from the pipe.

"On Friday night I'm coming back with my dad," says Kira Pohl, 17, who shared one hookah with five other students at Cheri's. "Believe me, (teenagers) could be doing a lot worse."

Young smokers say hookahs are safer than cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is now at the lowest level measured among teenagers, and youths are far less likely to risk their lives with substance abuse, according to generational expert and author Bill Strauss.

"We don't want to mess up our lives; we don't go out to parties, and we don't drink," says Matt Jones, 18, at Cheri's. "All the other kids in high school smoke marijuana, get wasted with people who don't even care about them or do other harmful, stupid things like that. The hookah is harmless, plus this is a good place to just kick back and relax."

Shisha contains about 0.5 percent nicotine and no tar, compared with most cigarettes, which have 2 percent nicotine and 16 milligrams of tar.

"But no smoke is safe," says Brennan Appel, director of the 3-year-old, one of the largest hookah distribution companies in the United States. "The smoke is definitely different. It has a nice aroma. It's not like walking into a bar and everyone is smoking cigarettes and everyone smells horrible."

A boon for businesses

Hookah bars tend to crop up around college campuses, where students are old enough to smoke but too young to buy alcohol.

Customers at the Marrakech Cafe, 2266 S. Colorado Blvd., near the University of Denver, are generally no older than 24. Chaos reigns as a feisty Middle Eastern pop track on the CD playlist blasts, forcing customers to their feet. Some dance, while others wildly beat a drum.

Sam Khechen, the cafe's co-owner, encourages the party by turning up the stereo system and smoking his own hookah behind the counter. Students smoke and drink sweet Moroccan tea until dawn.

The Marrakech was the first hookah bar to open in Denver, two years ago. Khechen took a risk, deciding to rent and sell hookahs instead of relying on food sales.

Now the lounge, with its Arabian Nights-inspired decor, is one of the most popular places in the metro area.

"It's something different," Khechen says. People "want to go home sober, not drunk. They are looking for entertainment, but they want a different kind of experience."

True hookah connoisseurs often will buy one or two pipes ($30 to $300) for home use but still visit lounges.

"I have three hookahs at home, but I still come here about twice a week to be with my friends," says Rachel Alpert, 20.

Businesses charge as much as $15 per hookah, even though the shisha and coals cost about 20 cents to 40 cents a bowl. In Miami, businesses charge $25 a bowl, Appel says. Each hookah lasts about an hour if one or two people smoke.

The Marrakech's success persuaded other businesses to give it a try, Khechen says.

Customers now can order hookahs like plates of chicken shawarma at numerous Middle Eastern restaurants. The Aladdin Cafe & Grill, 2594 S. Colorado Blvd., which has rented hookahs for the past two months, prominently displays a hookah pipe on its marquee and business cards.

Memories of home

Paul Gill has been selling hookahs on the weekends at the Bombay Bistro in Boulder since the upscale restaurant opened a year ago. But Gill channels smokers to the back patio, and only after 8:30 p.m., when the kitchen closes.

Greg Lovato, 32, who owns the Smoker's City cigarette store in Arvada, can't wait to expand his business to include a hookah coffee shop set to open Dec. 1. His partner, Nagham Darwish, 30, introduced him to the water pipe.

In Iraq, where Darwish was raised, hookah bars were on every block, "but I thought that people in America wouldn't be interested, that nobody would like to know anything about the Middle East, especially after Sept. 11," she says. "I was shocked when I saw all those people going to the Marrakech. It was like 40 Americans and only four or five Arabic people sitting in there."

Hookah lounges still attract Middle Eastern immigrants who reconnect with their heritage with every puff. At 9 on a weeknight last week, two men were deep into a chess game at the Aladdin. They sipped small cups of strong Turkish coffee and took long, thoughtful puffs from two hookahs. Regulars enjoy their hookahs in solitude until 2 a.m.

Wafi Shaban, a 33-year-old limousine-business owner, comes to Aladdin's once a day and reminisces about time spent sharing hookahs with family and friends while growing up in Saudi Arabia. He dreams of opening his own hookah bar.

"For me, hookahs are a cultural reminder of my home. I think about my days back in college. Smoking the hookah brings back memories."

Staff writer Sheba R. Wheeler can be reached at 303-820-1283 or [email protected].


Hookah hot spots

Hankering for hookah? Try some of these hot spots in the metro area:

Cheri's Place, 911 E. Colfax Ave., 303-813-1000
Marrakech Cafe, 2266 S. Colorado Blvd., 303-691-1660
Aladdin Cafe & Grill, 2594 S. Colorado Blvd., 303-759-9778
Pita Jungle, 2017 S. University Blvd., 720-570-1900
Hookah Cafe, 270 S. Downing St., 303-722-4100
The Hookah Lounge, 8898 E. Hampden Ave., 303-773-3655
Republic of Boulder, 1095 Canyon Blvd., Boulder, 303-443-1460

Check out these websites for more information on hookahs: