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Daily News


by Chris Rose, (Source:Times-Picayune)

07 Feb 2004

Hookah Bars Are Passing The Pipe In The Big Easy

The man leans forward, grabs one of several tendril-like hoses that hang from a magnificent hookah that sits on a low table in front of him. He takes a long draw on the molasses-soaked Egyptian tobacco, savors the smoke for a long time, then exhales.

He leans back in his seat, a contented and faraway look in his eyes, and he begins to quietly thump out a trance-like rhythm on a bongo drum of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin.

This scene I witnessed, not on my most recent trip to Cairo, but on my most recent trip to Decatur Street. In the same way that all bi-coastal social trends, fads and ideas eventually wend their way to New Orleans two or three years later -- cigar bars, Internet cafes, etc. -- the newest NY/LA social phenomenon has firmly taken root here: Hookah bars.

Hookah Café opened for business in the 1100 block of Decatur this fall. Palais Shisha, in the 4200 block of Magazine Street Uptown, becomes the second full-time hookah smoke shop when it opens this Saturday.

In addition, the Holy Smokes cigar shop on Royal Street in the Quarter and the Mythique speakeasy on Decatur have hookahs in service. Even Mona's restaurant on Frenchmen has grand brass and glass hookahs in its modest grocery windows.

It's only a matter of time until other nightspots suggestive of the opium den lifestyle -- the Dragon's Den, the House of Blues Foundation Room -- also set up these lavish social smoking utensils.

The Middle Eastern smokeout has arrived.

Smoking as social ritual is, of course, as old as the notion of community itself. African, Asian, Middle Eastern and American Indian cultures have used smoking circles to make peace, plan war and discuss the issues of the day for centuries.

American hookah bars began, naturally, in ear-to-the-ground cities of New York and Los Angeles. They proved popular with immigrants and then college students, eventually gaining customer bases in the Average Joe population.

Miami, Washington and other big cities came next. Naturally, the trend finally washed up on our shores.

"We are finally dispelling the myth of what hookahs are all about," said Abdul Aziz, the man I saw playing the drum at Hookah Café, and owner of the soon-to-open Palais Shisha. "People love lounge atmospheres, they love to socialize. This is an alternative to going out and getting drunk. The hookah gives a medium to talk over, to drink tea over, for people who would otherwise never meet."

Typical hookah bar environments include comfortable seats and mellow music, often of Arabian form. Patrons pay a premium price for Egyptian tobaccos low in tar and nicotine content and usually soaked in a flavored liquid. Molasses, apple, lemon/rose and jasmine/grape are among the most popular flavors.

It's all very legal, of course, on the up and up. Talking about other uses for hookahs ( re: dope smoking ) is strictly taboo in hookah bars. In fact, there's a whole laundry list of dos and don'ts in hookah bars, an etiquette of its own on how to pack the pipe and how to pass it. (There are a legion of Web sites about all this: www.southsmoke.comhas everything you'd ever want to know about it. )

Guy Birman, a native Israeli, opened Hookah Café in the Quarter for the simplest of reasons: "I had nowhere to smoke." He sees a bright future for the city's newest social pastime:

"I think when Aziz opens his shop Uptown, a lot more people are going to be exposed to hookah culture," said Birman. "I think you'll see more shops opening around town. I've only been in town for two years, but I sense that New Orleanians like things that are exotic and authentic."

And hookah bars are all that.