As Seattle authorities move to shut down hookah lounges, they leave a key question hanging: Why would a custom dating back centuries become a magnet for trouble?
When Seattleite Shaher Abuelkhair was growing up in Palestinian circles in 1950s Jerusalem, hookah was a middle-aged affair, at least in the coffee shops where the elaborate and elegant waterpipes were smoked.
The scene, which for the nondrinking Muslim populace took the place of taverns, was also all male. As they smoked, the men would talk and play backgammon or cards.
Flash forward to Seattle today, and the hookah scene looks completely different. The typical patron is someone like Hiruy Takeset, a 24-year-old immigrant from Ethiopia, serenely inhaling flavored tobacco smoke at the Chinatown International District’s Medina Hookah Lounge. “I’ve been working all day,” said Takeset, a cashier at Lowe’s and an aviation-mechanics student at Everett Community College. “ I don’t want to just go home and do nothing.”
He was surrounded by a young, multinational crowd of men and women who felt similarly, giving the hookah bar, with its Algerian music and scruffy couches, the feel of a particularly chill dorm party.
It is a scene in some ways in line with trends around the world, and in other ways unique to Seattle. And it has evolved, bringing in new ethnicities and types of business owners.
It has also, city and county authorities claimed last week, attracted violence. As they moved to shut down all 11 Seattle hookah bars, authorities pointed to three killings over the past 18 months, including that of Donnie Chin, the beloved Chinatown International District leader shot in late July near King’s Hookah Lounge.
Seattle police have said little about how such shootings and numerous brawls might be linked to actual hookah patrons, although Thursday they announced that two people present at the Chin shooting had hours before spent time in two International District hookah bars.
Supporters of these venues vigorously deny that violence is an endemic problem, attributing authorities’ attempt to shut them down to racism. Certainly, Mayor Ed Murray and other local leaders left a key question hanging: Why would a custom dating back centuries in the Middle East and India become a magnet for trouble?
Fad spreads; trouble arrives
In 2000, Abuelkhair was running a popular Middle Eastern restaurant in Pioneer Square called Zaina Cafe, when he and a friend starting joking around about bringing in hookahs. “Then it came into my head,” Abuelkhair recalled. “Why not make a business of it?”
By that time, hotels and other venues throughout the Middle East were putting music and disc jockeys in lounges where they offered hookah, attracting a younger crowd, male and female.
The fad also had begun to spread among college students and 20-somethings in other parts of the world, including the U.S., where hookah had the added allure of being exotic.
It hadn’t yet hit the Northwest, though. “I was the first,” Abuelkhair said.
At his Pioneer Square locale, and later at a Belltown spot with a patio he made into a hookah lounge, he got two types of patrons. During the week, a mellow, older crowd. Young people came on the weekends. Like the older set, they wanted to relax and socialize. But many came in drunk or high.
“I had a lot of problems. A lot of fights. A lot of drug dealing,” Abuelkhair said. Some tried to sneak marijuana into the pipes.
He said he hired eight security officers. That helped. But he had a bigger problem: In 2005, state voters passed an initiativebanning smoking in public buildings and workplaces.
Abuelkhair thought he could get around the law by having patrons smoke on the patio. Many states with smoking bans allow outdoor puffing or make exceptions for tobacco-based businesses, according to Kathleen Hoke, director of the Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy at the University of Maryland.