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.
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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.
Often, they also serve food and drink, as long as that’s “incidental” to the tobacco business (although many establishments flout this law by incorporating hookah into full-service and sometimes quite upscale restaurants).
Public Health — Seattle & King County said Washington’s law had no such exceptions and in 2008 took Abuelkhair to court. Facing a retroactive fine of $100 a day, Abuelkhair shut the hookah part of his business.
A couple of years later, an enterprising 24-year-old named Nebil Mohammed opened Medina with his brother and some friends. “I love the cultural aspect,” said Mohammed, who emigrated from Ethiopia as a teenager. His mom and grandma smoke hookah, he said.
Hookah is a tradition only in Ethiopia’s Muslim areas, he said. But as the trend swept through youth culture, it hit East Africa big time, drawing people of all religions. Somalis, too, took up the pipe. And since Seattle has one of the largest populations of Somali immigrants in the U.S., it was ripe for a hookah boom — one that appalled some East African leaders.
“We see it as an untraditional, non-Somali way of life,” said Ahmed Ali, executive director of the Somali Health Board. Like city and country officials, he pointed to data showing that hookah smoke is at least as dangerous as cigarette smoke.
The kids came anyway — to Medina and to a new crop of hookah lounges that tends to have an alternative, underground feel. They generally claim to be private, members-only clubs, and therefore legal. Officials made clear last week they weren’t buying it.
At Medina, as Takeset inhaled from his pipe, a Saudi Arabian tech intern watched the TV show “Silicon Valley” on his laptop while a group of Ethiopians in their early 20s chatted in Amharic and played a makeshift board game that used coins for markers and an empty pill bottle for shaking the die.
“It’s a better environment than going to a club,” said Haraar Biruk Wubu, switching to English to explain Medina’s appeal. Here, he said, you can talk. Or study, chimed in Alsabet Getahew, a Highline Community College student who sometimes brings her books despite often loud music.
Next to them was a group from Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Egypt. A smattering of white Americans sat on nearby couches, while in a private room, A.J. Jazieri, a 35-year-old pharmacist of Syrian and American descent, answered email.
The place is known as a United Nations, Mohammed said, although there isn’t always much mixing between ethnicities.
At King’s, the crowd is also largely international — and on this night, young. Some are in their late teens.
Most said they come every night and in doing so, formed friendships. They said they hadn’t witnessed any violence, notingthe Chin shooting happened after King’s had closed for the night.
At a crowded City Council meeting Monday, dozens of hookah-lounge supporters categorically rejected the picture authorities painted.
“I’ve yet to see one strand of evidence that hookah lounges are responsible for violence,” said Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County NAACP and one of those saying racism is behind the crackdown.
Others said hookah bars were actually safe places, where people can hang out without drinking or getting high, and noted that hookah bars are under threat while pot stores with largely white clienteles operate freely.
Yet police cite numerous times they have been called this year on disturbances at or near hookah lounges, including Medina, where officers responded to a half-dozen incidents, ranging from a car prowl to assaults.
Medina’s Mohammed does not deny that violence happens sporadically around hookah lounges.
“I will tell you the reason,” he said. “There is a gang problem in the East African community” even if all hookah lounges were to shut down.
Gangsters aren’t the main customers, Mohammed said, but they sometimes come around to hang out with brothers, cousins or friends.
Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said the city has a problem with youth violence in general.
“This isn’t unlike what you’d see at certain nightclubs,” Whitcomb observed of hookah lounges. The difference, he said, is that nightclubs are legal. Authorities can threaten to pull their licenses if they don’t make changes to things like security, lighting, parking and crowd control.
Hookah bars — because of the state smoking law — are viewed as illegal, Whitcomb said.
The solution, Mohammed argued, is not to close hookah lounges down. “We need to be regulated,” he said.
That’s what happened in Baltimore County after a spate of crime around all-night hookah lounges. A new county ordinance forced them to close at midnight.
John Schochet, deputy chief of staff for the City Attorney’s Office, reasoned that’s simply not an option here given Washington’s 2005 law. “Voters made a policy decision,” he said.
Authorities plan to make sure that initiative is finally carried out.
Under changes taking effect Sunday, the city may revoke the license of any business conducting unlawful operations, including violating the smoking ban.
Still, a petition to keep hookah lounges open is circulating on Change.org.
And City Councilmember Nick Licata, for one, is listening. On Monday, he sent a letter to the mayor asking the city to step back for 60 days and analyze the data. There may be “bad actors” among hookah-lounge owners, he said in an interview, but “should we punish a whole class of people?”