Metro Detroit's Hookah Scene

Nabeel Hamameh cocks his head toward the ceiling and lets out a chest filled with billowing white smoke. It's thick; the smoke lingers and then slowly disappears, giving way to the smell of oranges, which fills the corner of the Lava Java Café, a hookah bar and café in Dearborn.

"In 1999 a (hookah) shop opened up here in Dearborn, I remember," the 34-year-old says holding the hose of the hookah with the mouthpiece just a few inches away from his lips. "It wasn't so popular then. Now, ten years later, there is one on every corner. It seems like and they go all the way out to Shelby Township!"

He grabs another puff from the hookah. "Man, it was a long day at work," he says, letting out more puffy clouds of orange smelling smoke. "Ahhh, this is relaxing."

The hookah is basically a water pipe for smoking flavored tobacco. It was invented in India in the 17th century, moving west through the Middle East, up through Europe, and then right on over to America.

The word hookah is a derivative of "huqqa," which is what the Indians and the Pakistani called it so many moons ago. It's also referred to as a hubble-bubble or the hubbly-bubbly because, well, since it's a water pipe, it bubbles as you smoke it.

Back in the day, as some would say, straight tobacco was smoked through the hookah. But now it has evolved to offer flavors a lot sweeter. From orange – like what Hamameh is smoking – to strawberry daiquiri, cola, and cappuccino hookah tobacco today is often flavored. A waft of something called "Blue Mist" smells good enough to eat.

"Bluemist is like smoking blueberry Kool-Aid," Hamameh says. The flavors are fairly endless, mostly revolving around fruit. You won't find a lot of savory flavored tobacco – and a bacon flavor has yet to emerge market.

Hamameh is Palestinian - his parents are from Jordan, and he's lived in Dearborn for the last two decades. Though smoking the hookah is part of his Middle Eastern culture he says his mother and pediatrician father don't approve of his smoking. "It is tobacco after all," he says. "They'll say, 'oh, you're smoking again?' It's still a smoking versus non-smoking issue. Just because it tastes like orange doesn't mean it is. Oh, and we would never say hookah, unless talking with someone who isn't familiar with them like westerners," he adds.

He calls it argeleh (are-GEE-lay, with a hard G). He says the Syrians call them n'argeleh, while the Egyptians use the term shisha. Regardless of what it's called, the pastime of smoking the hubbly-bubbly is bubbling up all over Metro Detroit.

"People love it," says Heather Mitchell manager of Smoka Hookah in Ann Arbor. "We are in the middle of campus so it's predominantly students but students from every nationality. We have whites, Germans, Asians, Turkish, Iranian and on and on."

Smoka Hookah is nearly two years old. The shop sells hookah fare and during the summer offers a place to smoke. Across the street from Smoka Hookah is the Rendez Vous Café; the same person owns both.

"It's always been big in Dearborn," Mitchell explains. "Then students started coming here to Ann Arbor bringing their hookahs and it slowly picked up over the years and now it's on the rise for sure."

Mitchell attributes the popularity to the hookah's exotic nature. And if there's one thing that's true of college students, it's that they're constantly in search of a new trend.

"If you bring a hookah to a party a crowd will form around it," she says. "There will be two crowds, one in the kitchen where the food is and then everyone else is hovered around the hookah."

The hookah, though it is a tobacco product, is not like a cigarette, Mitchell says. "It's meant to be slow and relaxing, like a cigar. It's a social event – you do it at parties, on the weekend with friends or family. You sit down with a hookah; you have a different mindset with a hookah. It's not intended as a vice like cigarettes."

Medical research on hookahs is still lagging behind the fad, however; early indications suggest that hookah smoking can be as harmful as cigarettes.

"A lot of people think that it's a better alternative to cigarettes but it isn't," says Elias Arabo, general manger of Royal Oak's Smoky's Fine Cigars. "(Hookahs) are very high in nicotine – I mean, it's tobacco. But, like cigarettes, it's still popular."

And just as the hookah has caught on, so have the places to smoke them that aren't bedrooms, basements, or backyards. Hookah bars and lounges have evolved along with the hookah smoking population. They have veered away from the more traditional layout of hookah lounges, with pillows on the ground and people sitting with their legs crossed. Today, hookah bars are modern in design, filled with tables and chairs and bright colors. Some even have pool tables, flat screens, nachos, and hotdogs.

Not surprisingly, Dearborn is hookah central, with hookah shops and bars or restaurants dotting the landscape. This is, of course, attributed to the city's large Arabic population. Fully a third of the city's population hails from the Middle East. What's surprising is that hookah bars also seem to cluster in local university towns or more bohemian type areas.

"Ann Arbor is a trendy university, bohemian style town," says a bartender at the Heidelberg Restaurant, a German-style dining experience. After midnight at the Heidelberg you can order a hookah. Down in the restaurant's basement – the Ratskeller, a German themed pub – you can order a hookah whenever you like. "People here love the experience. They come in here and order a beer and a hookah. Or when people see a hookah ordered we will get three or four more orders."

Arabo says the demand for hookahs has been growing in Royal Oak over the last five years. "It's really become synonymous with college. A lot of college kids will come here in August and September to buy a hookah to decorate their room. It's like buying furniture or an iPod, it's fashionable."

Forums have even been showing up online about hookahs and hookah culture. They offer a place for people to review different styles of hookahs as well as new flavors that are released.

"(Smoky's) is part of a retail trade group and we meet every year for the latest and greatest in tobacco and smoking products," Arabo says, "and every year there is an increase in the number of hookah booths and retailers."

Despite its growing popularity, however, something does threaten the spread of hookah culture – a Michigan smoking ban. Like cigar shops, hookah bars could have the potential to retain licenses to keep hookah smoking in the fold. However, in places that do have smoking bans the number of hookah bars has decreased. In Paris, for instance, nearly a third of its 800 hookah bars have closed; the rest still offer it, albeit illegally.

"I don't know," says the manager of Ann Arbor's Smoka Hookah. "It could harm us. I don't know where it's at in legislation. I guess it's just something we'll have to wait for."

For the time being, though, it looks like there is nothing for hookah bar patrons to worry about. The culture is alive, well, and growing. New flavors are coming out all the time, bigger and better hookahs are being manufactured, and more and more places seem to be opening up to the hookah craze – from strip malls in Shelby township to German restaurants in Ann Arbor.

"Sometimes I go into La Pita" – a Middle Easter restaurant in Dearborn – "for dinner and an argeleh and 85 percent of the people in there are non-Arabs and smoking hookah," Hamameh says. "Or I'll order one and then someone will see it who has never tried it before and they'll order one. And then they cough, it's amusing, but I like seeing it."

For some the hookah is a new experience while for others it's a continuation and growth of their own culture.

"Having the exposure of my culture to another and (their) adoption of it," Mitchell says, "Of course it's flattering and I do feel proud. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say."

Terry Parris Jr. is the Talent Crunch Editor for Concentrate. He is a staff writer for Metromode and Model D.   His previous article was Makin' Movies: 'American Virgin' Brings Jobs and Dreams to Local Crews.


In a cloud of orange scented smoke, Nabeel Hamameh takes another toke

Enjoy a hookah with friends at Java Lava - Dearborn

Loose or prepackaged flavored tobacco at World Smokers - Dearborn

A variety of hookah's can be found at World Smokers - Dearborn

"Freestyle" smokin'!

"Zanzabarian nights"

All photographs by Metro Detroit photographer Marvin Shaouni
Marvin is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.