Where things get hazy

Hookah bars, entrenched in Arab culture, are catching on big in the Southland.

By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times

April 8, 2005
They don't have tough guy bouncers guarding the door at Up in Smoke Hookah Lounge in Sherman Oaks. Then again, people don't tend to get rowdy from inhaling peach-and-melon-flavored tobacco through a hose.

For fans of hookah, aggression is out and laid-back is in, judging from the gaggle of 18- to 20-year-olds spilling onto the sidewalk at this Ventura Boulevard nightspot. Since it opened in November, Up in Smoke has built a word-of-mouth following among college-age revelers who are too young to drink, too old to stay at home.

On a recent Friday night, as tabla-powered dance music by Egyptian superstar Nancy Ajram and Persian musician Sharam K. blasted through the sound system, fresh-faced patrons sat low to the ground to imbibe fruit-flavored tobacco smoke, high-octane Turkish coffee, honey-drenched bamieh fritters and sugar cubes that melted in the mouth between gulps of spicy chai.

Hookah "technician" David Mercier wended his way through the crowd with a rose stem tucked behind his ear, toting tongs and a plate crowned with glowing charcoal briquettes. It's his job to restoke the hookah pipes before the embers grow cold.

Tonight's patrons include 18-year-old actor Shia LaBeouf, fresh from his costarring role with Keanu Reeves in "Constantine," who's slouched against the wall with his girlfriend; sisters Erica and Cara Johnson, 18 and 19, from Mission Hills, who lazily pass a pipe tamped with strawberry, vanilla and peach-sweetened Flying Carpet tobacco; and South-Central couple Ericq Gonzalez, 21, and his date, Linda Garcia, 20. "Everyone seems really relaxed and cool, no problems," Gonzalez says. "It's like you can just hang out and get a conversation going."

Mary, a 19-year-old sitting at a sidewalk table with four friends, says, "This is our first time here, but we've been hookah-ing before. For people who aren't old enough to go to bars, hookah is a different alternative where you can just hang out with your friends and hope it won't get boring."

Cynthia, 20, from Covina, leans over to chime in: "Also, my family is from Lebanon, so some of us can relate back to our roots or whatever. Hookah is a very Middle Eastern kind of thing."Though hookah only recently became hip here, the water pipe social ritual is deeply entrenched in Arab culture. Hookah flourished in 17th century Turkey and quickly spread through the Middle East, briefly surfacing on European radar when Lewis Carroll populated his "Alice in Wonderland" with a hookah-smoking caterpillar.

For 400 years, the basics have remained essentially intact: Tobacco is tamped into a bowl perched on top of a vertical metal stem and ignited by charcoal. The resulting smoke is drawn down through the tube into a glass bowl half filled with cool, bubbling water, where the smoke is filtered before being drawn out into a flexible tube that can be passed around.

Although cigarette smoking is prohibited in restaurants, hookah bars are exempt. Advocates say that the water-filtered tobacco produces relatively "clean" secondhand smoke that contains less than 1% nicotine. By contrast, they say, nicotine makes up about 14% of cigarette smoke emissions.

However, Dr. Michael Thun, who heads epidemiology research for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta, warns that "pipe smoking has about the same cancer-causing potential as cigars. [The argument] that the water would filter out the toxins is an appealing possibility, but the likelihood is that the smoke bubbles through the water, that the water quickly becomes saturated with toxins and that ultimately what you have is smoke that's cooler but no less toxic."

Up in Smoke co-owner Rodney Lazar, who moved to the United States from Iran when he was 10, says, "In the Middle East, hookah cafes are like Starbucks: You've got one on every corner. When you don't want to be in the house you go out and have a hookah, hang out with your friends, talk about what you did during the day. You unwind. So we took that concept, except we expanded it and said, how do we make it kind of hip, how do we make it cool?"

Up in Smoke is just one of several hookah cafes in the Valley, including the Spot in Encino, Sahara in Northridge and Sherman Oaks' Phoenix. Over the hill in Westwood, two hookah lounges draw a UCLA crowd. Gypsy Café, the village elder, has been in business since 1979. Habibi opened across the street four years ago after Mickey Fathi, now 20, convinced his Egyptian-born father, Saad, that his peers were primed for a multicultural twist on the centuries-old tradition.

"I wouldn't even classify our place as an Arabic cafe any more because it's 60% white people on the weekend," Fathi says. "We have black, white, Mexican, Asian, gay and straight — it's like a place for sober hanging out."

To stress the multicultural theme, "My Love" — translated as "Habibi" in Arabic — is written on the wall in 40 languages.

Many Los Angeles-area neighborhoods now have one or two hookah bars, ranging from Rama Genie in West Hollywood to the Equator Cafe in Pasadena. But Southern California's hookah hotbed is Anaheim, where more than a dozen cafes service Orange County's substantial Middle Eastern émigré community. Traditional venues attract a mature clientele who come to play cards and backgammon, while new-breed hookah joints like Carthage and Fusion Café, which opened in October, have turned sections of Anaheim's Brookhurst Street into an alcohol-free party zone.

When he opened the Hidden Café in Anaheim two years ago, Tareq Adas, a native of Dubai who formerly worked at IBM, aimed straight for the 18-to-20-year-old demographic. College-age customers now make themselves at home on the sofas in his club until 4 in the morning every weekend.

"Hookah is excellent for — how do I word this? — when two people want to meet up, it's a good thing to socialize," Adas says. "At a hookah bar, conversation starts quickly and it just keeps flowing."

Hugh Hart can be reached at