Hubble, Bubble, Hookah Trouble

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Bruno Vincent / Getty

Men smoke from a water pipe in a cafe on Edgeware Road, March 2007

Despite all the predictions of mass outrage, New York, Dublin and even Paris have adjusted to bans on smoking in public places with quiet resignation rather than rebellion. But with London's ban commencing this week, the city's sizable Muslim population will not easily accept the closure of their beloved shisha bars.

"The government didn't realize how harmful it will be," said 21-year-old Shaz Ahmed, a recent university graduate and avid smoker of the liquid cooled shisha pipe, or hookah . "Businesses that rely on shisha will lose a lot of money — so they will go underground. What else can they do?" Unlike regular pubs whose main revenue stream is the sale of alcohol, the shisha bars don't serve alcohol in deference to its prohibition in Islam.

Smack in the heart of 'Londonistan' sits the Edgware Road, known for its mosques, colorful markets selling headscarves and niquabs and, above all, famous all-night shisha cafes. Since they were set up in the 1980s, the cafes have become a mecca for students, bohemians and free-thinkers of various stripe to congregate with Muslims and engage in that most ubiquitous of Middle Eastern pastimes, smoking the hookah. Scented tobacco is burned on coals and sucked through an ornate water vessel before being inhaled, inducing a strong nicotine high. Originally intended for visiting Gulf sheikhs and Middle Eastern expats, in recent years the cafes have become trendy amongst a new generation of multicultural British youth.

At 11 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, Al-Shishawa is heaving with customers, chatting and eating amidst a fug of hookah smoke. "Personally I think [the government] should make an exception because it's a cultural thing," says Amram Miah, 24, a data analyst, relaxing with two friends over a watermelon-flavored pipe. "We don't drink, it's a social choice."

Mohammed Matwli, a manager at Al-Sishawa, points out that half of his establishment's profits come from hookah pipes and that he is planning to lay off staff as a result of the ban. From this month onward shisha smokers will be forced to relocate themselves outside, where Al-Shishawa can at present accommodate only a tenth of its customers. Other cafes that don't serve food face complete closure.

"It will be a disaster for the community, for multiculturalism and for London," said Ibrahim El-Nour, director of the London-based Save the Shisha Campaign. "By October, many [bars] will be bankrupt."

There is, however, more than money at stake. Muslims say the cafes are an alternative to rough pubs and provide a safe environment for kids to socialize. Many fear the ban will drive more young people into pubs, bringing an upsurge in the anti-social behavior and binge-drinking for which Britain has become notorious.

The shisha bars have also become a venue for social interaction between more tradition-oriented British Muslims and elements of the wider society. In the northern city of Bradford, scarred by race riots in 2001, a local entrepreneur opened the town's first dedicated shisha lounge two years ago.

"Here you can mix with everybody — all races — it brings everybody together regardless," said Rizwan Hussain, 24, a student. "What are communities going to do?"

But some Muslim owners hope to dodge the ban, arguing that it only covers "tobacco-based" products, which they say does not describe the fruit-based mixtures which typically go into the shisha pipe.

Café owners allied with El-Nour are lobbying for London to follow the example of New York, which made exceptions in its smoking ban for cigar rooms and hookah bars. They point out that the British ban already exempts private homes, hospitals, prisons, hotel bedrooms and, revealingly, the Houses of Parliament. If politicians can continue to puff away with impunity, they ask, why can't we?

But the government appears unmoved. There have been media reports warning of police action against bars not complying with the ban, while the Department of Health cites a World Health Organization study which says that an average shisha session lasts up to 80 minutes, compared to eight to 12 puffs for cigarettes.

On the Edgware road the cafes remain full long into the night as customers savour their final few days of freedom to puff. Tobias, a bingo-hall worker in his twenties, has come all the way from the suburbs with his girlfriend for dinner — and some shisha.

"We just wanted a smoke before time was up," he says.