Up in Smoke

Pyramids Café owner Mohamed Hassan demonstrates how to smoke from a hookah

Pyramids Café owner Mohamed Hassan demonstrates how to smoke from a hookah

On a balmy Saturday night late last month, Yafa Grill in Columbia Heights was filled to capacity.

Scores of mostly young, mostly Muslim customers packed the tables, playing marathon card games while languidly drawing on Middle Eastern water pipes known as hookahs. As Arabic music played on the speakers, patrons puffed thick clouds of fruit-flavored tobacco, or shisha, filling the store with an aromatic, sticky haze.

"My favorite flavor is Viagra Buzz," exclaimed Amina, a 26-year-old Somali woman wearing a headscarf, praising one of the many special blends of shisha available at Yafa Grill.

A centuries-old tradition in the Middle East—think corner bars with water pipes and backgammon instead of beer and darts—hookah bars have in recent years gained popularity in the Twin Cities and beyond, embraced by recent immigrants and college students alike. But thanks to Minnesota's smoking ban, which took effect October 1, they are in all likelihood a thing of the past here.

"It's like telling a gospel church you can't sing," says Khaled El-Sawaf, a trim, young Arab-American at Yafa Grill. "It's that integral to our culture."

Minnesota is not the first state to outlaw smoking in bars and restaurants. Sixteen others beat us to the ban, and another five have passed laws that are soon to take effect. But while most other states have carved out exemptions for hookah bars, Minnesota has taken a hard line. Although the ban includes an exception for smoke shops, it doesn't allow for the sale of food or beverages—key to the economics of a hookah bar.

And the cost of getting caught is prohibitive. Smoking in a bar or restaurant is now a petty misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $372. The establishment's owner is subject to the same fine, plus a Health Department penalty of up to $10,000.

Daniel Disrud, an environmental health specialist with Anoka County who has met recently with owners of hookah bars, says they have been put in an unfair position.

"The rules were changed on them," he says. "The ban affects how they are going to have to operate the most."

But don't hold your breath waiting for the Legislature to intervene. State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary (DFL-Fridley), whose parents emigrated from India, isn't interested in revisiting an exemption for shisha smoke.

"Coming at it from a second-generation immigrant's perspective, I don't think that any ethnicity deserves an exception to a rule about public health," says the senator, whose district includes Columbia Heights.

Initially, some thought that hookah bars could be saved by setting up heated outdoor tents. But Fouad Sakallah, the Palestinian-American owner of Yafa Grille, says his plans to build an outdoor smoking canopy were dashed last week when the Columbia Heights fire department told him that it would be a fire hazard.

"It's so sad," Sakallah says. "They're killing our culture."

But not everyone is sympathetic to his plight. Cynthia Hallett, who heads the California-based Americans for Non-Smokers' Rights, says there's no reason to exempt hookah bars from smoking bans.

"Smoke is smoke," she says. "It's still going to be toxic, and those workers need to have a smoke-free workplace."

It's an argument that Mohamed Hassan, owner of Pyramids Café, has trouble understanding. Last Tuesday, one day after Minnesota's smoking ban went into effect, Hassan sat forlornly in the corner of his once-bustling Columbia Heights store. It was still early, but he'd already sent home one of his three waitresses. Soon, he says, he'll have to start laying them off.

Hassan, a thin man with deep-set, piercing eyes, bought the place less than a year ago for $100,000. To do so, he refinanced his house and took out a small-business loan.

"Forget my culture," he says. "The government gave me the loan for this business. How am I going to pay it back?"