My first trip to a Seattle hookah lounge may well end up being one of my last. I'm sitting on a deep-seated chair at downtown's Diwan, with a giant, complicatedly configured pipe—2 feet high, with a snaking tube extending from the front like a bagpipe with smoke coming out of it—to my left. Strawberry-flavored tobacco sits inside a dish covered in tinfoil with holes poked through it; glowing coals rest on top. You don't deep-inhale hookah tobacco—a basic suck-and-blow is all that's necessary, though it's still easy to overdo it, as I'll find out in an hour. Nevertheless, it's a clean taste, and it's deeply relaxing—not as dizzying or disorienting as weed, not as gimme-another-one compulsive as cigarettes. And thanks to Washington voters' approval of Initiative 901, which bans smoking from places of business and within 25 feet of entrances, the opportunity to enjoy this ancient practice, developed originally in India a millennium ago, might be gone after Dec. 8.
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This is, needless to say, terribly inconvenient for Ahmed Bartokaly. Born and raised in Egypt, Bartokaly first moved to Seattle in 1986, after a year of living in London following his high-school graduation, to attend the University of Washington as a business administration major. He then went into the import business, selling Egyptian artifacts and cotton products—T-shirts, towels, bedspreads—mostly to the gift store of Las Vegas' pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel. Two years ago, Bartokaly decided to go back to Egypt and work in pharmaceuticals. There was only one problem, Bartokaly says: "It was getting hard to live in Egypt, and it's very easy to live here. [And] I'd been thinking of starting a hookah lounge [in Seattle] for a couple of years."
On Oct. 1, Bartokaly did just that, opening Diwan Hookah Lounge, a white-walled, blue-lit sitting room on Pike Street between First and Second avenues. The place is furnished with low couches and lounge chairs, and with the high ceiling and ample floor space, the flavored- tobacco smoke emanating from the giant, involved pipes has some room to roam. A couple of large wide-screen TVs, set at medium volume, sit on the right wall, playing IMF (International Music Feed), a post-MTV channel with the smart idea that fans of American acts like Fall Out Boy, Common, and Queens of the Stone Age will also enjoy clips by Chinese punk bands and Spanish artist Bebe.
That kind of thinking—that American culture can always stand an infusion from outside—is what typifies Seattle hookah joints like Diwan and the University District's Rabbit Hole, as well as Middle Eastern restaurant Zaina (with downtown and Pioneer Square locations) and Capitol Hill's B&O Espresso, which also offer hookahs. At least for the time being. A B&O manager, who identified himself only as George, said that I-901 made him "doubt very seriously" the cafe would continue offering hookahs.
A week ago, Bartokaly was sounding optimistic. "I'm not sure if we're included in that," he says. "I understand if you go to a bar or a restaurant that you don't want to be bothered by smoke, but if you come to a hookah lounge, it's different. There's a reason we don't allow cigarettes or cigars [to be smoked] here. It really is a cultural thing. The way I set it up here, with the lighting and the music, it's very relaxing, the way we have it in the Middle East. It's open really late—people stay until 2 or 3 a.m., 4 or 5 a.m. on weekends. People come, talk, play backgammon. Life here is very fast-paced, and I think that's why people like this."
Unfortunately, after a meeting with his lawyer on Friday, Nov. 18, Bartokaly said it looks like I-901 would indeed apply to the hookah lounge.