Hubble Bubble, Health Department Trouble

by William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter —

The Middle East practice of smoking of hookah is also known as sheesha or hubbly bubbly. For centuries these water pipes have been used to help people relax and socialize. In Paterson, N.J., hookah bar owners believe the City Health Department is persecuting them. Their businesses are going up in smoke.

“We have nothing against the city and government but we used to have a beautiful life, now they make our lives miserable,” said Jamal Hanash, 37, owner of Paradise Hookah Lounge on Main Street.

In recent weeks, two other nearby hookah bars, Lava Lounge and Big Apple, were hit with fines from the Health Department. It is a common problem for these businesses, especially as the weather worsens and smoking legally outdoors ceases to be an option.

The bars generally charge between $10 to $15 for a hookah pipe, which is typically shared between a small group of customers. Pipes are generally smoked over a few hours so the businesses also offer food ranging from snacks to full three-course meals. The hookah bars in Paterson also offer drinks for customers but no liquor.

In 2007 a New Jersey State law was introduced banning smoking indoors in public places. The punishment for violating this is a $500 fine that rises by another $500 each time the business is busted.

While the Mayor of Paterson, Jeffery Jones, 54, understands the role that hookah bars play in knitting the community together, he said that he has no choice but to enforce State Law.

“State tells you to do, we receive funds from them, that’s it,” he said in an interview at his office. “I understand it’s important and has a value but I can’t change State Law.”

The Department of Health had a more straightforward message for hookah bars.

“Hookahs are breaking the law,” said Director Donna Ivy, Director for the Department of Health and Human Services. “We go in and we violate.”

There are exceptions though. Certain restaurants in neighboring towns that sold hookah before any smoking bans were introduced in 2004 have been awarded licenses and are exempt from the fines. The Health Department said that the hookah bars in Paterson are all very recent so none qualify for a smoking permit.

Ramzi Zdouq, 30, owns Ramzi’s Social Club on East Railway Avenue and has had his share of run-ins with the Health Department over the matter.

“I’m paying at least $8,000 and I have eight tickets more,” he said.

The fines are not the only problem for the dozens of hookah bars scattered across Paterson. Musbah Zakkour, 17, who sells hookah equipment to the local lounges and restaurants, said that the stores still make a profit despite the tickets. The problem is that customers are also targeted by the city. If caught smoking in these establishments, customers can also be fined.

“People start getting disgruntled being treated like criminals,” Kakkour said.

In the summer, hookah fans can enjoy their flavored tobacco in relative peace but when winter comes they are faced with a choice, smoke at home or risk a $250 fine. For Basil Kashuka, 35, it’s not worth the risk. He used to visit Ramzi’s everyday, until he found out it was being raided.

“Paying $250 for a hookah, I can’t afford that,” he said.

Hanash of the Paradise Hookah Lounge is over two months late on his rent and fears he will be evicted if he can’t pay the $16,000 he owes his landlord. He has not been given a ticket for months but said that the Health Department has scared away his customers and the damage has already been done.

“They told customers, why are you here? This is an illegal business. They told customers they would be arrested,” Hanash said.

Before the Health Department put people off, Paradise would get in around 200 people on a good night said Hanash. Now he would be happy with 40. He has already had to lay off over two thirds of his staff and during weekdays Hanash only has one helper to prepare coals and serve the customers.

On a recent Saturday afternoon the lounge was deserted, the arrangement of black leather sofas cushioned nothing but dust and the coals on the stove were being heated seemingly more in hope than expectation. Paradise still looks over-staffed.

The strict laws on hookah bars not only affect the store owners, its staff and their loyal customers, but the community in general said Kashuka.

“It’s a meeting place. We don’t drink, we don’t go to bars.”

In a predominantly Arab and Muslim area, he believes that these bars provide a vital forum where people can sit down, smoke and find help. He said that hookah bars are especially useful for the retired or unemployed who are looking for help or assistance. They are also places where younger men and women come to fraternize.

Hanash also believes that as Paterson is largely an Arab community, they should be exempt from the smoking ban.

“This is part of our culture,” said the Palestinian born lounge owner. “In Palestine everyone smokes hookah,” he added.

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