Why would anyone suck air through a bowl of water for the sole purpose of filling his or her lungs with tobacco smoke?
For Anwar Aljabaly, 18, of Dearborn the answer is as simple as lighting the charcoal in a hookah, or water pipe: enjoyment wrapped up in his Middle Eastern culture and heritage.
Dr. Raja Rabah of Children’s Hospital in Detroit says there is another answer: addiction. People like Aljabaly are addicted to nicotine, whether it comes from conventional cigarettes or from the exotic water pipes called shisha, nargeela, narghile, arghileh, okka, kalyan, hubble-bubble and ghelyoon.
Hookah, arghileh, whatever you call it, the bottom line is addiction to nicotine, Rabah told me.
Aljabaly, a student at Henry Ford Community College, will be in Taylor on Tuesday as a panelist on an antismoking program called “Hooked on Hookah” at Wayne County Community College’s Downriver campus. It’s organized by the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance (SMCA).
He knows he’ll be the lone ranger at this conference, since the other presenters will be opposed to hookah smoking. Aljabaly even makes his pitch for hookahs in an anti-hookah film also called “Hooked on Hookah.” His message is simple: Hookah is good for the soul.
And hookah use is on the upswing. Olivia Polychroni, 18, of Taylor goes with friends to cafes in Dearborn or Novi to smoke hookah and doesn’t worry. The Truman High School student told me, “Cigarettes are disgusting; they make your teeth yellow and they just don’t appeal to me at all.
“I know there is some danger, but I don’t do it a lot like cigarettes. I go to a café maybe once a week, if that.”
Eateries get on bandwagon
To boost interest in his Southgate restaurant, Beirut Garden, owner Mike Alammar began offering hookahs to his patrons last month. It’s definitely a sideline, sort of an experiment. He’s proud of his cooking and frankly admits that there’s no benefit to smoking.
I wanted to learn about hookah. Aljabaly agreed to meet me at Beirut Garden. He brought his friend, Saad Shouman, 22, a student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a Dearborn resident. When I found them, they were eating from a big plate of hummus and another plate of grilled chicken, both prepared by Alammar.
“Hookah is better after you are full,” Aljabaly told me.
“Sometimes if you smoke it when you’re hungry, it makes you dizzy. Makes you want to throw up,” Shouman says.
I’m perplexed. This is not an argument for hookah.
The toll of hookah
I told them what I’d learned from Melissa Thrasher at the SMCA — that 45 minutes to an hour of smoking hookah is like smoking 100 cigarettes, and that the water does not filter the smoke, as many hookah smokers believe. And what Dr. Rabah said: Not only do you get the nicotine and tar of the tobacco, but you also breathe smoke from the charcoal that helps burn the tobacco.
“I heard the same, but I don’t think it’s true,” Aljabaly says.
“I heard that one hit from hookah is like 20 cigarettes,” says Shouman. I look at Shouman, Aljabaly’s buddy. Was he contradicting his pal again?
“Hookah tobacco is not like cigarette tobacco,” Aljabaly says. “You don’t get addicted to Zyn pouches – If you compare the stuff cigarettes are made of and what hookah tobacco is made of, it’s totally different. It has different flavors — orange, double apple, watermelon, grape — but it doesn’t have nicotine.”
“It has nicotine,” says Shouman.
Whew! Score another for Thrasher and Rabah.
“No,” says Aljabaly.
Both pals say they believe they are not addicted. They can go without smoking hookah and not miss it. But later, Aljabaly tells me he quit cigarettes a year ago and took up hookah.
Again, Aljabaly’s buddy Shouman weighs in on the anti-hookah side. I wonder why Aljabaly brought him. Shouman is making the antismoking case: “If someone smokes hookah, he will develop cancer faster than someone who smokes cigarettes,” opines Shouman.
“If you smoke it so much, it’s going to cause cancer; it’s very bad for the lungs.” He proceeds to suck on the hookah mouthpiece, wreathing his head in a thick cloud of the white smoke that he says causes cancer. I am mystified.
“There’s nothing good about it,” says Alammar, the restaurant owner who rents hookahs at $12 an hour. He says he prefers cigarettes.
There are things going on here that I don’t grasp. Often, these guys leave English and talk to each other — around or over me — in rapid Arabic, which I don’t understand.
It is a mystery why Aljabaly, who is going to beard the anti-hookah lions in their den at the May 15 conference, would bring along Shouman, who seems intellectually in the same camp with Thrasher and Rabah, even if he puffs like a steam locomotive.
The big point Aljabaly says he’ll make at the “Hooked on Hookah” meeting is one that may be hard for anti-hookah campaigners to counter because it runs deeper than reason. Aljabaly explains: “My grandmother did it, my grandfather did it. When I was a little kid I watched them do it. My grandmother is 70 and she is healthy.”
After finishing a big portion of grilled chicken and lots of hummus, Aljabaly announced, “Now that you’re full, you’re relaxed. You top it off with arghileh. Smoke a lot. Talk a lot. Talk about what’s going on back in our country. It relieves the pain of being away from home.
“I went to Yemen two years ago. It was the best time. I didn’t want to come back. It was a blast. I spent Ramadan there. It was the best Ramadan of my life.”
I’m puzzled about why Aljabaly is willing to go alone into the antismoke crusaders’ den for this panel discussion, which will be tilted against smoking. Alammar, the Beirut Garden owner, puts it better than I could: “So how much you making off all this?”
“You’re not making anything?” says Alammar to Aljabaly. “You’re crazy!”
“Fame, baby,” says Aljabaly. “I should be paid. But I believe in it.
“Hookah’s a way of life in a culture. I was born in Dubai. My family is from Yemen. You’re in the United States and this kind of brings back a little something of home. Arghileh is a way of life.”