The Hookah’s New Haven

University students welcome hookah’s novelty and smooth buzz

Erin Adler

Minnesota is not a trend-setting state. But any self-respecting University student can hear “it’s big at Madison” only so many times before wanting to prove that Minnesota students aren’t always geekishly unaware of pop culture developments.

When a local grocery posted a sign boasting “We Rent Hookahs” and friends made the Madison reference, my curiosity mounted. Had Minnesota caught this trend? Were students here seeing hookah smoke signals?

And so I began my hunt for hookahs. It wasn’t long before I found them – at bar patios, restaurants and glass shops.

The corner store

Santana Deli and Foods looks like an average grocery store beneath its retro, marquee-like sign. Donnie Ramahi, part owner, stands at the register, drawing a tribal design on his forearm with a black Sharpie marker.

At least a dozen hookahs stand to his right, shelved above beverages and flavored tobacco. The hookahs’ glass and fabric vary. But each features hammered brass and tubes from which the smoker inhales.

Ramahi, the brains behind the hookah-rental project, brought the hookahs back from a trip to Egypt. Smoking hookahs in the Middle East is akin to smoking cigarettes in the United States, he said.

“Probably nobody knows about it as much here yet,” he said. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, where he said hookahs were often smoked in cafes or bars.

Santana’s hookahs have been popular with college students since the store began renting them in August.

“As soon as I brought them in here, people were like ‘Hookah! Hell, yeah!'” he said.

He asked if I understood how hookahs work. He pointed out where the water goes (on the bottom) and where the flavored tobacco and charcoal are placed (in the bowl and at the top, respectively). After lighting the charcoal, the tobacco heats up, and the water acts as its filter.

Hookah rentals cost $10 or $15, depending on size. Renters must sit outside to smoke.

Ramahi thinks the trend will die down during the winter because of weather and the smoking ban. Next spring or summer, there’s a good chance it will really take off, he said.

The restaurant

The Pyramids Cafe in Columbia Heights is a simply decorated space in a strip mall. Hieroglyphic stencils decorate the walls. A row of 20 hookahs sits behind the counter. Two college-aged women stroll in with a deck of cards and a request to smoke from a hookah.

Employee Vic Groebner, 18, said that in recent months, he has noticed more college kids coming to smoke them.

“When I first started working, it was just Arab men and their families coming here to eat and smoke,” he said.

Students smoked during the summer for an “out-of-the-norm” activity, he said. Many think smoking a hookah will give them “some miracle high,” he said.

He said it is more appropriate to say you are smoking “shisha,” the word he and Pyramid Cafe employees use to refer to flavored tobacco, because you aren’t actually smoking the hookah itself.

“Smoking shisha is a lot different than cigarettes. It’s smoother and most people get a better buzz,” he said.

The glass shop

The hookah looks suspiciously like its illicit relative – the bong. In some places where you can buy both, legal and illegal practices mingle ambiguously beneath glass cases.

But most proprietors are hell-bent on insisting their goods are made for legal activities. At Uptown’s Glassland, a sign even threatens expulsion for referencing illegal drugs.

Luckily, I can talk to Glassland employee Amy Van Baricum about hookahs, as they’re intended for flavored tobacco.

Van Baricum is the first person I speak with who links hookahs with “ambience,” a word often seen on hookah Web sites.

“When you have company, you can pull out this exotic-looking thing and offer it to guests,” she said. “It lets you enjoy tobacco in a more romantic context than, say, smoking a pack of Marlboros by yourself.”

The Internet

University students and brothers Amin and Mohammed Aasar are members of group “I love the hookah.”

But while many of their peers view smoking hookahs as only a social activity, the brothers see deeper meaning.

“It’s like culture,” Amin, 17, said, “something you do with your family, traditionally.”

Amin said he began smoking because his family, who is of Middle Eastern descent, had a decorative hookah in their home.

“One day we decided to make use of it,” he said.

He now smokes about twice a month and said smoking a hookah is better than smoking cigarettes.

“If you own your own, it’s almost free. I also think it’s not as addicting (as cigarettes),” he said. “And it’s getting more mainstream day by day.”

Mohammed Aasar, 21, once agreed with his brother. Only weeks ago, he and some friends made a business plan to open a hookah bar in Stadium Village, he said.

“I used to like hookahs, but they’re really dangerous, too,” he said. “It’s like smoking a whole pack of cigarettes. People think they’re not dangerous, and that’s the really threatening part.”

Mohammed quit smoking hookahs, he said, after reading cancer research online. The smoking ban and the “ethical aspect” of encouraging people to smoke made him abandon his plan for a hookah bar.

“They have a chic, urban feel, and that’s how I planned to market them,” he said. “A lot of money is to be made in the hookah market right now.”

The hookah bar

I stopped at Royal Cigar Tobacco in Dinkytown and mentioned hookahs to the cashier, Mack Field, 23. He handed me a maroon card with the hookah’s shapely silhouette. “Every Saturday, hit the hookah,” the card urges.

So I headed to Nochee, the Washington Avenue bar listed as the place to “hit.” Over blaring hip-hop, I asked four girls if it was the hookah bar. It was.

Inside, I met University senior Rudy Nautiyal, 22. More than anyone, it is he who convinced me that hookahs have truly arrived on the Minneapolis college scene. With his partners, Nautiyal has organized Saturday night hookah-smoking on Nochee’s patio since June.

“It’s been at capacity every night,” he said.

Nautiyal sees smoking hookahs as an extension of the recent interest in the East, also visible through yoga and Eastern meditation trends.

“We wanted to mix the traditional aspect with a nightclub environment,” he said. “The main group (of hookah smokers) here is part of a cosmopolitan, jet-set crowd.”

The scene at Nochee confirmed that Minneapolis is no longer coastal cities’ awkward, home-schooled cousin. The hookah is here.