Image: Hookah smoker
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
Timur Nersesov enjoys a plate of hummus, an Orange Crush and a hookah at Arabica Bistro in Dearborn, Mich., on Friday, April 9.
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updated 4/24/2010 7:58:59 AM ET 2010-04-24T11:58:59

The main thoroughfares of this Detroit suburb, like those of many Michigan cities, aren't as busy as they used to be. Thousands of jobs shed locally by the Ford Motor Co. have forced smaller businesses to shutter and left fewer customers for those that remain.

Yet there is one bright spot — a bustling stretch of Warren Avenue where Mideastern-style cafes, markets and shops provide a taste of Beirut or Damascus for one of the largest Arab-American communities in the nation.

This scene is now clouded by a new state law that bans a popular feature of the local eateries — the hookah, or Arabic water pipe filled with flavored tobacco.

Come May 1, when the law goes into effect, Dearborn's cafes will have to choose between serving food or allowing smoking. Hookahs will be welcome only in specialty tobacco stores.

Tough tobacco restrictions have been imposed in many states in recent years, threatening some smoky nightspots but usually leaving the local social life unchanged.

But in perhaps no other city does the aroma of fragrant smoke, the bubbling of water pipes and the tang of Arab dishes blend so intrinsically with the local lifestyle and economy.

Vestige of the old country
In a relatively small business district, more than two dozen cafes offer hookah. "You go down on a summer night, you see people outside and smoking and talking and eating humus — it's a very unique type of picture," said Warren David, a marketing expert who works with Arab-American businesses.

He and others wonder how this vestige of the old country will accommodate the arrival of modern public health standards. Some local Arab community organizations have been preaching about the hazards of secondhand smoke but also mourn the social impact.

"In our culture, alcohol is forbidden, and this is an area where there are a lot of Muslims," said Latifeh Sabbagh, a social worker and officer with the local Young Muslim Association. Smoking hookah "is something for them to do. It's their winding down."

Hookah smoking came to area with the first waves of Mideastern immigrants in the early 1900s. But the cafe scene here really took off in recent years as Arab-Americans became a full third of Dearborn's population of 100,000. The city also has a huge mosque and an Arab-American cultural museum.

Bright street life
In Detroit, Warren Avenue is rife with vacant storefronts and empty lots. But as the thoroughfare enters Dearborn, the streetlife brightens with large Arabic-language signs, strolling people and the chatter of different dialects.

In the cafes, the smokers choose from as many as 30 or 40 tobaccos in a variety of flavors, such as coconut, mint, cinnamon and even cafe latte. The blend is heated in the hookah pipe, drawn through a cooling bowl of water, and inhaled through a hose.

Often, older men smoke hookah during the day while younger people come in at night. They talk, smoke and enjoy plates of Mideastern food. Some customers say that smoking in a tobacco shop wouldn't be the same.

"Today, we were just driving through the area and I thought, 'Hey, I want to get a smoke in, and we can get (food) while we're at it,'" said 28-year-old Timur Nersesov as he enjoyed a plate of humus, an Orange Crush and a hookah filled with rose and mint tobacco at Arabica Bistro.

'I'm shutting down'
Mike Berry, owner of the 360 Lounge and Grill, says he can't decide whether to keep his hookahs or his food service. Hookah, which generally costs $10 to $15 a bowl, represents about 60 percent of his business; food is 40 percent. If he lost either, "I'm shutting down," he said.

He and Akram Allos, a tobacco and hookah wholesaler who owns Sinbad's Cafe, are gathering petition signatures to protest the new law.

But Joe Loush, the owner of Arabica who emigrated from Lebanon in 1977, has opened a smoke-only shop next door to his restaurant. He said the hookah scene may be another old world tradition that surrenders to modern American culture. In the Arab-American business community, he said, "always, always, we (react) after the bill passes, which is too late."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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