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Anaheim cracks down on rowdy hookah cafes

Hookah bars are in but belly dancing and alcohol are out in the rising number of Middle Eastern smoking lounges in the Little Gaza district of Anaheim, Calif., home to Disneyland. Cafe owners complain that they are being singled out, possibly based on race.
/ Source: Reuters

Hookah bars are in but belly dancing and alcohol are out in the growing number of Middle Eastern smoking lounges in Anaheim’s Little Gaza district.

Officials in the Southern California city that is home to Disneyland voted Tuesday night to impose strict new rules on the operation of hookah cafes which they say cater to a rowdy clientele.

The ordinance barring alcohol, disc jockeys and live entertainment such as belly dancing, and calling for equipment to filter smoke is expected to win final approval on Nov. 8 and would apply to Anaheim’s 11 smoking lounges.

Owners of the cafes complain that they are being singled out, possibly based on race, and said the regulations could kill their businesses by squelching cultural elements that make them unique.

“I’m starting to feel like this is a racial thing,” said Raffi Sarkis, manager of the Fusion Cafe. “Because they have Disneyland here, they want it to be an all-white area. They are harassing us.”

Sarkis said he was once fined $3,000 when a patron stood up to dance. Anaheim City Council spokesman John Nicoletti denied that the law was racially motivated, saying: “Anaheim is known for the diversity of its business owners.”

“This is not a hookah bar ordinance; this is a smoking lounge ordinance,” he said. “It has nothing to do with anyone’s ethnicity.”

Nicoletti said the city has tried to accommodate the growing number of smoking lounges but that some have created a club-like atmosphere that attract rowdy crowds.

Police say noise from the cafes is keeping neighbors awake and in the past several years they have responded to about 500 incidents ranging from fights and loud music to arson.

The lounges currently feature Arab entertainment, cuisine and music, but the main attraction are the three-foot-long smoking pipes attached to a bowl containing tobacco mixed with flavors such as mint, peach, and vanilla cola.