When you walk into Aladdin's Hookah Lounge in St. John’s, the first thing that might strike you is the mix of people that are sitting at the booths.
There’s a booth of young caucasian people laughing on one side of the room. An older dark-skinned gentleman sits alone in a booth across the room, drawing deeply on the hookah pipe and smiling as people walk in. Some are enjoying a hookah, but not all.
Perhaps the diversity in the room stems from this province’s cultural mosaic becoming more diverse in recent years, but it’s more likely that this place is drawing a spectrum of people that call this city home.
After a moment of taking in the atmosphere, the next thing you’ll probably notice that may have been what should have struck you first: there isn’t any smoke in the air. This is despite the fact that the lounge is close to half full on this particular evening with several hookahs lit.
Aladdin's Hookah Lounge is the first of its kind in the province. When The Telegram first dropped in on owners Mohamad El Bakri and Tareq Yousef, they were anxiously waiting to get the go ahead from the city to open. Three weeks after opening their hookah doors, El Bakri seems very pleased.
“Going great,” he says.
And he’s not just blowing smoke. Anybody who’s walked by the lounge on Water Street from 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. or later, when the lounge is normally open, can see a collection of people inside.
The place offers some Middle Eastern deserts and turkish coffee as well as a selection of cold beverages not commonly found here, such as a non-alcoholic apple cider-like beverage.
Then of course there is the hookah — a non-tobacco blend of flavoured herbs called shisha. This is smoked through a hookah — a long pipe that filters the smoke through a water column.
El Bakri says there are some people coming to his place that know all about hookah and may even have one at home, and others coming for the first time to check it out.
“After the first week we already have repeat customers. So we have people who come every day if not every other day,” he says.
And not everybody comes for the hookah.
“They come here for the atmosphere,” says El Bakri, who says in the Middle East hookah lounges are neighbourhood-friendly places where people go to socialize and converse.
People are even telling the owners about other beverages or other snacks they might like to see in there.
One thing people can request all they want, but the proprietors won’t budge on, is the serving of alcohol.
“I don’t sell something I don’t believe in,” says El Bakri. “I don’t drink myself. My business partner doesn’t drink either. And I want to show people here in St. John’s that you really don’t need to drink to have fun. This is a sober place where you can come in and enjoy your time.”
There has been some controversy over the lounge that gets past the tobacco laws because the smoke is tobaccoless and dissipates quickly with little odour. There have also been concerns raised about the health risks of hookah. El Bakri accepts those concerns.
“We just say it as it is. It’s a social thing that people use. We’re not saying it’s healthy,” he says.
He adds that alcohol and fast foods aren’t healthy either, but are fully accepted parts of society, and so is tobacco.
El Bakri stresses, though, that the most important quality of the hookah lounge is the atmosphere. He invites anybody to just poke their head in and see how they enjoy the place, regardless of their feelings on hookah.