The hookah lounge crackdown needlessly targets East Africans

A sign posted in the window of Cloud 9 hookah lounge in the Central District frames the crackdown as an "assault on our Black communities." (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
A sign posted in the window of Cloud 9 hookah lounge in the Central District frames the crackdown as an “assault on our Black communities.” (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

In the immediate wake of the mayor’s announcement that he intends to close down hookah lounges in Seattle, a wedge emerged between different immigrant and refugee communities.

The Asian American community, mourning the death of Donnie Chin, was seemingly pitted against East African patrons of hookah bars. But East Africans were also pitted against each other. For example, while most Somalis came out in support the mayor’s initiative, based on the impression that hookah lounges are dens of drugs and vice luring vulnerable East African youth, most non-Muslim Ethiopian and Eritreans have vociferously opposed the initiatives.

Some members of these communities resorted to religious and cultural propositions, positing inane arguments for and against the hookah trend, until divisions had emerged even amongst Ethiopians, Somalis and within religious groups.

Much of the discussion fell into line with the mayor’s argument, that hookah bars present a simple choice — criminality vs order.

For the nuanced observer, however, realities are far from politically authored textbook sketches that aim to scrub ‘undesirables’ by law’s might.

As a Muslim, an East African cultured in Middle Eastern, Somali and Ethiopian traditions, one familiar with the meanings of relationships between those within and without authority, and one who may hold the title of the first East African person to run for citywide office in Seattle, I believe I have a perspective to add to the hookah conversation.

The real wedge on the issue is not between immigrant communities, but between those selected by the city to represent our community’s interest and the community themselves.

The police department’s appointed liaison to the East African community, Habtamu Abdi, has been helping to drive the anti-hookah campaign forward, even as the community is clearly divided on the issue. Where Abdi should be listening to the perspectives of the community and representing them to the mayor, instead he’s doing the opposite, pushing the mayor’s agenda to the community.

I believe that it is a failure to understand the social, tribal and religious dynamics and sentiments of Puget Sound immigrants and refugees that was at the root of the Mayor Murray’s miscalculated measure in the first place.

Had the newly created liaison office been more familiar with Puget Sound refugee and immigrant sentiments on hookah, or more willing to convey diverse perspectives on the subject to the mayor, the hookah conversation would be otherwise. But now here we are.

Hookah or Shisha is a glass-bottomed water pipe in which fruit-flavored tobacco is covered with foil and roasted with charcoal. The tobacco smoke passes through a water chamber and inhaled; smokers attest that the sweet smelling, fruit-flavored tobacco is greatly enjoyable experience.

RCW 70.160, previously the Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans smoking in public places, is being used in conjunction with chapter 19.03.050 of King County Board of Health Code to run hookah bars out of the city.

Of course, both statues were intended to curb smoking for health reasons, not for criminality — as is the real motivation behind banning hookah bars. A reading of the notices now being dished out to hookah owners is very revealing of legal flippancy. Of the eleven hookah lounges within city limits, at least nine have so far received notices citing them for violations of the smoking at a work place statute (as opposed to say RCW 70.155, which deals with selling tobacco to underage customers etc.).

Resorting to law when the issue at hand could be peacefully resolved clearly bespeaks a level of ignorance. People from oppressed backgrounds, especially those of East Africa memory, though accepting of law and order, are nonetheless suspicious of this forceful approach.

This is in fact the reason why the hookah bar ‘issue’ has become connected to the ‘black lives matter’ movement. One need only read Michelle Alexanders’ “The New Jim Crow” to realize the shared memory.

Embedded in the mayor’s miscalculation, also, is failure to see hookah as a trend in popular culture. A Seattle-based study conducted in 2012 found that more than a quarter of all university students reported using hookah.

While one of the major arguments I heard presented to law makers at City Council hearings is that hookah is a convenient pastime for those whose religion restricts intoxicants, a nuanced observer would have been aware of the simple fact that hookah smoking is not of Somali culture or Islamic making.

In fact, there are multiple stories of its origin. Indications are that it was brought to East Africa by Middle Eastern merchants. In East Africa it is mainly used in Djibouti and eastern parts of Ethiopia as pastime, and is considered shameful and un-Islamic in other parts of East Africa.

My feeling is that the mayor was ill advised on the matter. It appears that hookah was framed as an East African problem by those working for the city, who for some reason hated to see some East African youths frequenting these places.

Despite the vaguely Middle Eastern aesthetic, smoking hookah in America ought to be contextualized. Irish pubs in the American context have nothing to do with Irish culture. There’s no monolithic ‘East African culture,’ and if there were, hookah wouldn’t be a defining characteristic of it.

To the suspicious mind, making such a connection accentuates rather than attenuates racial undertones.

Falsely equating hookah lounges with crime, and then falsely equating hookah lounges with East African culture, has understandably lead some young East Africans to feel targeted.

Rather than pursing the hookah crackdown that has created these divisions, the mayor could be working with business, religious and community leaders and using their voices to aid his real goal — halting criminality.

For what makes America the great country that it is is its ability to absorb, enculturate, assimilate all without denying any its identity — E pluribus unum!

The views expressed here are those of the writer and not necessarily of the Seattle Globalist. You can read a contrasting view here

1 Comment

  1. I would support amending the law to exempt not only hookah bars but also tobacconists and cigar lounges as long as the sole or primary business is the sale and use of tobacco. In such businesses I think a sound argument can be sustained that employees and customers alike necessarily understand and accept that they are exposing themselves to tobacco smoke. The public was presented with an overly simplistic choice and as a result we were left with an overly simplistic law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.