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Last Call for Paterson's Hookah Bars

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Hookah pipes
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One of Paterson's endangered businesses
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Ayman Shaabneh enjoys hookah at Arabian Cafe
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PATERSON, NJ - On a night with temperatures in the single digits, a warm haze enveloped the Arabian Cafe on Main Street. Several groups of men sat hunched at tables, playing cards or dice. Every now and then, one of them lifted the stem of a water-pipe to his mouth, inhaled the flavorful smoke of dried fruit and blew it out through his nose.
"I don't drink, I don't go to go-go bars,'' said Ayman Shaabneh of Paterson, lounging on a sofa at the cafe. "After work, I come here to play cards and hang out. And I smoke hookah.''
 
"It's like out social club,'' said Sam Kiswani, sitting at a table nearby. "It's part of our culture.''
 

But the culture of Paterson's hookah lounges may be coming to an end. A state appellate court last summer ruled that hookah pipes fell under the jurisdiction of New Jersey's Smoke-Free Air Act, which bans smoking at public places indoors. Now Paterson is ready to start enforcing that law.
 
Mayor Jeffrey Jones and other city officials met with business leaders on January 24 to outline the plans for enforcement.
 
"The fact that it's cultural, that's one aspect,'' said Jones. "But the state of New Jersey doesn't look at it that way. The law is the law and we're going to enforce it.''
 
"After you leave here tonight, the smoking has to stop,'' said Donna Nelson-Ivy, director of the city's department of Health and Human Services. "Otherwise, you're breaking the law.''
 
Officials say 20-25 businesses will be affected by the crackdown, including hookah lounges, cigar bars and establishments that hold occasional special events, like the "Cognac and Cigar" night being planned by one club.
 
City inspectors will start by issuing warnings and then summonses, said Nelson-Ivy. The law sets the fine for a first offense at $250.
 
Business owners seemed resigned to the change that they say will be costly to them. Ghassan Adawi, part-owner of the Lava Hookah Lounge on Montclair Avenue, said more than half his business comes from hookah smokers. "What can I do? I'm not going to risk losing my business,'' he said.
 
"A lot of places are going to have to close their doors,'' predicted Peter Denho, who helps his brother-in-law run the Big Apple Cafe, which includes a hookah lounge. "How is that going to help Paterson, when people lose their jobs?''
 
Denho found fault with the law. "People come here for the hookah,'' he said. "If they don't like the smoke, they don't have to come here. They can go someplace else.''
 
At The Paradise on Main Street, manager Amanda Rodriguez estimated that more than 80 percent of the sales come from hookah smokers. "It's going to have a big impact,'' she said.
 
Indoor smoking in public places has been illegal in New Jersey since 2007. But hookah lounges had been somewhat of a gray area, said City Corporation Counsel Paul Forsman. For the most part, the law only had been enforced regarding tobacco until the court decision this summer involving a hookah lounge in Woodbridge, he said. 
 
The city has been slow to begin its enforcement campaign, partly to make sure residents and businesses had plenty of advance notice. "It's a way of life here,'' said City Council President Aslon Goow Sr. "It's going to have a big impact.''
 
Businesses eventually may be allowed to provide hookah smoking in out-door areas. But first they must go through a series of municipal inspections and approvals. For now, there are no legal hookah bars in the city, officials said.
 
The possibility of a hookah shutdown has patrons of the lounges particularly upset.
 
"What else is there to do? Hang out at the mall?'' asked 17-year-old Jonathan Rodriguez of Clifton, who was smoking hookah at The Paradise.
 
"We come here after school with our laptops and do our homework,'' said Sarah Garas, 19, of Franklin Lakes, sitting at a booth with Rodriguez. "It's like Starbucks.''
 
Billy Abdul of West Paterson said he comes to the Arabian Cafe every day to smoke hookah. "It's going to make my life miserable,'' he said of the ban.
 
Habib Yasim of Paterson, a loyal patron the Arabian Cafe,  said the city "should go after the people who sell drugs and leave us alone.''
 
Randy Jezwi, a former Paterson resident, makes the trip from Poughkeepsie, NY, twice a week to hang out with the guys at the Arabian Cafe. "Even if you have your own hookah at home, it's not something you do by yourself. It's not the same enjoyment,'' he said. "It's more about the social aspect.''
 
 

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