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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 23:30 GMT 00:30 UK
Have shisha cafes gone to ashes?
Sheesha Lounge, Birmingham. Pic by SabaŠ Alyanai

By Sabaa Alyanai
BBC Blast reporter

Smoking in enclosed public places was banned in England on 1 July, but the legislation did not affect only cigarette smokers.

One month on, campaigners claim hundreds of Middle Eastern-style cafes where the water-filtered shisha pipe is smoked are unfairly under threat of closure. They are planning a legal challenge against the new law.

untouched pipes
Called hookah in India; shisha or narghile in Middle East
Shared experience - one or more pipes can stem from the shisha pipe
Intricately-designed glass base is filled with water - stainless steel pipe connects it to the clay pot head
Flavoured tobacco or herbal fruit pulp fills the clay pot, is covered with pin-pricked foil, then heated by coal
Mainly smoked after dinner with mint tea and baklava (sweet pastries), with guests or socially at a cafe
Tobacco flavours come from across the globe, ranging from melon or coconut to coffee or cappuccino

But what's so special about shisha compared with cigarettes? Many smokers, particularly if they are Muslim, say the ancient custom is central to their social life and culture. They don't drink or go to pubs, so the cafes are the hub of their social life.

Has the legislation reduced shisha cafes to ashes?

Many shisha cafes across England have been - or expect to be - adversely affected by the ban, with a number closing down in the capital and other cities.

As with other bars and restaurants, many shisha cafes have found the new law has in effect moved their business outside to do battle with the elements.

With only a metre of pavement available on London's Edgware Road - which has long been a focal point for Middle Eastern cafes and restaurants - there is not enough space for everyone who wants to smoke.

Meanwhile rows of shisha pipes are left untouched inside.

"Come winter time, no-one will want to be outside in the cold," says fitness consultant and shisha smoker Paul Carter.

The shisha pipe is smoked slowly, via a water filter, with flavoured tobacco or herbal alternatives.

Many shisha smokers claim the full health impacts have not been fully researched, and the pipe is less harmful partly because the tobacco quantities are small.

"Where is the scientific evidence?" asks 25-year-old Brad Barker, who is smoking with friends at a London cafe.

Renovating the cafe
I have a wife and a child to support, I have a mortgage... how will I pay my rent?
Ayad Albelbese

The World Health Organization has stated that shisha does have harmful effects and, when consulted, said it should be included in the smoking ban.

But it also acknowledged in a report released in 2005 that there is "surprisingly little research addressing tobacco smoking using a water pipe" and that a more thorough understanding of the risks and health effects should be sought.

One month on from the ban the Department of Health is adamant that it is "still the right decision [to include shisha] because it is proved to still be dangerous" and that the legislation should apply to everyone.

In Birmingham Ayad Albelbese, owner of the Ali Baba shisha cafe, says local university students used to describe his place as their "second home" during term time.

His cafe - which existed only to sell shisha and drinks - closed completely at 0559 on the morning the ban kicked in.

Returning to his desolate property, he says he and other owners are angry that they were not consulted sufficiently before the ban.

"Ninety five percent of my business was relying on shisha...[since the ban] I have been without an income, I have a wife and a child to support, I have a mortgage...how will I pay my rent?"

Birmingham City Council said it had informed all owners of the move, adding that the wider consultation exercise was the responsibility of central government.

New avenues

Aside from his personal plight, Mr Albelbese says he is upset that part of the Arabic culture has been destroyed.

"Where will Asian and Muslim people go? You go to a casino, if you don't gamble why do you go? In the same way, you go to a shisha cafe to smoke shisha.

"How can you have a shisha outside in this weather?"

In his attempt to explore a different business avenue, Mr Albelbese has stumbled across another hurdle, having been refused an A3 restaurant licence to serve hot food.

He is not the only shisha cafe owner seeking to explore alternative avenues.

Paul Carter [L] and Ben Palmer-Fry in a Bayswater shisha cafe
Cigarettes are addictive but shisha is an addictive cultural experience... it can last all evening and I'm not plastered by the end of it
Ben Palmer-Fry, biology teacher

Hasan Al Daheri, the Iraqi owner of Panini Cafe in the Edgware Road area, says he feels desperate that his livelihood is being taken away from him. He is currently awaiting a decision on his application for a hot food licence.

"What I've served for 30 years has disappeared."

Not all businesses have been negatively affected by the ban.

In nearby Bayswater the Bedouin restaurant, which has a covered outside space for smoking shisha, staff say business is still steady.

One customer Lamine Bilal, 20, says he comes only "to smoke shisha".

On an evening out with friends, biology teacher Ben Palmer-Fry says the place is a "taste of Arabic culture".

"Cigarettes are addictive but shisha is an addictive cultural experience... it can last all evening and I'm not plastered by the end of it."

The intentions of the legislation was not to shut down businesses
Ibrahim El-Nour

Habibi's restaurant in Birmingham says it has seen an increase in the demand for shisha smoking since the ban.

Owner Manal Timraz described it as her busiest period to date. At the back of the restaurant there are gardens with roofed areas for shisha smokers that she plans to expand, and a smoke-free indoor restaurant for diners.

In an attempt to combat the British weather she plans to install tables that emit heat from in-built heaters.

And according to Ali Mirza of New Natural Village London, which sells shisha pipes, more people are smoking at home. He says he has seen an estimated 30% increase in sales since the ban.

Rows of untouched shisha pipes.
In many cafes, rows of pipes are left redundant. Pic by SabaŠ Alyanai

But the campaign goes on.

Ibrahim El-Nour, chief executive of the Edgware Road Association and leader of the Save the Shisha campaign, is sceptical about the survival of thriving cafes, saying: "We expect these places to close soon, at the end of the summer."

He says "the intentions of the legislation was not to shut down businesses" and that is what he wants to avoid.

The campaign says it hopes to rescue a part of Middle Eastern culture from dying out in a multicultural UK.

An application to exempt shisha from the ban, on the grounds of health and culture, has been refused but hope is not yet lost.

As part of the campaign, Mr El-Nour is urging its 600 or so members - many of whom he says have been forced to close - to donate money to finance the legal bid to seek a judicial review.

Palms Palace, Edgware road
Photo by Hollie Bagelman

Click on the link below to read a selection of your comments:

Pipe dream
25 Jun 07 |  Magazine
Smoke ban 'threatens environment'
16 Feb 06 |  UK Politics

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