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Centuries after first sparking up in the Middle East, hookah bars have firmly wrapped their tentacles around Brooklyn.

From Williamsburg to Bensonhurst, Carroll Gardens to Bay Ridge, perhaps you’ve sniffed a sweet, pungent smell wafting seductively through the air. Follow your nose and you might happen upon a hookah bar — not, as two Department of Health officials interviewed for this story misheard me say, a “hooker bar.” There you’ll find people casually taking tokes from a hookah, a jumbo water pipe also known as “nargileh” or “shisha.”

“People want to know if they can get high,” said Faried Assad, the owner of Zaytoons, a Middle Eastern restaurant on Smith Street, who was putting the finishing touches on Sheesha, a hookah bar adjacent to his restaurant that’s due to open later this month.

Assad began his foray into the hookah business this past spring with an addition to the Fort Greene branch of Zaytoons, meant to attract students from the nearby Pratt Institute. Buoyed by success at that location, he decided to offer the smoky delight at his trendier Carroll Gardens spot. “More and more people are coming to Smith Street from Manhattan for a night out,” he said. “So I thought it made sense to open a hookah bar here.”

A third Zaytoons, this one in Prospect Heights, is due to open in the coming weeks.

But wait a second. Wasn’t smoking in bars, you know, banned? This is where things get cloudy.

A call to the Health Department confirmed that just like any other bar or restaurant, hookah establishments must comply with the city’s no-smoking laws, meaning tobacco is verboten. But hookah bars circumvent the tobacco kibosh because, their proprietors explained, there isn’t any tobacco being smoked at their establishments. Instead, the substance being set alight — usually called “herbal tobacco” — is said to be a harmless amalgam of various plants, fruits and flavorings (anything from kiwi to chocolate to pina colada) that can run from $10-$20 per pipe.

When we asked the Health Department if that explanation is kosher, a spokesman said the city would test the various mixtures, and those proprietors whose mixture contains tobacco will be fined.

Of course, this hazy legality, combined with a whiff of Arabian exoticism, isn’t exactly hurting the hookah business.

Unlike hookah bars in the Middle East, which tend to function as social clubs, places for a mostly male clientele to drop by at lunch or after work to share a smoke and shoot the breeze, Brooklyn’s hookah bars are angling to make a profit off of folks looking for a weekend alternative to boring old bars and clubs.

“[It’s appealing because] it’s not a mainstream atmosphere,” said Morgan Monaco of Prospect Heights. “Each bar has its own flavor, but the hookah bars attract a more laidback crowd.”

She added that it was easier to enjoy the company of your friends at a hookah bar. “You’re congregating around this pipe and people can talk and catch up more than they could sitting in a row at a regular bar.”

For now, these nights are still out of the ordinary in Brooklyn. “Hookah is an everyday thing back home,” said Egyptian-born Ayman Ghaly, the owner of the Sultana hookah bar in Williamsburg. “But [in Brooklyn], it’s a thing people do on the weekend, more of a special occasion.”

The typical decor of the new hookah bars testifies to their grand nightlife aspirations. Prepare to find yourself awash in a sea of deep reds and blues, heavy on fantasy Arabian motifs — think leather floor pillows and billowing nomad-style hanging tarps. “I love the colors, I love the cushions, I love the decorations,” said social worker Corey Glaser, 35, who sat cross-legged on the floor at Sultana, languidly drawing from a hookah. “It’s way more interesting and fun than going to a regular bar.”

At the Cazouza Cafe hookah bar in Bensonhurst, which opened this spring, the appeal is much the same. “It’s a nice, chill way to spend time with friends,” said Tolyan Vinnikov, an 18-year-old Brooklyn College accounting student. Classmate Aleksey Berezovsky, also 18, offered another reason why he’s hooked on hookah. “It’s a substitute for going to a bar,” said the too-young-to-drink Berezovsky between drags of watermelon-flavored smoke. These spots are particularly popular with the 18-20 set since many hookah bars do not serve liquor and therefore don’t have a 21-plus policy. It all depends on the religious views of the owner; Sultana serves booze, but at Zaytoons you’re out of luck.

“Young people like to smoke and they like the environment — it’s something different,” said Sultana’s Ghaly, who opened his place nine months ago when he saw a pink spot on Billyburg’s nightlife lungs. Since then, Sultana has found a place within the neighborhood’s cultural fabric. Sultana has played host to lesbian parties, Latin nights and even an event thrown by BBW (in case you forgot, that’s Big Beautiful Women).

Is this current hookah bar bonanza bound to last? Assad, for one, isn’t sure. “I’m skeptical,” he said. “But people keep looking for something new to do. You’ve got to give it to them.”

Cazouza Cafe (1671 Bath Ave., at Bay 14th Street in Bensonhurst) is open 4:30 pm–midnight daily. For information, call (718) 234-6100.

Sultana (160 N. Fourth St., at Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg) is open Sunday through Thursday from 3 pm–2 am and Friday and Saturday from 3 pm–4 am. For information, call (718) 218-8547.

Zaytoons (472 Myrtle Ave., between Hall Street and Washington Avenue in Fort Greene) is open Monday through Thursday from noon–10 pm, Friday from noon–11:30 pm and Sunday from noon–9:30 pm. For information, call (718) 623-5522.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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