Shisha seeks exemption

The impact of the smoking ban on shisha cafés

How would Middle England react to a ban on pubs? Something analogous will happen in July, when the Health Act 2006 bans smoking in enclosed public spaces. Many of the country's shisha cafés will have to close their doors.

In these cafés, smoking the Arabic water pipe, the shisha, is the main activity. Scented tobacco is burned by coal and passed through an ornate water vessel before being inhaled, producing a strong nicotine high. These old-fashioned smoking-rooms were at first aimed at visiting Gulf sheikhs, but in recent years have become the vogue for a multicultural generation of young British.

At the heart of this new subculture is Al-Shishawi restaurant, a vast neon palace on London's Edgware Road. To smoke a pipe here costs £6 and there is a choice of tobacco flavours. Coal-changes are free, and the place is open 24 hours on weekends. Asian and Arabic hip-hop and an enormous cinema screen provide the backdrop for young people all blowing smoke-rings into the air.

"This is what we do instead of clubbing," says Zara, 18, leaving Al-Shishawi past midnight. But we come for the shisha, the music, a bit of a dance."

Dozens of similar cafés have sprung up nationwide, ranging from holes-in-the-wall to glitzy hangouts attached to nightclubs and student unions. Many are of Asian and Arab origin, but young white faces are becoming common. Some are returning backpackers but others are simply attracted to Arab-style music and a hangover-free party. The subculture arrived in polarised Bradford two years ago, when Syima Merali opened the Markaz, the town's first dedicated shisha lounge.

For her, shisha culture represents everything from improved cultural relations (white and Muslim people mix more easily when aided by scented smoke - which is never a bad thing in Bradford) to female emancipation. "The ban will kill off a youth culture," says Merali.

But not all Muslims lament the forthcoming demise of shisha. Azzam Tamimi, of the Muslim Association of Britain, recently visited Shishawi and ordered mint tea. "Our youngsters are increasingly sinking into these bad habits," he says. "It's nothing to do with Islamic culture."

For the Department of Health, these arguments are beside the point. Under the smoking ban, shisha will be as unacceptable as cigarettes. They cite a World Health Organisation study, which found that an average shisha session lasts up to 80 minutes and (compared to eight to 12 puffs for cigarettes). Smoking one shisha can, at worst, be the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes.

Ibrahim El-Nour co-ordinates a pro-shisha campaign from an office above the Shishawi café. He feels the ban should have been preceded by consultation. But in parliament last May, the health minister Lord Warner insisted representations had been sought including from the Muslim Health Network, a London-based community group. The network, which supports the ban, says its opinion was sought on cigarettes, but not on shisha.

So, El-Nour is looking into whether a judicial review case could overturn the ban, and believes he is supported by a recent precedent: Greenpeace got nuclear energy policy overturned last year because the government hadn't consulted on it properly.

But Greenpeace's solicitor, Kate Harrison, says there is an important difference between her famous victory and the shisha case. The smoking ban was voted on by MPs. One other path may remain open, political rather than legal: the government has held on to the power to set exceptions.

Otherwise, shisha culture's survival in England looks uncertain. "Shisha is the equivalent of a pint in the pub," says El-Nour. "A nascent part of British culture will be lost if the ban stands."

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war