Seattle — The Rabbit Hole is a maze of sofas and sectionals, mismatched, some worn to threads in places, full of soft spots that sink low to the ground. The lighting is low and dim; the music is usually alternative rock, played at a volume to match the light.
No alcohol is offered at the Rabbit Hole - just soft drinks and hookah.
Hookah refers to the practice of smoking flavored tobacco through a tall, ornate pipe that sits on the floor; the hookah pipe has long been a popular pastime in Amman and Alexandria and all across the Middle East.
But this is Roosevelt Way in Seattle, cater-corner from University Mazda and down the street from Mamma Melina's restaurant. And that is something new - even as America is at war in the Middle East, this bit of the Middle East has found a place in America.
In liberal and literate Seattle, hookah lounges have opened on trendy downtown blocks and in predominantly white neighborhoods in the outer city, where the Rabbit Hole is located. Its customers are not middle-aged Egyptian men, but white kids from the suburbs.
The contagion may stall - in November, Washington voters enacted one of the nation's strictest smoking bans. The law could shutter places like the Rabbit Hole; similar smoking bans could imperil hookah parlors around the country.
The laws are universally aimed at cigarette smoking; they may not specifically target hookah, but there is not exception for the parlors, either.
The parlors first opened in the United States decades ago in the immigrant quarters of New York and Los Angeles, in neighborhoods like Astoria, Queens, and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. For years, they were patronized mostly by men of Egyptian, Lebanese or Syrian descent, and occasionally a curious American who recognized the pipes from a trip he might have taken.
In the past year or two, parlors have opened in towns all over in the country, in Florida, Iowa, and Wisconsin, often operated by foreign students from the Middle East, wishing for a piece of home.
But in recent months, hookah has spread to the world of hipsters and yuppies in cities in all regions of the country. Customers can smoke tobacco in a hookah pipe in the Chi-Cha Lounge, a trendy, Latin-themed restaurant on U Street in Washington, D.C., or at Mantra, an upscale French-Indian restaurant in Boston's Ladder District.
"It's at its largest demand ever in this country," said Brennan Appel, who runs Florida-based SouthSmoke.com, an online purveyor of hookah pipes and tobacco. "I don't think it's going away anytime soon. There's so much more room for the product to expand. Only a small percentage of Americans know about it."
In cities where only one hookah lounge existed, there are now seven or eight, Appel said. Where there were none, there is at least one. Because a hookah pipe is typically shared, friends introduce it to others. Even the Iraq war has played some role, Appel said; he suspects soldiers posted in the Gulf tried hookah, liked it and sought it out once they returned home.
The biggest demand for hookah, he said, is in California, Arizona, New York, Texas and Virginia.
Most of the tobacco is imported from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia; as a way of catering to Western tastes, tobacco manufacturers are introducing flavors like kiwi, watermelon and blackberry.
The tobacco is held in a bowl near the top of the pipe, kept lit by red-hot charcoal. The smoke is drawn through water before being sucked through a long tube. Pipes can have one tube, or as many as six, so that many people can share the tobacco.
Pipes cost between $50 and $180. In lounges and bars, the tobacco is sold in batches for as little as $5 or as much as $20. One batch can last an hour or longer.
There has been some backlash to the hookah craze. In Anaheim, Calif., city officials attempted to regulate some hookah lounges after complaints by neighbors of noise and rowdiness. The owners, primarily Middle Eastern immigrants, accused officials of cultural bias.
But the biggest problem for owners of hookah parlors are smoking bans in many cities. New York's 2003 ban, at first, did practically nothing to limit the hookah dens in Astoria and Bay Ridge. Although the places violated the law, officials generally looked the other way because it was obvious that customers frequent hookah bars only to smoke, and because the ban was not aimed at hookah smokers. The future of hookah and smoking bans is still unresolved. For right now, it is a matter of case-by-case enforcement.
The effect of hookah on health is an issue. Medical research is scarce on the effects, although doctors agree that smoking any kind of tobacco is not healthy.
"It's worthy of scientific study," said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer with the American Lung Assn. "I can tell you none have been planned. But it is tobacco. And all tobacco contains any number of chemicals that are harmful."