At other bars across Nashville, middle-age men are sipping drinks, taking long drags from their cigarettes, and watching Vandy beat UT this cool November night on the overhead TV through thick curls of smoke. Only at Aladdin's Hookah Lounge and Bar on Elliston, though, does the smoke carry the pungent yet sweet scents of peach and molasses.
Occasionally, there's an explosion of jeers or cheers in response to the game. The overall mood, though, is of warmth. The ceiling lights are delicately draped with sheer black fabric to obscure the white light. Under them, pods of students and singles cluster around small tables and cozy booths to talk, drink and smoke. They're lit by the fiery orange coals that glow and radiate heat from the top of the hookah pipes nestled between the tables.
Next door to the Exit/In on bustling Elliston Place, Aladdin's is a world unto itself. Decades ago, having a hookah lounge in Nashville might have seemed a contradiction in and of itself. Today, there are at least five hookah lounges in Nashville, including Aladdin's, and more are sure to come.
In five years, 300 new hookah lounges have opened their doors in the United States. For post-collegiate adults weary of the club scene — and older college kids looking for exotica — hookah lounges offer a break from the norm.
"Smoking the hookah is more relaxing than smoking a cigarette," says Hamza Chalky, who co-owns Aladdin's with his brother Yunis.
For all its trendiness in the U.S., the hookah is hardly a new phenomenon. Abul-Fath Gilani, a Persian physician in the court of Emperor Akbar of India, is credited with being the first to pass tobacco through a bowl of water in 1588. Hookahs have been enjoyed in homes and in public social gatherings across the Middle East ever since, and are considered status symbols for men and women. As people from the region migrated, so did the hookah. During the 1960s and '70s, hookah lounges began popping up across Europe and the United States.
Like the hookah itself, the owners of Aladdin's have a history that begins in the Middle East. In 1988, Saddam Hussein launched his genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people of Iraq. After the poison-gas attack now known as the Halabja Massacre, Hamza and his family fled to Turkey. Hamza recalls the exact date he and his family reached what he calls "the true land of opportunity."
"We came to the United States on Nov. 17, 1991," he says proudly. Hamza Chalky is now one of the estimated 11,000 Kurdish people who call Nashville home. After graduating from Hillsboro High School, he worked as a translator before he and his brother decided to open Aladdin's in 2007.
Inside the hookah pipe, flavored tobacco is heated at the top by hot coals. The smoke then travels down a tube into a bowl of liquid, usually water. The smoker inhales the smoke through the mouthpiece. The hookah pipe not only cools the tobacco smoke through water filtration, but also flavors the smoke with nearly anything imaginable.
Aladdin's offers tobacco flavors that rival Baskin Robbins. There are 31 single flavors, including blueberry, bubblegum and cappuccino, and 53 mixed flavors such as mint chocolate chip and mango melon mint (which, according to Hamza, is the most popular). If that's not enough inhaled flavor, you can also upgrade by filtering the tobacco through fruits such as orange, pineapple, or green or red apple in place of the traditional bowl.
Another option is replacing the traditional water with alcohols like rum, gin, vodka, bourbon, chardonnay or tequila. The "Barry Bonds" option mixes the two by replacing the traditional bowl with an apple that is filled with mango and guava juice and vodka. These are supplemented by 11 Star Buzz flavors, a premium brand of tobacco.
Customers inhale the flavored smoke and pass the hookah hose around the table. It's not hot and acrid, like cigarette smoke: it's tingly-cool and sweet. Because the tobacco is heated and not burned, the smoke inhaled through a hookah does not contain any tar. That doesn't mean it isn't dangerous. However it's consumed through a device, tobacco still contains nicotine and carries health risks such as lung cancer and heart disease. Plus the coal adds harmful chemicals such as carbon monoxide.
Despite these health risks, hookah lounges are growing in popularity. Only adults over the age of 21 may enter Aladdin's, which exempts it from Tennessee's Non-Smokers Protection Act. That has made it a haven for cigarette smokers as well as hookah aficionados, because it is one of a dwindling number of cafes that allow smoking, serve alcoholic drinks, and offer a full menu.
Aladdin's menu shows what a melting pot the Americanized hookah lounge is becoming. To be sure, it offers Persian and Mediterranean staples such as falafel, hummus and gyros. But these are augmented with chow-down meat-and-potatoes American pub fare along the lines of cheeseburgers, fried shrimp and hot wings.
"Anybody can open a hookah lounge. Not everyone can run a hookah lounge," says Hamza. There are a plethora of guidelines that must be followed to keep the doors open, such as the 21-and-older age limit. Hamza says the age restriction gives Aladdin's a more mellow and mature aura. Perhaps more importantly, owners must ensure that customers are careful with the hookah and do not burn themselves or their surroundings.
There's also the matter of making the place welcoming. On average, a hookah session lasts for 40 minutes or more, but when coupled with food and alcoholic beverages, clients can stay as long as they please. The Chalkys know their customers by name and their orders by heart. Those who talked to us didn't want their names used — too many people confuse hookah smoking with illegal substances — but their affection for the place is real. "It's about as close to family as a business can be," a patron says, seated at the bar.
That's not just because of the Chalkys. Danielle Scione became a regular at Aladdin's when her sister started working at the hookah lounge. When a bartender slot opened up, Danielle stepped up to fill it. "We're all very close," she says of her co-workers and owners.
Maybe Music City still seems an unlikely place for a custom associated in the popular mind with the distant East. But Hamza Chalky says Nashville, whose sizable Kurdish population has earned it the nickname "Little Kurdistan," brings back memories of the land he and his family had to leave so many years ago. "The trees and the seasons remind us of back home," he says. And if that isn't enough to summon the communal bonds of home — well, that's what the hookah is for.