"It really is an art," says Amera Andrawes, co-owner of the Sphinx Café, as she sets a three-foot hookah on the carpet. "This is part of our culture. This isn't new to us."
After a near-solid year of puffing in the South Side, hookahs aren't new to Pittsburghers, either. When the Sphinx opened up in August on the unassuming corner of Ninth and Carson streets, Andrawes already faced entrenched competition: The HKAN, a posh, ever-packed hookah bar at the other end of South Side, just across from the Birmingham Bridge. Now, with a new hookah retailer selling tobacco products between the two cafés, shishas -- as the pipes and tobacco are known in Egypt -- have emerged as the city's most conspicuous fad. The shisha blend is a mix of tobacco, molasses and fruit flavoring.
"I think it's way, way overdue," Andrawes says, her eyes enthusiastically wide. At 28, she doesn't smoke herself -- she has a baby due in January -- but insists that water-piping isn't the main point of the hookah experience: "Everybody's so busy now," she says, referring to over-worked, over-connected Americans. "In Egypt, you see places like this everywhere. This is a place where you can relax." Besides smoking, there is drinking (Arabic coffees and teas) and scarfing (pastries and other sweets).
The shisha phenomenon has spread from the Middle East to Europe, New York to Los Angeles, where it is seen as a stylish alternative to cigarettes, since the water filters out nearly 90 percent of tobacco's less appealing chemicals. The hookah looks -- and could behave -- like the marijuana bongs that the federal government in Operation Pipe Dreams targeted this year. But, says Andrawes, shrugging, "It's much more sophisticated than a bong."
Shishas have also been arriving in cities among Israeli users, where it is known as nargile.
Where HKAN seems a main drag nightspot -- it's open until 3 a.m. and gushes with students and twentysomethings -- the Sphinx is more of a mom & pop operation. With its low tables, ornate round pillows and walls decked with Middle Eastern tapestries, the Sphinx looks like a cross between Haga Sophia (the ornate, 1,500-year-old Byzantine church-turned-mosque in Istanbul) and a freshman dorm room. A range of visitors, from students to dreadlocked Rastafarians to bona fide Arabs, sit on the floor and order mint, cappuccino, strawberry, rose or other shisha varieties. Andrawes' husband, Ramy, sets each shisha down and applies burning coals to the foil-covered top. The couple say such exotic-seeming activity sometimes draws stares from the street.
"I tell them to come in," Andrawes says. "We do our best to make everyone feel at home -- not just Arabs." Her place, she admits, "is a little bit hidden," then whispers: "It's like a secret."