FREDERICK -- Kent Bowers' first hookah drag tasted vaguely of strawberry, quite thick but mild going down, deep into his lungs, before he exhaled the smoke that floated toward the black tin ceiling at the Mirage Cafe & Grill.
That was some three months ago, and now Bowers is back on a recent Friday night sharing another bowl of flavored tobacco - apple this time - with a couple of friends new to the hookah, a water pipe known also by other names: shisha, narghile, gouza, hubble bubble. With the sound system thumping Middle Eastern rhythms, you have to lean in to hear the subtle voice of the hookah water bowl bubbling the cadence of human breathing.
Bowers, 20, says gathering close around the pipe is part of the appeal, "the idea of communal smoking, instead of each person having their own thing. It's something to do as a group."
Josh Heath says that after his week working at Best Buy, these surroundings are often just what he needs.
"It's definitely a different atmosphere," says Heath. "It definitely relaxes you."
The light is low, the walls dark rose at the Mirage, one of a few restaurants in Maryland that offer the hookah. As the restaurant's liquor license application is pending, patrons may bring their own bottle and choose from a menu of Middle Eastern entrees and appetizers.
In his blue jeans and sport shirt, the 22-year-old Heath leans back on a couch by the window with a couple of friends, next to a coffee table bearing a lighted hookah and a 12-pack of beer. The scene suggests an update of those 19th-century paintings showing bearded men in turbans lounging with their teacups and hookahs amid the arches and carpets of some Ottoman Empire cafe.
The key word is "lounging." Centuries after tobacco became a rage in the Middle East, the shisha, codger that it is, sticks to its slow ways. Forget stepping out to the parking garage for a quick hookah break. That would hardly leave time for the ceremony: packing the tobacco bowl, gently setting the glowing disk of charcoal on the screen that sits atop the tobacco, the first puff, the gurgling bowl.
For $9.99, a server brings the hookah to your table with the tobacco of your choice - apple, strawberry, mixed fruit, cherry, grape, rose. Mirage co-owner Fawaz al-Chikh says a bowl is good for about 30 minutes, but customers say it can last two, three times that long.
Al-Chikh speaks between puffs on a shisha that stands nearly 3 feet tall. The 35-year-old Syrian native says he's been smoking shisha since he was a teenager.
He moved to the United States in the summer of 2001, following a cousin who had moved to Boulder, Colo., to open restaurants. Al-Chikh had a couple of fast-food places in Damascus, and decided to sell one and move to the U.S. After a few months in Boulder, he went to Miami to visit a friend and met the American woman who would become his wife. They soon moved to the Washington area, where she attended American University.
Six months ago he opened the restaurant here on North Market Street, a main downtown thoroughfare in a city whose working-class profile has all but given way to the refinements of a Washington suburb. It includes downtown ethnic food offerings that include Indian, French, Ethiopian, Japanese, Spanish, Vietnamese and Asian fusion.
Lots of restaurants around Damascus offer shisha, al-Chikh says, especially places outside downtown. Women seem to indulge as much as or more than men, he says, as most women in Syria do not go to work: "So they get together, they smoke shisha."
Other than a couple in their 50s who are not partaking of the shisha, most folks here are in their 30s and younger.
The hookah seems to be a magnet for young people. Smokeshop magazine reported in April 2004 that 200 to 300 new hookah places had opened since about 2000, "often near college campuses."
The young crowd can be a problem, says al-Chikh, as he's been trying to draw more families to the restaurant. Recently he established a $10 minimum for food, hoping to discourage students.
Members of his staff have evidently been too eager for young people's business. In March and May the Mirage was fined for selling tobacco to customers under 18 who were actually members of the Police Explorers, says Jean Byrd of the Frederick County Health Department. She says a third violation could mean suspension or revocation of the Mirage state tobacco license.
Al-Chikh is happy to discourage cigarette smoking, which he does not allow in the Mirage.
Of course, Maryland law says tobacco smoking of any sort is not allowed in a restaurant except in a room set apart for that purpose, says Michael Strande, deputy director of the Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law. Smoking a pipe in the middle of a restaurant would not appear to be permitted.