Politics & Policy

Smoke Like An Egyptian

Multiculturalism and bureaucratic authoritarianism rumble in Little Egypt.

A clash of titans is upon us here in New York: Multiculturalism’s serried ranks are steeling themselves to withstand an onslaught by grim-visaged bureaucratic authoritarianism. It’s disheartening to see such old comrades falling out. I wonder what’s caused this rupture, the contemporary equivalent of the Sino-Soviet split? It could only be Mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban.

#ad#It appears, according to the New York Times, that there are some 20 hookah bars in the city, no fewer than half of which are located on a single street in Queens, in a place known as Little Egypt. The city’s “Department of Health and Mental Hygiene [sic]“–whose online “Complaint Form” encourages the citizenry to turn informer on anti-social elements–has decided to send “agents” (i.e., inspectors who couldn’t make the real police force) to enforce the mayor’s strictures.

“They’ve been very aggressive lately,” lamented Ali Mohamed, a bar-owner, to the Times, “Two weeks ago, they sent their guys to every shisha [tobacco] shop on the block. It’s harassment.” Mohamed, whose customers rent water-pipes to smoke, for an hour or so at a time, fruit-flavored ‘baccy for the princely sum of $4, was recently handed a pauperizing fine of $1,200. “We’re hard-working people trying to earn a living. I worked 20 years driving a cab for the money to open this store,” Mohamed added. “Now they’re trying to close us down.”

Mohamed and his fellow-owners along the Steinway Street strip labored under the misapprehension that Mayor Bloomberg and his Mental Hygienists would somehow overlook their pastime. An unfortunate error. Anti-smoking fanaticism, Bloomberg’s micro-megalomania, white bourgeois cancer-paranoia, and scientific semi-literacy have combined to produce the Rosemary’s Baby of bureaucracies in New York.

In a normal place, for instance, instead of instituting an all-encompassing ban, a mayor–especially one professing to be a Republican–who desired to reduce the number of smokers would adopt the commonsensical, pluralistic policy of allowing bar- and restaurant-owners to choose whether to allow smoking in their establishments. It’s their private property, let’s not forget. Thus, if Owner A believed that he could attract more Upper East Side patrons by outlawing smoking, then he could affix a “No Smoking Permitted” sign to his door; conversely, if Owner B, whose East Village clientele includes arty types, writers, journalists, students, actors, and various other riff-raff, wanted to encourage a suitably louche Left Bank atmosphere, he could place ashtrays on each table. Eventually, smokers would tend to congregate in smoke-friendly establishments, and those who dislike or disapprove of the habit would frequent smoke-free ones. This is not so very complicated, surely?

But what has happened is that, owing to the sheer variety and complexity of New York, the ban is riddled with loopholes, exemptions, and conditions–all fixed heavily in favor of the bureaucrats and giving the misleading impression that the ban is really not so onerous or tyrannical. Even as they are subjected to public humiliation, smokers are expected to be grateful that, in the words of the N.Y.C. health department, while no smoking is allowed in any restaurant, they may be permitted to puff “in 25 percent of any outdoor seating, as long as the area is contiguous, separated from the any other dining areas by 3 feet and not positioned under an overhang, canopy or other similar structure.” So, nowhere really.

And it is in this respect that Mohamed and his fellow Egyptian émigrés have fallen into the trap. He, and the others, assumed that hookah shops fell under the rubric of “cigar bars,” which are establishments that may qualify for a smoke-ban exemption if they derive more than 10 percent of their income from tobacco sales. Say the hookah bar-owners, more than half their revenue is drawn from such sales.

Gotcha!, retorted the health department. “Hookah establishments may apply for an exemption as a tobacco bar,” as Elliot Marcus, an assistant health-department commissioner, explained in full Sir Humphrey Appleby mode, “which by definition is an establishment where the sale of food is incidental, at least 40 percent of gross receipts are from the sale of alcohol, and at least 10 percent of gross receipts are from the sale of tobacco products or the rental of humidors.” Got that?

The cigar-bar exemption applies only, therefore, to places that also sell or serve alcohol, the health department being blissfully unaware–or uncaring!–that Muslims, the primary patrons of Little Egypt, are forbidden to touch the stuff. Clearly, what we have here is an outrageous, even if subconscious, case of Racism In Action. The city’s ban, quite apart from being “class-ist” (the non-smoking middle class excludes the smoking working class from its precious enclaves), discriminates against an ethnic and religious minority. There’s a lawsuit in the offing here (now, where are those trial lawyers?).

The Steinway Street devotees, to their enormous credit, have taken the multicultural ball and are running with it. “New York has many different cultures, and smoking shisha is part of our culture,” muses Easm Adly, manager of the Egyptian Café, “It’s an Arabic tradition …” Muhammed Darwish, a livery driver puffing on a hookah at the Egyptian Coffee Shop, announced that “this is our culture.” It certainly is: Middle Easterners have long congregated in such communal places to socialize, to play backgammon, and, well, to avoid having to go home. By hounding them with inspectors obsessively enforcing an intolerant law “for their own good,” the city is, in typically Orientalist fashion, denigrating time-honored Arab-Muslim culture by treating it as the Other.

Bully for the denizens of Steinway Street for standing up to the Western oppressor.

Alexander Rose is an editor at National Review.

NR Staff — Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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