PANTEGO — Billows of sweet smoke waft past Mark Jordi’s face as he prepares for some Trex.The Middle Eastern card game requires four players, and hairdresser Jordi, 50, rests peacefully in his chair against the backdrop of loud music and neon green decor. At this moment, he said, he feels like he is the mayor of Arlington.Across the table from him is Amin Refai of Arlington. Refai, 57, shakes his head at Jordi before talking about the importance of places like the Narah Cafe on Pioneer Parkway in Dalworthington Gardens.Narah is one of four hookah bars on a 1-mile stretch of the state highway in Dalworthington Gardens and Pantego where Christians and Muslims swap stories, and college students and businessmen play cards over the hot coals that keep the sweet tobacco smoke flowing.Drawn to the bars for a chance to relax in a little slice of home, Middle Easterners and Europeans flock to the surrounding area.Dalworthington Gardens and Pantego are tiny cities completely surrounded by Arlington. Their less-strict smoking laws have allowed the lounges to flourish along Pioneer Parkway.Arlington’s smoking ordinance does not prohibit hookah lounges, but they must be an accessory to something else like a bar or nightclub, said Jim Parajon, Arlington’s director of community development and planning.If the hookah bar serves food and can be considered a restaurant, it is bound by the city’s smoking ordinance, which doesn’t allow the intermingling of smoke and food, Parajon said.“It’s not just the smoke they miss,” Jordi said of his homeland. “It’s the community, the people. Here we can create our own community. There is something behind this place — it’s a place people can sit together and talk politics, talk about their problems and talk about how to adapt to new culture.”More than 14,000 immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa live in the Metroplex, according to a Migration Policy Institute analysis.Yaser Afifa, 51, of Arlington said that he first came to Narah to spy on his older children, but when the environment reminded him of what he missed from back home, he became a regular himself.“It’s a place to get away from the house,” he said.A little smoke, a lot of studyingUniversity of Texas at Arlington students drive to hookah bars daily for a place to relax, eat flavorful food, smoke and study. The Narah Cafe, Kababji Mediterranean Grill & Cafe, Shisha Cafe and Shatila Restaurant sit so close to one another that they appear to zigzag down Pioneer Parkway, and they have no shortage of young faces.Though the hookah has its roots in cultural traditions of Middle Eastern and Arab peoples, it worked its popularity into the United States as early as the ’60s and the Arlington area as recent as 2006. Porcelain bowls sit atop tall water pipes and are filled with sticky, flavored tobacco. Hot coals heat tobacco that is turned into vaporized smoke billowing into cloudlike puffs.Customers can order the pipes with ice for a cool vapor feeling, but lately younger clients have asked for orange juice, milk or Red Bull in the base of the pipe for an extra kick.UT Arlington students tend to flock to Shisha and Shatila to study, and Narah, the first hookah place in the area to open, to party.Samir Alfaleh opened Narah in March 2006 and has expanded it to seat 240 people outside and 80 inside. On Saturday nights, local car dealers sit outside fervently playing cards while smoking, young couples share smoothies and dine by candlelight, friends drive from all over the Metroplex to meet, and families feast on favorites like kabobs, shawarma and lamb shanks.“The beautiful thing is there’s a lot of ethnicity here. Middle Easterners, African, Spanish … many clientele come for different reasons,” Alfaleh said.But Dalworthington Gardens and Pantego city officials aren’t necessarily on board. Alfaleh said code enforcement once shut down his place for eight months, citing minor infractions.Chad Joyce, Pantego’s community development director, previously appeared before the Planning and Zoning Commission asking for the amendment of smoking establishment regulations. The city wanted to make amendments “due to an increase in criminal activity and health concerns at three establishments,” but police produced statistics indicating that hookah bars aren’t the reason for crime nearby.Joyce did not return repeated phone calls from the Star-Telegram to discuss the issue.Destination areaAnother hookah spot down the road, Shisha, opened after Wael Shahin saved up enough money and experience to launch his own place. Shahin formerly worked for Alfaleh as the head chef at Narah.Narah’s owner said that businesswise it sometimes works to everyone’s benefit to have that kind of competition because it draws more people to the area.“When you are the first to establish something that no one else has … it becomes a destination,” Alfaleh said.Andrew Ballard, 21, is a Shisha regular. He started frequenting the place two years ago to meet with co-workers or friends to study, smoke and eat. Now he patronizes it three times a week from anywhere from one to four hours at a time.“I have ADHD, so this place helps me study and focus,” said Ballard, a junior kinesiology major at UT Arlington. “You don’t have to deal with drunken people, and the owner is real nice.”Mortada Salame, 20, also used to work at Narah as a server, but after his mom bought her own restaurant nearby, they opened Shatila Restaurant. Shatila doesn’t serve or allow alcohol because of their religious views, so Narah is the only place a young crowd can hang out, smoke, drink alcohol and eat.Sam Alsaad, 18, sees things a bit differently. Alsaad, an exercise science freshman at UTA, said that because Shatila doesn’t offer alcohol like Narah, it is more inviting to families and Muslims and provides a soothing environment.Kababji Mediterranean Grill & Cafe sits across the road and features buffet-style Middle Eastern cuisine on one side of the building and a closed-off hookah lounge on the other for people who don’t want to mix food with smoke.Whether it’s a place to call home, intermingle with people from other cultures, study or meet new people — hookah bars appear to be a Pioneer Parkway staple that aren’t going anywhere. “It’s about older cultures with the new generation working together,” Refai said.
Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792 Twitter:@MonicaNagyFWST