Aria Khosravi trudged into King Tut’s and was instantly hooked.
“I couldn’t believe the fun I was having without alcohol,” the junior speech communications major said about his first trip to a hookah bar, King Tut’s in Phoenix.
“That’s what got me going.”
Khosravi, along with Alan Blue, both 23, opened Narghile Nights, 621 S. College Ave., in February.
The bar enjoys an eclectic variety of customers – members of the military, the Middle Eastern community, college students and even students’ parents curious about what goes on in a hookah bar, Khosravi said.
“They play their music and they dance,” he said of the large Saudi Arabian customer base. “It makes for an interesting experience.”
A hookah is a large pipe that works as a water-filtration device and allows its users to smoke flavored tobacco. It could also be used to smoke marijuana.
Hookah bars have popped up throughout the United States, mostly near college campuses.
Khosravi is half Iranian and grew up around hookahs.
It’s not exactly clear where hookahs originated. Some say India or Turkey, others the Middle East.
Regardless, hookahs are clearly popular in the modern Middle East, Khosravi said.
“It’s kind of like our alcohol bars here,” he said. “In some places like Saudi Arabia, they’re not allowed to drink, so they smoke.”
Narghile Nights is popular with the younger crowd, many of whom are too young to legally drink alcohol.
On Monday – Labor Day – dozens of young patrons relaxed in rooms teeming with smoke. A blue lamp light stood in the corner as Middle Eastern music floated throughout the bar.
Khosravi and Blue, good friends since high school, both plan on quitting their current jobs at Wells Fargo to focus on Narghile Nights, which now has 8 employees in addition to the pair.
The retail tobacco business sells 40 flavors of tobacco, and hookahs, too.
“You could take home the hookah that you smoked from that night,” he said. “We’ve had that before.”
Khosravi said people are attracted to hookah bars for a variety of reasons.
“It’s the whole kind of Starbucks feel to it, it’s a place you’d go after work or school to hang out,” he said. “It’s a controlled atmosphere. It’s not like a bar where you’ve got drunk guys after you or your girlfriend.”
And then there’s the physiological buzz, which, like other substances such as conventional tobacco, marijuana or alcohol, affects people in different ways.
The effect one feels depends of several factors, including how much alcohol or food one has consumed.
“It’s fun, it’s relaxing and it’s a good alternative to drinking,” said Sara Grasmick, a freshman business major on Tuesday night. “It prevents drinking and driving.”
But for Khosravi, one point of satisfaction that rises above all else is the positive portrayal of Middle Eastern culture, something that he laments just doesn’t get enough attention.
“The Middle East has been portrayed very negatively, especially lately,” he said.
“Some of these guys are getting such a bad rap. I see them every night of the week and these are some of the biggest teddy bears and nicest guys you’ll ever meet. People can come here and see the lighter side of what Middle Eastern culture is all about.”
For Jesse Widegren, it was more about the atmosphere than anything else. The freshman nutrition major sat among several of his friends Tuesday night as the City Council meeting unfolded blocks away.
It was his first time, but he said he’s definitely returning soon.
“I mean, the lights are low, I’m hanging out with friends, having a good time,” he said, smoking fuzzy navel flavored tobacco.
He paused a moment, adding: “And the hot babes working at the front desk.”
Editor in chief Brandon Lowrey contributed to this story.
News Managing Editor Vimal Patel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org