Hookah is a Middle Eastern tradition in which a person smokes flavored tobacco through a water pipe. Only pure leaf tobacco is used that have been flavored with molasses and fruit, much the way that hard candy is made. Tobacco is held in a small bowl at the top of the pipe, and a hot coal is placed above the tobacco. When a person inhales through the hose, smoke is pulled through the pipe to a water reservoir at the base of the pipe, where it is cooled. This leaves the smoke with a cool, smooth, fruity sensation that feels more like water vapor than smoke.
Eastown Hookah Lounge was started by Emad Shatara and some family members in 2005, though he took over the lounge in 2008. A year and a half later, in 2009, Shatara opened a Hookah Lounge in Kalamazoo near Western Michigan University. While hookah is popular across the country, especially in college towns and areas with a large Middle Eastern population, Shatara noticed a lack of establishments offering hookahs in West Michigan. “In Detroit and California, they were all over the place,” said Shatara. “As far as Grand Rapids, we didn’t have anything like that.” Shatara took it upon himself to fill that void, but with a little twist.
Traditional hookah lounges are furnished with tables and chairs, the furniture merely providing surfaces upon which to smoke hookah. However, Shatara wanted to make it a little more comfortable. “I got a better idea,” said Shatara. “We’ll bring out couches. It’s more of a lounge.” The couches are placed close together allowing patrons to sit close and enjoy each other’s company. Large flat screen TVs are hung on the walls and an electronic juke box ensures that tunes are always pumping.
The smoking ban that has passed recently in Michigan certainly affected the Hookah Lounge, detracting 35-40% of their revenue, Shatar said. While some businesses such as cigar lounges were exempt from the law thanks to lobbyists, hookah lounges were not prominent enough to get their voices heard. While able to be grandfathered in, Shatar was faced with some decisions. Forced to choose between selling hookah or food and specialty beverages, the choice was easy. “We are a hookah lounge,” Shatar said. Although the lounge once featured a food menu and specialty coffee and tea beverages, it is now restricted to just selling canned beverages, featuring relaxation drinks such as “Drank.”
The Smokin’ Spokin’ Word poetry night began in early 2009. A high school friend of Shatara, a poet who goes by Token Blaq Poet, had been performing poetry at various businesses around town. However, those locations suffered under the economic situation and had to close their doors, leaving Token Blaq without a location for his poetry nights. Shatara decided to open the doors of the Hookah Lounge to him and other likeminded poets, giving them a place to express their craft.
The talent present at Smokin’ Spokin’ Word comes largely from the Grand Rapids community. While Token Blaq and other established poets from the area relish in the opportunity to share their work, beginning poets also are welcome to take the stage. Some perform pieces that they have memorized while others approach the stage with a notebook of freshly written lines. Some poems are reminiscent of rap lyrics, allowing the poet to quickly recite intricate rhyme schemes to a sort of rhythm, whereas others are more free-verse. Some poets perform their pieces with energy and fervor while others prefer to simply read their pieces. “It’s random. That’s what makes this nice,” said Shatar. “It’s not generated to one group of people. It’s open mic to everybody.”
While drawing deeply from the poetry talent in the Grand Rapids area, the Hookah Lounge has also brought in a number of nationally renowned poets, including some featured on Def Jam Poetry. Most recently, Xplicit, a poet from St. Louis, Missouri, attended on July 20th. Due to limited resources, some more well-known poets are unable to be booked, but Blaq’s connections in the poetry world has had some pull.
There is no cover charge for Smokin’ Spokin’ Word, though there is a strict age limit of 18+, and each patron is required to buy an item. “We get our regulars who just want to come in and chill and the spoken word thing is a bonus to them,” said Shatar. “That is why we don’t charge a cover.”
The hookah is reasonably priced, starting at just 10 dollars for a hookah that can serve up to three people. Simple mathematics then show that if you bring 2 other people and share a hookah, you can enjoy an evening of poetry for merely three dollars and thirty three cents per person. That is a almost one-third of the price of an evening movie! So come on in for Smokin’ Spokin’ Word on Wednesday evenings. The show starts at 9:30p.m., though you should probably get there a little early as seating is limited.
They’ll leave the smoke on for you. ~Chad Cramblet, Regional Director
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