When Amr Abbas immigrated to this country from Egypt, the 21-year-old brought with him a green card, suitcase and $100 from his mother. Four years later in 2000, Abbas moved to Buffalo, where he would marry, start a family and eventually operate three sheesha lounges.
While the concept of smoking dried fruit leaves mixed with molasses through a hookah may appear foreign to many of us, Abbas is committed to introducing this Turkish-born form of socialization to our area. His Habibi Sheesha Lounges in Amherst, Niagara Falls and the Elmwood Village offer patrons the chance to smoke and make friends amid a backdrop of belly dancers, DJs and live music.
Habibi, the name he chose to brand his business, is an Arabic word that means sweetheart or love.
Abbas and his wife live in Williamsville with their two children: Samie, 7, and Amira, 10.
People Talk: Tell me about the Cadillac of hookahs.
Amr Abbas: Khalil Mamoon makes the No. 1 selling hookah in the world, handcrafted in Egypt. The most important part of the hookah is the hose. It has to be well-crafted to keep the flavor in it and also so it doesn’t rust. This hookah is heavy. The made-in-China hookahs are really light. I have 100 hookahs, and every single one of them is cleaned with a vacuum daily.
PT: Does it get smoky in here?
AA: No, because I have two huge filtration systems that take all the smoke. But hookah smoke is unlike cigarette smoke. It does not linger in the air.
PT: Do you smoke cigarettes?
AA: No, I hate them. If I smell cigarettes from across the street, my chest contracts. I don’t want to smoke anything that smells bad. It stinks and it stays on your hair, on your clothes. You can be here all night and leave and not stink.
PT: Is there nicotine in hookah tobacco?
AA: There’s 0.05 percent per kilo. That’s less than half a percent. The whole thing about this is it’s like a cigar. When you smoke hookah, you don’t do it for the purpose of smoking. A lot of people don’t even inhale, but they get the flavor of the fruits. We socialize just like you do over a beer or wine and a cigar. This is not just a smoking buzz. For Arabs, this is our beer.
PT: Why don’t you serve alcohol?
AA: It’s against the law. In Manhattan, it’s different because the hookah lounges are grandfathered in if you had the lounge prior to the law being changed about eight years ago. It’s the same law that prohibited people from smoking in bars. We also cannot prepare food here. But we have menus from Casa di Pizza and Nektar. You can sit, order food and they bring it to you.
PT: What is New York City like to a newly arrived immigrant?
AA: I couldn’t buy a friend in New York City when I first moved. It was so hard, and obviously I couldn’t find a job because my résumé was half a page. That was 1996. It was rough in the beginning, but I love New York City now. I’m more mature. Going to London was my saving grace, and then I moved to Seattle. I became a financial planner and moved to Buffalo and got my MBA from Medaille College. I also worked in pharmaceutical sales from 2003 till last February.
PT: Was it a hard sell?
AA: Elmwood only. Hookah was introduced to America in the early 1900s by Turkish immigrants – just like belly dancing. Most people don’t know that. I have musical artists perform for the belly dancers. Hookah and belly dancing go hand in hand.
PT: Buffalo has a reputation of being a drinking town, don’t you know?
AA: It is, but I believed in my heart that there is a certain percentage of people who want to go out without being in a bar. They may want to go out and have one or two glasses of wine and then they want to party somewhere else. I had the vision in my mind that I wanted to have a nightclub, not just a hookah lounge.
PT: Is that why you have an after-hours party on weekends?
AA: It’s not just after-hours. The nightclub atmosphere starts at 11 p.m. and runs until 6 in the morning. All the lights are dimmed. All the laser lights I have go. The DJs, belly dancing.
PT: Aren’t people drunk when they come here after 4 a.m.?
AA: Not really, and if some do I have my security. I can tell you something. They leave sober, every single one of them when it’s 6 or 6:15 and light outside. I could open 24 hours if I want to. I don’t have booze. Every Wednesday I have sheesha and soul.