A ban on smoking in enclosed spaces in England may force many shisha cafes to shut down

Edgware Road in north London smells very different than it did a day ago.

Walking along on Saturday, one had to fight through the throngs of Middle Easterners who frequent the popular district of the city.

Boys who look far too young to be driving were cruising in their Mercedes Benz as if they were on Beirut's famous corniche.

Arabs who flocked to the cafes could sample a slice of Damascus or Cairo in the heart of London. The aromas - usually apple-flavoured tobacco, but sometimes watermelon, or strawberry - could be smelt from almost every restaurant, every cafe.

The area had come to be known as the 23rd Arab state with Arabic very nearly its official language.

But Edgware Road's Middle Eastern allure could now fade into a pipe dream.

Bubbly no more

On Sunday Patrons of this popular district's cafes seem to be in a sense of limbo and inside seating areas are largely bereft of young Arabs and a usually crowded street is calm and subdued.

Cafe owners and community leaders blame a smoking ban which went into effect on Sunday.

Goodbye shisha?

In video: Ibrahim el-Nour has made it his mission to save shisha

They say it has sparked fears of an end to London's "shisha street" and could lead to tensions between British Arabs and the government.

Ibrahim El-Nour, a campaigner who called for shisha to be exempt from new anti-smoking laws, goes as far as to say the renewed sense of tension "will have the same impact as the Iraq war."

He told Al Jazeera: "Arabs see it as an intrusion in their culture, the dismantling of their community venues."

El-Nour's Save the Shisha campaign hoped to convince the government that shisha, or hubble-bubble - a water-pipe used to smoke flavoured tobacco - was a cultural alternative to pubs for Muslims who do not drink.

He said: "The Arabs here see the government as disregarding the whole of the community."

But the government is not budging. The law, which went into effect at 6am on Sunday, is designed to protect non-smokers in restaurants and bars from the effects of nicotine.

The Department of Health says shisha cafe owners had their chance to get involved in the public consultations and forums last year. The government insists it gave copies of the proposals to community representatives, but they did not reply.

Medical debate

Dr Martin Jarvis, health psychology professor from London's University College, supports the government's findings that the evidence against the effects of shisha is mounting.

"When you take the shisha out, it is like taking drinks out of a pub"

Shisha cafe owner

He said: "Cigarette users take about nine or 10 puffs, they take in up to about half a litre of smoke. With a water-pipe, an episode of smoking may take anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour and it's estimated you can puff up to 600 litres of smoke over that period."

But it is not just the length of time that worries Jarvis.

"When you smoke a water-pipe, you get most of the same toxins as you get from smoking a cigarette," he said.

Scientific evidence shows that shisha users could be directly inhaling all the toxins that come from burning the charcoal and that includes a lot of harmful gases like carbon monoxide.

El-Nour rejects claims that the shisha poses a significant health risk and says that it is not addictive.

Meanwhile, the shisha houses of Edgware Road insist the fight is not over. They are calling for a judicial review of the new rules.

But if that does not happen soon, cafe owners say they may be forced to shut down the popular spots because shisha makes up about 90 per cent of their income.

They have called the ban a wipe-out for the district.

One owner said: "When you take the shisha out, it is like taking drinks out of a pub."

Uninformed public

When a handful of Arabs made their way to Palms Place, one of the popular shisha houses on Edgeware Road on Sunday afternoon, they were told they could smoke provided they did so outside.

A handful of devotees didn't seem to mind and within minutes were puffing away on pavement tables overlooking the street.

An old Iraqi man sitting on a bench and puffing on an apple-flavoured pipe said he was stunned to discover that the government had banned the shisha in public places.

No one had told him, he said dismissively, before taking another sip of his tea.

Samy, a young Arab visitor, said: "Where else can we go but here - we can't go to pubs. This is our music, this is our place, and this is part of our culture."

Source: Al Jazeera