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Hookah Lounge Owner Nebil Mohammed Won’t Give Up

He’ll continue to create community, despite mayor Ed Murray’s vow to shut down Seattle’s hookah lounges.

By Matthew Halverson November 2, 2015 Published in the November 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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Nebil Mohammed photographed at Medina Hookah Lounge in Chinatown, September 15, 2015.

Image: Andrew Waits

When Nebil Mohammed opened Medina Hookah Lounge in 2010, he thought he knew what he was getting into. Four years earlier the successful passage of Initiative 901 outlawed smoking indoors, but a friend at a licensing office told him that if he operated as a private club—accessible only to dues-paying members—he should be in the clear. And he was, until this August. Less than two weeks after community leader Donnie Chin was shot near a hookah lounge in the International District, mayor Ed Murray announced a plan to shut down all 11 of the city’s hookah clubs, claiming that they attract gang violence. But Mohammed—who as of late September was still operating—says he’s only out to attract one thing: community. —Matthew Halverson

I grew up in Addis Ababa,
the capital city of Ethiopia, until I was 14 or 15. My family is not privileged, but my dad worked hard. He was an entrepreneur. And he had respect on every level. You could feel his presence.

My mom and dad divorced when I was five years old. He wanted to marry another wife, and she said no because she is very liberal and feminist. After that she emigrated here. I can vividly remember the day she left. She would go to the other side of the country often to manage my dad’s businesses when he was not there. But the day she left for America I remember because she told us to come sleep with her the night before. It was different. I could feel she was not coming back.

I came to the United States in 2001. February or something like that. My dad did not want to let me go, but I did not like our stepmom. It’s not so much that I didn’t want to be in Ethiopia. It was great. I loved my friends. I loved my surroundings. It was just so I could be away from her, you know?

I was a very popular kid back in Ethiopia. And I came here, and I was trying to talk to people, and they would ignore me because they had their own cliques. I’m not attention seeking, but when you don’t have friends it’s kind of frustrating.

The West has lost the sense of community. I remember driving down Aurora after moving here, and I didn’t see any people walking. Whereas in my country or the Middle East, the streets are just bustling.

Once I was done with high school I had good grades, and I also had a scholarship to go to Seattle University. But my dad passed away at the same time—it was a car accident—so I had to go back home. When I came back I had lost my scholarship. I loved reading and I always wanted to educate myself. But at the same time, I hated school, going through that system. So I just said, “You know what, I need to start something.”

Hookah has always been around my household. My great-grandmother, she smoked a hookah, but it was a different kind. Now you see all kinds of flavors. Before it was so stuffy that it had to be kept outside. There was a huge hose that came out of the hookah, like six or seven feet.

Muslim youth, we don’t go out to clubs or bars. And if we do, we’re always hiding it from our elders. It’s taboo. So I felt like there is a need for a place for us to come in and hang out. Over there in the Middle East, what they do is they sit down in a hookah lounge and they just play board games or cards. It’s like a barbershop where people argue about anything and everything. So I felt like that’s what we need here.

It took me a year to find a space. For nine months I did not work. I was just driving and looking. There were a lot of places that were for lease at the time, but everybody was like, “No no no.” Finally I decided, “You know what, I’ll just come here, to Chinatown, Seventh and Dearborn, and I’ll take my chances.” 

I’ll tell you a story. This guy—very nice guy—comes here all the time. He has a chronic illness, and since he was three years old he’s been told he was going to die. When this thing happened, he said to me, “You know, they say they’re going to close this place down. But they’re not looking at the other side. Why do you think I come here? If I sit at home without nobody, all I think is, I’m going to die. When I come here and play board games and talk to people, I’m human.”

I’m not arguing that smoking is good for you. No one would argue that. But eating fast food is not good for you. The tanning salons are not good for you. Alcohol is really bad for you, because your liver will fail.

I’ll guarantee you one thing: They would never do this to a cigar lounge. Because who goes there? Mostly privileged, older white folks who are rich. They want to smoke their cigar and hang out with their whiskey. Here, we’re just smoking hookah.

I voted for McGinn, even though I hated his bicycle stuff. But at least he was coming to our community and connecting with our people. I didn’t know who Murray was. I just knew he comes from Olympia, and I’m not a big fan of politicians.

What will I do if they shut me down? Life goes on. And I would still try to open another hookah lounge. I have to defy them.

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