When Thaer Abuelhaija was a child, he would travel to visit his grandmother in Jordan. One of his strongest memories from those visits was watching her meet with her friends to smoke shisha.

“My grandmother used to sit in front of my grandfather’s grocery store to smoke,” he says. “Other women would come around her, and they would talk, socialize, and smoke shisha.”

Many years later, in 2019, that experience inspired him to open Diwan Arabian Cuisine and Lounge, a downtown shisha bar in Calgary that serves traditional Arabian food and shisha.

In the months since then, the lounge’s warm wood tables and authentic dishes have built a regular clientele that gathers to enjoy traditional entertainment such as belly-dancing along with smoking shisha.

Like Abuelhaija, other owners of these bars say that their establishments are an important part of their culture and community, disputing research that suggests otherwise. In addition, due to public health concerns, the City of Calgary is looking to end smoking in these establishments – even though they have already spent a large amount of money to ensure a safer environment. 

This is something one city councillor in Edmonton, which has already put in place a ban, says is unfair. Omar Hagar, the owner of Sahara Palace in Edmonton, agrees.

“We are saying it’s culture, the city hall is saying it’s not,” he says.  “We are talking to them, trying to describe what it is and what it really means to us, but they just say it’s not cultural,” Hagar says.

And that seems unfair to some.

Shisha questioned as culturally significant

In an interview with the Calgary Herald, Bader El-Rafih, the manager of Oxide Hookah, said, “The Muslim and Arab groups in Calgary don’t go to bars or smoke marijuana because it’s against their religion. So, what they do is go out to smoke water pipes and often it isn’t to smoke tobacco. But other diverse groups are allowed to drink or smoke weed.”

However, research conducted by a University of Alberta researcher suggests the belief that shisha is a cultural practice has been overstated.

In a letter sent to Calgary’s standing policy committee on community and protective services, Fadi Hammal, the senior research coordinator at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, stated that a survey of community workers in the city who have ties to Middle Eastern countries found that they “did not think that the spread of shisha had any connection with cultural practice.” 

In addition, Hammal stated, “A study conducted in the United States among students who smoke shisha and that have cultural ties to Middle Eastern countries, only four per cent of participants described shisha smoking as an important part of their culture.”

It is against this backdrop that the City of Calgary has been debating restricting shisha smoking due to public health concerns. 

Zero-tolerance to smoking proposed

In Alberta, smoking in most indoor places has been banned since 2007. However, some exceptions have been made for waterpipe smoking in cities, as individuals were unaware of the health implications at the time.

But Jon Dziadyk, the Ward 3 City Councillor for Edmonton, says health experts convinced his colleagues to take another look at those exceptions.

The Cancer Association came in to speak with the council and explained that, “inhaling anything is detrimental to health and they take pretty much a zero-tolerance approach,” he says. 

Edmonton city councillors passed a bylaw banning indoor shisha smoking in August 2019. This would give shisha bar owners a grace period until July 1, 2020 to have a shisha free establishment. 

Hagar says he did not know about the bylaw proposal until the night before. 

“Someone from the city came to drop off a letter, stating what would be happening with the ban,” he says. 

Meanwhile, in Calgary, city hall started discussing the possibility of banning indoor shisha smoking in June 2020 – a decision that councillors decided to delay in November until the provincial government finishes reviewing its own tobacco legislation.

Bylaws impose unreasonable costs 

But shisha owners say such bans are unfair because they have already had to install expensive equipment to meet ventilation requirements outlined in the Alberta Building Code.

“Our ventilation system cost us, just itself, around 70k to build,” Abuelhaija says. 

Hagar reveals his starting investment for the required ventilation system was $150,000.

“Make us spend the money, but now you want us to lose the money,” he says. 

Dziadyk says that he is against the way the by-law was implemented, suggesting that “[instead] there should have been tighter regulations around it.”

This has been seen as a discriminatory act by many of the customers of these shisha bars. Ekaterina Smirnova, one of the customers from Diwan, says “Implementing the bylaw would stop a tradition and way of life for certain people.”

Abuelhaija agrees and says that the government should take into consideration other cultures and practices. 

“Especially in Canada. Canada has been built on multicultural values. We need to respect the practice of other cultures.” says Abuelhaija.