Dancing with Hookahs

“A hookah lounge? No way,” my husband says.

“I thought you loved Middle Eastern cuisine. I hear they have the best baba ghannoush between here and Beirut.”

The phrase “hookah lounge” does evoke the image of a dark and smoky place, where a girl might be kidnapped and whisked off to harem duty in one of those countries with a name pronounced as if a jalapeño is stuck to the roof of your mouth.

If I can get that kind of excitement without leaving my own little tourist Mecca by the sea, by golly, I want it. And where is the fun in life if you can’t prove your spouse wrong, wrong, wrong? It’s obvious my hubby isn’t about to go willingly to a hookah lounge. And I haven’t stayed married to the same guy since Jimmy Carter was President, without knowing when to stuff a pita in it and bide my time.

So a week later I ask my friend and her main squeeze if they’d like to double date and check out a great new restaurant. “It’s called Zaytoon,” I say, “which is Arabic for olive.” These are great friends who love olives and are ready to try anything. So we set a date. This time I carefully avoid mentioning “hookah lounge” to anyone.

We arrive at Zaytoon on a balmy summer evening and discover that the restaurant is tucked behind a hedge and the dining area is in the backyard of an old cottage. The restaurant sign is small and obscured by eugenia leaves. So far, so good. My husband still doesn’t suspect a thing.

My friend’s fiancé points at an inferno at the center of our table. “Hey, do we get to roast our own kebabs?”

The fire-bedecked tables are arranged around a fountain and a pond. I’m relieved to see the water because the flames are real.

There’s a lemon tree growing near our table. We can add fresh juice to the tabouleh as needed.

Our waitress, Latifa, is a lovely young woman who looks a lot like a Turkish friend of mine. “Where’d you get your accent?” I ask.

She gives me one of those who-wants-to-know looks. “I’m an American from Washington, D.C., and I don’t have an accent.” That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.

Hoping to smooth things over, I grab the wine list as if I know what I’m doing. Unfortunately my favorite wine phrase is “anything under $8.99.” So our friends order a bottle of red, the price of which would’ve covered a month’s rent when I was in college.

Drinking pricey wine makes me happy for three reasons. One, the wine’s so good even I can tell it’s excellent. Two, these friends are the kind of fair-is-fair people who will insist on paying for the wine, just because they ordered it. Three, after a few more sips I’m sure I’ll find the courage to ask about the hookah lounge, which is nowhere in sight.

We eat too much food, drink too much wine, and when it seems things just can’t get any better, a fabulous guitarist begins to play. I know as much about guitar music as I do about wine, but this sounds like flamingo…er…I mean flamenco. I wonder why they’d have Spanish music at a Middle Eastern restaurant. Maybe the Moorish influence? That must be it. The wine seems to be improving my education.

We’re already having more fun than seems possible, but I’m not leaving without getting an incriminating photo of my hubby having fun with a hookah.

When the waitress returns to see if we want coffee and dessert, I ask, “So where exactly is that hookah lounge?”

Latifa, with her exotic Washington, D.C. accent, is ready for us. She whips out the tobacco list – $14.95 to smoke a bowlful of fruit-flavored tobacco. We get to pick the fruit, but even if we could decide between apricot and double apple, none of us smokes. However, we still want to see what it would be like. “Can we order a virgin hookah?” I ask.

Our waitress wrinkles her brow. “You want to smoke, but no tobacco? No problem.” She leaves and returns with a three-foot-tall contraption right out of Alice In Wonderland. Apparently, we’ve been in the hookah lounge all along.

My friend and I take virgin tokes, dancing in our chairs to the flamenco guitar, putting our right shoulders in, our right shoulders out, and doing something we like to call the hookah pookah.