My Journey to New Delhi

Illustration by Ryan Snook

“Have you ever smoked hookah?” my 19-year-old son asked me not long ago.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. It was one of those unsettling parental moments when a father must resist the urge to chide his child, now an adult, about unhealthy habits. That urge was complicated by my not actually knowing much about the health effects of smoking a hookah pipe. I also felt that parental twinge of chagrin at lacking a worldly experience one’s teenager can oh-so-knowingly claim. Add to the mix an even sharper twinge of curiosity about what it’s like to smoke a hookah, and you have a sense of my confusion. I had seen photos of my sons on their Facebook pages, huffing a hookah at the Clifton cafés with their college friends, viewing them with interest and a bit of, OK, horror.  

With that weird weave of emotions knotting in my throat, I came clean. “No, I’ve never smoked one,” I said.  
My son then told me about a brand new hookah café that just opened in Delhi.

“In Delhi?” was all I could manage to say. I can think of no place on earth less likely to host a hookah lounge. True, the township’s name has an antecedent in India, where some historians believe the hookah pipe was invented, but that’s where the similarity ends. Insular, conservative, and formidably suburban, Delhi prides itself on trim lawns, safe streets, and minding its own damn business. Around these parts, the name is pronounced DELL-high, as opposed to the more mellifluous DELL-ee, an alteration that sort of sums up why it’s such an unlikely home for an exotic ritual that is suddenly hip. Having lived many years on the west side I have cherished memories of the place, but a setting for trendiness it ain’t—unless things there are changing. Perhaps Sahara Café heralds a new beginning. If so, I needed to see that for myself—to find out how and why someone would be compelled to smoke a hookah. And, most of all, why one would do it in Delhi.
 
Though Delhi Township boasts more than 30,000 residents, people outside its borders generally don’t hear a lot about it. Locked deep at the southern end of the west side with no easy interstate access, Delhi is a quiet, if sprawling, suburb where little of wider interest happens. Its rolling hills, once dotted with small farms, exploded into endless, winding, suburban streets in the baby-boom years, creating a rather homogenous area where, as a friend and long-time resident once told me, you could get lost in a helicopter.

The main reason why someone from any other part of town would make the trek would be for the College of Mount St. Joseph, which is located on the southwestern side of the township. With an enrollment of roughly 2,300 students, Mount St. Joe is a small, pretty campus, but like Delhi itself, isolated and somewhat subdued. The township’s signature event is the annual Delhi Skirt Game, in which burly members of the fire department and athletic association dress up in drag and play softball to raise money for various causes. Begun in 1977, the Skirt Game draws quite a crowd, which provides a sense of the area’s gestalt; in other words, Delhi is the kind of place where this type of entertainment would be a big hit.

In the more distant past, Delhi was a rural community best known for its production of flowers. According to Peg Schmidt at the Delhi Historical Society, the area once featured 55 greenhouses and in the 1890s attracted the annual meeting of the National Horticultural Society to the area. At the time, Cincinnati’s branch of the society was made up mostly of Delhi growers. Though the number of greenhouses has dwindled to eight, Delhi still calls itself  “The Floral Paradise of Ohio.” The nickname was coined, according to Schmidt, by a trade publication in the 1920s or ’30s and “it stuck.” While it must be tough for a community to give up such attractive branding, the moniker no longer seems quite apt. Even the Delhi Flower and Garden Center, which opened in 1960, has fled for richer ground in Springdale and Liberty Township.

It seems that there’s been a whole lotta fleeing going on. As I drive along Delhi Road, the area’s main artery (and still called Delhi Pike by many locals), it’s impossible not to notice that New Delhi is struggling through tough times. This road was once a bustling cacophony of commerce, packed with chain restaurants and groceries and department stores with plenty of local purveyors included in the mix. Now the strip malls here are hurting.

The retail hub throughout the boom years was Del-Fair Shopping Center, which opened in the mid-1950s on the corner of Anderson Ferry Road and the pike. Though it’s not yet seven o’clock when I pull into the parking lot, the place is mostly dark. The largest anchor store—a former Thriftway that takes up a quarter of the entire mall—is empty. The space now hosts a haunted-house venue called “Dungeons of Delhi” during Halloween season. The middle anchor space also is empty, as are a few of the smaller spaces. A Fashion Bug and a McCabe Do-It Center valiantly remain, surrounded by a locksmith, a check-cashing store, and not much else. In its heyday, the shopping center was known best as the home of Del-Fair Bowling Lanes, located in the basement—34 lanes, a long bar, a restaurant, and a wide, carpeted concourse. In August, after 54 years in business, the lanes shut down.

Del-Fair Lanes was woven into Delhi’s culture; few local businesses or venues epitomized the area more completely. Life-long resident Bob Dinsmore was sorry to see it go. “It was a big icon for the community,” he says now. The loss was even bigger for Dinsmore because his father, Thomas, was one of the original owners. They sold it in the late 1970s, though the family continued to frequent the place. “We were going to start a league again if they hadn’t closed,” Bob told me.

Though his father, who passed away in late 2009 at the age of 93, had been out of the business for many years, Dinsmore says he remained interested in the bowling demimonde and watched it erode as the old-guard promoters died or moved on. The economy has hit the industry hard. Owners of bowling centers have, not surprisingly, decried the state smoking bans, which they felt would be tougher on them than on bars and restaurants, where customers can simply step outside for a smoke. Bowlers, however, have to change their shoes to leave.

I contacted several officials in the industry but couldn’t get anyone to return calls or e-mails to verify how the ban has affected their business. Articles in industry publications and on Web sites tell a mixed tale. Some say that smoking bans have hurt; others say they helped, drawing in a different clientele. Either way, the irony was painfully obvious, at least to me: While one iconic Delhi gathering place had closed in part because of the smoking ban, another gathering place that explicitly focused on smoking had opened. And was alive and well.

Traffic boils along the pike, which is brightly lit by signs for fast-food chains. The strip malls sit back behind the restaurants, and I pull into Delhi Shopping Center, younger than Del-Fair by at least 20 years, hoping that the economic situation is better there. I see right away that competition is brisk. Three of the largest stores all wear bright banners on their marquees proclaiming “Space Available.”   

Feeling sort of depressed about the state of New Delhi, I head farther down the pike to Delhi Plaza but (sadly) find the situation much the same. The largest anchor space is closed, leaving only a few going concerns—Cash Plus, Total Tan, Miracle Dance Theatre, RadioShack, KeyBank. The heavy traffic would lead one to believe the area is thriving, except that Delhites appear to spend their money only on fast food.

I scoured the Internet trying to dig up some reaction to these changes but found instead a Facebook page called “I Grew Up in Delhi” that has attracted more than 2,000 members, mostly baby boomers waxing nostalgic about their youth. Though it seems that a number of the posters still live in the area, none expressed more than wistful dismay at the current state of things. They mention numerous defunct stores and restaurants, but no one had mentioned the new hookah lounge—or much of anything that has happened in the past 20 years. The purpose of the page is sentimental recollection, I know. But you’d think there would be at least a stray comment or two on the present situation. I began to feel nervous as I read the posts, wondering if the area had become largely theoretical, a geographical place that had once existed rather than a living, breathing neighborhood adapting to the world we live in today.

That world, it turns out, includes the enjoyment of smoking hookah, and I am eager to find out more about it as I pull into the parking lot of Sahara Café, just past Greenwell Avenue. The café occupies a small building that must have been a house at some point in its history. More recently it was Perk on the Pike, a coffeehouse that succumbed to the recession.

I wasn’t sure what I expected—maybe something more along the lines of the hookah cafés in Clifton, which are dark and have a nightclub ambiance. Here the atmosphere was, well, more like the coffee shop it replaced. Inside, Middle Eastern music undulates softly through two rooms filled with matching tables and chairs arranged on polished hardwood floors. A stone fireplace fronts one wall and rugs depicting Middle Eastern temples hang on two of the other walls. I am alone except for a pair of college-age women sitting in a corner, a hookah between them. (Before you ask about Ohio’s smoking ban, yes, this is all perfectly legal. A business can request an exemption from the ban if at least 80 percent of its sales are related to tobacco—which basically means hookah cafés and tobacconists. However, they must re-apply for that exemption annually and must occupy a free-standing building.)

Historians are undecided about when and where the hookah pipe came into existence. India, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey lay claim to developing the ritual of smoking the pipe, which is also known by a variety of names, including narghile, and in Pakistan, huqqa. Some cite the origin in India in the late 15th century but believe the pipe was refined and popularized in Turkey in the mid-16th century, quickly becoming part of what shishapipe.net calls “the coffee shop culture.” A large part of its appeal was as a social custom, with people gathering around the pipe to talk, much as they would at a bar or coffee house today.

As I sit down at a table, the owner, Maher Baira, slides a menu in front of me. He looks to be in his 30s, a slim, dark-haired guy who speaks with a heavy accent that I learn later is Syrian. The names on the menu sound like cocktails—fuzzy navel, piña colada, cosmopolitan, apple martini. But no alcohol is served here. Those are the flavors of shisha, a leafy, sticky paste made of tobacco, honey, and ground-up dried fruit.

I have no idea what to order until my sons arrive to enlighten their unhip dad on the subtleties of this ritual. We get strawberry daiquiri shisha with a small, cored watermelon placed around the bowl of the pipe to add extra flavor. The shisha is stuffed into the bowl and covered with aluminum foil. Hot round coals are placed on top of the foil to heat the shisha. When the smoker inhales through a thin hose, the smoke is drawn through cold water, which burbles as it releases the smoke up the hose. Unlike with cigars and cigarettes, the smoke from a hookah is not at all harsh. Instead, it’s cool and mildly sweet, a pleasant sensation.  

My sons lean back and cluck perfect smoke rings into the air above us, which I admit is a bit disconcerting, but I guess that’s part of my journey to New Delhi. We sit and chat, passing around the hose. Sahara Café slowly fills with young people. Maher greets most of them in a familiar way, suggesting that they are regular customers.

Later, I ask him why he picked Delhi to open his café. He says a friend owns one of the Clifton cafés, and he didn’t want to compete with him. In Delhi, competition obviously isn’t an issue; he’s got the entire west side to himself. Raised in Syria and Lebanon, Baira moved to the U.S. in 1990. He attended schools in various parts of the country, including, for nearly two years, Mount St. Joe. During that time he lived in Delhi, so he’s familiar with the terrain.

“All the people here were good to me even though my English was not so good then,” he explains. As for the local reaction to his new cafe, he says people are curious about it. “They’ve heard of hookah, but they say, ‘What does it do?’” Located just a couple of miles down the pike from Mount St. Joe, Sahara attracts college students, but since he opened in late September, Baira says he has attracted older folks, too, who come in for coffee or for his spiced Arabian tea, one of the house specialties, and they find themselves trying the hookah. “You don’t have to be a smoker to smoke a hookah,” Baira says. “It’s a totally different thing.”

Smoking hookah is a long-standing tradition in the Middle East, with a café “on every corner,” Baira tells me. In the U.S., it started to catch on about a decade ago on the West Coast and has since spread east. As for why it has become popular, people seem to enjoy the serene feeling they get from the ritual. “People like to sit and smoke and relax,” he says. I’ve heard college kids talk a lot about the relaxing effects of smoking hookah, but I see every customer drinking coffee or tea or Red Bull or Mountain Dew. I’m not sure how relaxed they can feel with all that caffeine plowing through their bodies, though the mood in the café is mellow.

Baira thinks that college students like smoking hookah because it’s something new, something they haven’t been around before. My theory is that the ritual of smoking an exotic pipe smacks of something illegal without the actual threat of arrest. More sensual and sophisticated than doing bong hits in a messy dorm room (not that college students ever do that), smoking hookah conjures images of opium dens in foreign lands, of being avant garde and cosmopolitan, while the resulting sensation is merely soothing.

After a couple of hours have drifted past, I head out the door, leaving my sons and their friends to enjoy their latest cool spot, which is, if not crowded, certainly attracting customers. “We’re getting by,” Baira says. “Week after week it gets a little better. Little bit by little bit.”

I hope his assessment applies to all of Delhi. Part of the problem here is simply the state of the economy. The other issue is that Delhi really isn’t new anymore. Just as it is no longer the floral paradise of Ohio, it’s no longer the place where the folks on “I Grew Up in Delhi” grew up. Many of them have moved on—to other cities and states, to the fresh green world of Butler County, or to the suburbs sprouting up farther west, where their children are gathering new memories. Meanwhile Delhi forges ahead, building its next life, as do we all.

Originally published in the January 2011 issue.

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