Bathed in the aroma of fruit-scented tobacco, the gurgle of water-pipes and Arabic music videos, France's shisha bars may be forced to close when a new smoking ban kicks in on January 1.
The 800 shisha bars -- half of which are in the Paris region -- will be joining tens of thousands of cafes, bars and restaurants where smoking will be banned under a law already enforced in workplaces and other public areas.
Advertisement"There are rumours that we will have to close, but nothing is clear," said Ali Arfa, owner of the Blue Diamond shisha bar in central Paris.
"The situation is confused and no one knows what is going on," said Arfa, seated with two friends in a packed room of his bar, painted in cobalt blue.
The number of tea shops offering the Oriental-style water pipes, used for smoking hookah, has more than doubled in France since 2000 as the trend caught on in the North African community and beyond.
The first bars were opened by Middle East businessmen about a decade ago and offer tea and hookah-pipe smoking, but no alcohol.
About 200 bar owners formed the Union of Hookah-Pipe Professionals (UPN) in February to fight the ban and seek an arrangement like the one in the Canadian province of Quebec where hookah-pipe bars were spared for cultural reasons from a smoking ban adopted last year.
UPN president Badri Helou has said that his members plan to ignore the ban and keep offering puffs on the hookah-pipes along with tea. They are ready to take the government to court if the smoking ban is enforced in shisha bars.
Helou said converting shisha bars into tea rooms without hookah-pipes was not an option.
"Our business revolves around hookah tobacco. Tea is a sideline. It's as if a movie theatre owner was told to stop showing films but that he could still sell popcorn," said Helou.
The UPN has said that a provision of the anti-tobacco legislation allowing the creation of a sealed-off smoking section over one fifth of a bar's area was "inapplicable" for hookah-pipe bars.
Eleven months after smoking was outlawed in workplaces, schools, hospitals and shops, the ban is to be extended to cafes, bars and nightclubs on January 1, with the government warning that there will be no exemptions.
Inhaling deeply on his pipe, Nader Najah said he enjoyed hookah-pipe smoking and did not want to lose what he considers to be a wholesome recreational activity.
"I come here every day before going home to Drancy", an ethnically-mixed Paris suburb. "It's like going back to the home country."
Najah criticised the French government for failing to exempt the shisha bars from the ban. "We feel like we are being forgotten," he said, echoing the views of many customers at the Blue Diamond.
Mounder Karim, manager of the Jumeyrah shisha bar in Paris' eastern district, said he had just started to break even with his business after a first startup year.
"We thought we would not be affected" by the smoking ban, said Karim. "But in fact, we are the only business sector that is 100 percent hit" by the measure.
According to experts, hookah-pipe smoke is less irritant and contains less nicotine than cigarettes -- but they warn it remains a toxic substance, and that for the sheer amount of smoke inhaled, one pipe amounts to 40 cigarettes.