The sun is going down on a miserable wet day on Steinway Street in Astoria. It’s the first properly cold day of the fall, and the flat sunlight that spent all day fighting its way through thick cloud is bleeding out of the sky quickly. It’s a lifeless kind of day, and yet the interior of Rotana, a hookah lounge in the heart of Little Egypt, is warm and enveloping, filled with the murmur of comfortable laughter.
Rotana is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its clientele are mainly Middle Eastern and Afro-Arab, many of whom seem capable of playing with their phones and iPods at the same time as holding intent conversation. Very little English can be heard: the four young men working this evening communicate to non-Arabic speakers mostly in smiles. Rotana’s operating hours may be a nod to the non-stop nature of New York City, but as plumes of hookah smoke fill the dim lounge it’s almost possible to imagine you’re in a maqhaa – cafe – down a shaded street in some Egyptian market town.
This place is certainly a contrast to the blaring dance music and LED lights of the surrounding hookah joints. Here, bells, drums and a warbling male voice emanate from the 80s sound system standing against the wall. A waiter can be heard bustling behind the bar and the sounds of running water and the whirr of a coffee machine are soon competing with the music. There is a strip of string lights running underneath the edge of the bar and wall lights throughout the room pulse soft pinks, blues and oranges. Though the lights cast a long glow, overall the bar is so dim that even the grey street outside seems bright.
Fake orchids and desert scenes adorn the walls. The brightest object in the whole cafe is the glare of the soccer match on four flat screen TVs in each corner of the lounge: Atletico Madrid are playing Malaga and the score has been 2-2 for a while. Every time the red and white clad AT Madrid players advance up the pitch one of the waiters starts tapping the side of the bar and bouncing on the balls of his feet.
His is the most active presence in the café; it is mostly couples here this evening, lounging together with their arms spread across the backs of the couches and their feet up on the small tables that host their drinks. The low red couches are piled with red and green silk cushions, some of them bearing, on close inspection, burn marks where coals were dropped. All the smoking pipes stay on the floor, perhaps for this very reason.
The hookahs are blue, with gold flower patterns painted onto the glass bowls at the base. The pipes have embroidered gold cord covers and the glint of their silver metal mouthpieces is obscured by little plastic hygiene covers. The waiters test each pipe first, drawing in a series of sharp quick breaths whilst pressing down on the glowing coals with tongs until they can blow smoke through their mouths and nose without effort and the smoke turns thick.
White-gray smoke billows and fades through the room. It has a fruity, sweet scent; most of the customers appear to have ordered cherry or apple flavor tobacco. There are tiny ‘No smoking’ signs outlawing cigarettes at eye level above the couches. A middle-aged man is eventually joined by two friends; all three are wearing flat caps and sit across from each other, arms folded but laughing. Baklava and tiny cups of sweet Arabic coffee are ordered.
The menu boasts shisha tobacco in the same flavors that are served in street cafes from Aswan to Alexandria and everywhere on the Nile in between – apple, banana, cherry – but there are some more interesting combinations, like watermelon and lemon. Unlike Egypt, though, there is an alcohol menu. Rotana doesn’t sell food, but you can bring in whatever you like from the halal restaurants outside on Steinway. Nine dollars may be a lot in Egyptian pounds, but it buys you a water pipe with enough shisha to last an evening. Waiters come around to replace exhausted coals unbidden.
AT Madrid score; two of the waiters erupt into whoops and cheers. It may be a dejected evening outside, but the heavy purple curtains that separate Rotana from the city street keep the heat of the café from escaping, and seem to keep the maqhaa vibe alive.