AT ANCIENT GROUNDS, A RELATIVELY NEW WATER-PIPE CAFÉ IN SILVER LAKE, FOUR Arab men are playing gin rummy in a corner. For an hour they sit, engaged in their game, dragging on water pipes and happily chatting. A few tables away, I suck on my own pipe, a sort of gorgeous, elaborate bong. Suddenly, everyone starts screaming, raising their hands, throwing cards at one another. I don’t understand what is happening — the fight is in Arabic — but one man, Mohammed, yells the loudest, standing over everyone and pointing his fingers. Soon the others call out to an old man with sad eyes sitting near the entrance, “Abu Yusef, Abu Yusef.” Abu Yusef walks over and speaks quietly with the men. Mohammed storms out and paces in front of the store as the others laugh and go back to playing cards. Abu Yusef sits down again, and I approach him.
“Ninety percent of the Arabs who come here are Christians,” he tells me. “The Muslims are harder. They have their own places.” Mohammed, the one Muslim, is outraged, Abu Yusef explains, because he threw down cards he meant to keep. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t just pick them back up. “I told him, ‘You made a mistake. It doesn’t matter what you meant, it matters what you did. You blew it.'”
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Abu Yusef tells me he’s from Haifa, Israel. When I tell him that I speak Hebrew, he says he’d much rather speak that language than English. “A day in Israel,” he says, “is better than a year here.” But he blew his kidneys and has to go to Cedars-Sinai (“All my doctors are Jewish”) every few days for dialysis. Otherwise, he says, “I’m flying to Israel today.”
Abu Yusef knows he’ll never see his home again. “When I’m not in the hospital, I’m here. When I’m not here, I’m in the hospital.” His face reflects profound grief as he stares through the door. “My son got married, then he came here. Then my daughter, then my other son, then me.” He describes Haifa — the beautiful mountain overlooking a harbor — and says that it’s the greatest place to live. I ask about terrorism and the anger many Arab Israelis feel toward the Jewish state. He waves a dismissive hand, “The shit. It’s good there.” He says the only place he likes in Los Angeles is Fairfax, where he eats in the Israeli Jewish restaurants.
An Egyptian named George walks up and says to me in English, “I love the Jewish woman better than the Arab woman. The Jewish woman is best in bed.” George turns to Abu Yusef. “Who is best in the bed? Jewish women or Egyptian women?” Abu Yusef smiles and says nothing, so George answers the question. “I love the Jewish woman.”
Amtanis, Abu Yusef’s son, says to George, of Egyptian women, “Your girls suck.” George lets out a delighted whoop.
Amtanis, who tells Americans that his name is Tony, opened Ancient Grounds in mid-October. There hasn’t been an Arab Christian place to smoke water pipes since Abu Yusef closed hisHollywood cafÃ© a few years ago. Water pipes are sometimes called nargileh or hubbly-bubblies, but everyone here calls them shisha. The Egyptian tobacco is flavored with strawberry or cherry or peach, though apple is traditional, and it’s in shisha cafes that Arab men spend the bulk of their leisure time.
“Basically, just to bullshit with friends, relax, shoot the shit and go,” Amtanis says. “To smoke cigarettes and smoke shishais two different things. Shisha tobacco has no chemicals, it’s all natural. It’s way lighter. You don’t get high, you just get relaxed. There is no harshness, it’s very pleasant and mild.”
I mention how strange it is that this place is in Silver Lake right next to a couple of gay bars and near hipster restaurants. Amtanis says it doesn’t matter where he put the place, Christian Arabs would find it. Most customers drive at least 45 minutes to get here. Anyway, “Gays, no gays — no problem, as long as they don’t try to pick me up.”
“Why not?” asks Munir, a pudgy middle-aged man from Egypt. “I’ve been hit on by guys, and I was tempted. How do I know if I’m not gay? I never tried it.”
“We’ve had Mexicans come in here,” Amtanis says, ignoring Munir. “Everybody.”
Just then, Mohammed walks back in, staring angrily at me, speaking Hebrew. I ask someone a question in English, I don’t remember what, and Mohammed says, “Don’t answer him.” George laughs and calls him Osama bin Laden. The moment passes, and we all go back to smoking ourshisha.