Disappointment hung heavier than smoke inside Tempe's HB Tobacco. The hookah lounge had its permit pulled by the City Council late Thursday night, meaning that smoking flavored tobacco from the water pipes no longer is allowed.
Afterward, owner Anis Ben Harzallah went back to his business at 53 E. Broadway Road and delivered the news to his customers. The reaction was disbelief and dejection.
"It's nonsense," said Jehan Sibai, a doctor from Phoenix. "I can't understand it."
Sibai sat on comfortable couches with two friends, and they occasionally took pulls from the 2-foot-tall, ornate hookah that sat on the table before them. Between puffs, they discussed the hookah's place in Middle Eastern culture, what Harzallah would do next and what they would do next.
"Stay home and watch 'Nancy Grace,'" Sibai groused.
HB Tobacco was tripped up by Harzallah's admittance that he allowed smoking in his establishment after receiving his permit to sell tobacco in late 2006. City records show as a condition of that permit, smoking was forbidden there.
Once the city received a complaint earlier this year, Harzallah acted to amend the permit. He prevailed before a hearing officer and the Development Review Commission, but on his third hurdle he stumbled.
Harzallah had told the council he believed hookah was not considered smoking, misinformation he said came from the city and other hookah bars.
"They want to finish me for something not in the book," Harzallah said.
Although the hookahs were out as midnight came and Thursday turned into Friday, city officials said the ban on smoking went into effect the moment of the vote. That decision came about 10:15 p.m., after more than an hour of testimony from the public, the council's questions to Harzallah and little debate.
The appellant, Date Palm Manor neighborhood association chairman Steve Stewart, said he was pleased with the outcome.
"I was impressed with the way the complaint was torn apart and analyzed," Stewart said. He also praised Mayor Hugh Hallman for voting against HB on the merits of the law "and not on an emotional community plea."
Harzallah still can sell hookah products, according to the city, as his original permit licenses him as a tobacco retailer.
But that's cold comfort for the 30-year-old Tunisian-American businessman.
"I'm very disappointed," Harzallah said.
He believed the deck was stacked against him, considering a quirk of the council's calendar.
"It's 9/11 and an Arab guy comes in ..." Harzallah said, his voice rising. "Why do you think I tried to reschedule?"
Harzallah can appeal the council's decision to the Maricopa County Superior Court.
He said he would study the issue.