Hookahs look out of place next to bocce

From the very start, the VIP Hookah Bar & Cafe seemed out of place on Eastern Avenue in Baltimore's Little Italy.

It had somehow managed to open without an occupancy permit in a red-brick rowhouse squeezed between the homes of a 98-year-old woman and an 86-year-old woman.

One of its owners, Fawzi Abdou Atta Shehata, promised skeptical residents at a community meeting in October that in no way did he plan live entertainment — no singing, no scantily clad women — despite the sign on his door advertising "Live Belly Dancing."

At the time, the skirmish over hookahs was a mere sideshow amid larger complaints of crime and nightclubs invading this Old World neighborhood east of the Inner Harbor. It seemed quite quaint, actually, watching men whose lives revolve around bocce and the animated arguments that ensue as they struggled to understand sitting and smoking flavored tobacco.

It was billed as a clash of ancient cultures rather than a clash of generations. But that, too, was misleading, because ads for the hookah bar clearly targeted the young (open until 4 a.m. on the weekends, live DJs, free Wi-Fi and a challenge for dancers "to show their moves and have a little fun time.")

This was not for people who could recall the premiere of "Lawrence of Arabia."

The hookah bar stayed open, and complaints died down. But four months later, the gaudy establishment became a focal point of a federal immigration investigation that began with an anonymous tip from Egypt and led to stakeouts and a raid on June 18.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there was a lot more to worry about at 919 Eastern Ave. than belly dancers. The search warrant application filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore says agents are trying to determine whether Shehata fraudulently married an American in North Carolina to gain citizenship in the U.S.

The raid, according to paperwork filed by federal agent Douglas M. Rechtin, was to seize evidence that might support a marriage fraud case. No criminal charges have been filed; the hookah bar remains open, but Shehata could not be reached for comment. A man who identified himself as the owner's son returned a phone call but hung up after being told the subject.

Shehata's hookah bar is just one of several to pop up recently in Baltimore. Most do not serve alcohol and thus can remain open into the early-morning hours, long after the bars have closed. A Marine was shot and killed in a hookah bar near The Block on July 2, and police and the mayor have expressed concern about rowdy behavior at another hookah bar on Light Street in Federal Hill.

The bar on Eastern Avenue appears upscale. It has French doors and a balcony with an iron fence and an awning and a plush lounge with couches. Its Internet site advertises the place as "new modern" and "very stylish."

Community leaders in Little Italy don't exactly agree that it's stylish or modern. Sandwiched between two residential Formstone rowhouses, its iron railings and gas lights make it look more New Orleans than Baltimore.

An investigation into allegations of fraudulent marriage are not exactly made-for-television drama. The court documents show that the agent spent more time on the phone with his Egyptian counterparts and sorting through files than doing shoe-leather investigations.

The agent had to sort through a convoluted jumble of Arabic names — at one point, apparently to make his search warrant application easier to follow, he shortened the Egyptian wife's official name of Ghada Gharib Mahmoud Abdalftah to simply Abdel Fattah.

Federal authorities say in the court papers that they confirmed through Egypt that Shehata married Abdel Fattah in Egypt, divorced her on Feb. 19, 2006, and then remarried her nine days later. He entered the U.S. on June 30 on a visa, and his wife followed in August.

At the time, he was staying in North Carolina, where according to the search warrant application, Shehata married Angelica Alshade on Nov. 7, 2006, in Durham County. Federal authorities maintain that he lives with his real wife, Abdel Fattah, with whom he has fathered five children, the two youngest in the U.S., with the latest born at Franklin Square Hospital.

Immigration authorities have interviewed people who manage and live in apartment complexes in Reisterstown and Towson, where Shehata has listed addresses, and have staked out the hookah bar on Eastern Avenue.

There, they say in court documents, the mailman told them there was an apartment above the bar, and the agents said they "observed a young girl, between the ages of two and four, on the second floor balcony." They say they saw Shehata exit the building with his real wife and put a child seat in his car.

Authorities said Shehata really lives above the hookah bar with his family, even while Angelica Alshade's name is on a lease for an apartment in Towson.

During the raid, immigration agents said, they seized numerous computers, including an Apple iPhone and iPad, leather wallets and briefcases, calendars and datebooks, photo albums, bills, cameras, a hospital baby bracelet and a New York driver's license in Shehata's name.

The folks of Little Italy hoped the raid they saw was the end of the hookah bar. But it remains open, pumping music into the early-morning air, two doors down from the upscale Boccaccio restaurant and flanked by the rowhouses of the two elderly women.

One neighbor has a small rug hanging in her window with a picture of a cat against the backdrop of the American flag. "Kind words conquer," it says on the front. The other woman has a sign adorned with the Statue of Liberty and the American flag. Neither would talk.

In between the two homes is a garishly decorated door with red banners, a picture of two people smoking from a pipe and a large hookah on the second-floor balcony overhanging Eastern Avenue.

Gia Blatterman, a longtime community activist, likens the hookah bar to a nightclub and said many in the neighborhood gathered to watch as federal agents spent more than seven hours inside the establishment during the raid.

Nobody knew what was going on, but the action kept the tale growing and moving from rowhouse step to rowhouse step. Many assumed authorities were looking for something a bit more sinister, and while the reality is intriguing gossip, it might not be enough shut the place down. A spokeswoman for the city said the hookah bar now has its required permits.

Said Blatterman: "All we want is peace and for this to be taken out of the neighborhood if it's not peaceful."

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