BAGHDAD — Outside the Soltan Nights cafe in central Baghdad, the air is thick with the exhaust of countless diesel generators and a sandstorm that turns the sky the color of dishwater.
Inside, men lounge on carpet-draped sofas and fill their lungs not with dust and smog, but with clouds of dizzying, fruit-sweetened tobacco smoke inhaled from water pipes.
At one table, young men talk about money and potential investments, while at the next table a gray-haired man sits alone, reading. A silent wide-screen television bolted to the wall flashes music videos. Below it, a waiter prepares a hookah for two more customers, stoking the pipe's hot coals by inhaling deeply from the mouthpiece and exhaling jets of white smoke.
"Look!" a man says as he points to the smoke clouds. "He looks like a train. Whoo! Whoo!"
Although hookah cafes have enjoyed a fad in Western cities from Los Angeles to Berlin in the last few years, and smoking establishments are common throughout the Middle East, Iraqis have only recently embraced them.
The reason: Under dictator Saddam Hussein, the smoke-filled shisha clubs were seen as a breeding ground for conspiracy and dissent. The few restaurants and hotels allowed to open the cafes required numerous government permits and attracted a corps of eavesdropping intelligence agents.
It wasn't until the last year, when Iraq's security situation began to stabilize and business investment began to trickle back, that shisha cafes started popping up on Baghdad's streets.
Today the city has hundreds of them, varying from hole-in-the-wall dives to lavishly decorated salons.
"We Iraqis needed only one thing, and that was security," said Ali Hassan, 35, the bald and flamboyant owner of City Cafe in the Camp Sara area of Baghdad.
In front of the cafe, two monkeys jump from perches in an enormous cage, while holiday lights flicker on a plastic palm tree. Inside, expensively dressed young men pile their cellphones on the tables in front of them and order tea and shisha pipes.
"Now that we have security, we have what we want and we're all set. Young men can come and meet and chat and smoke, and they're very happy with life," Hassan said.
"As long as Maliki is here, we're going to be in good shape," he said, referring to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose popularity has surged in the last year.
Wala Mohammed, a 23-year-old engineer, says he stops by City Cafe every day.
"This is a nice place," Mohammed said. "I come with friends and we talk about cars, sports, girls and security."
Shisha smoke, which is forced through water and cooled, is much less harsh than cigarette smoke, and the tobacco is sweetened and scented with apricots, cinnamon, mango, apple and other flavors. Each serving of tobacco is about $5.
A good portion of the popularity of shisha cafes comes from Iraqis who had fled the nation during the darkest days of war and sectarian strife.
"Many Iraqis went to Turkey, Egypt and Syria, and they were introduced to shisha cafes," Mohammed said. "When they came back to Iraq, they brought a taste for it back with them."
Few cafe owners can speak to the trend as authoritatively as Muneer Khadam, 40, who owns Al Baghdadi Coffee Shop on Abu Nuwas Street along the Tigris River.
Khadam's cafe was one of the few that served up shisha pipes under Hussein. During the 2003 invasion, U.S. troops quickly occupied his restaurant, in a strategic location near a bridge to government buildings in central Baghdad, the area that today is the fortified Green Zone.
The troops are gone now, and Khadam reopened nine months ago.
The cafe is packed with shisha smoking customers, most of them Iraqi government employees, on Thursday and Friday nights, the equivalent of Friday and Saturday in the United States.
Khadam laughed when asked why shisha cafes are more popular now than years ago.
"Before, government employees made $3 a month. They couldn't afford to come here," Khadam said. "Now they make 3 million dinars [about $2,600] a month! You have some drivers who make that much now."
Under Hussein, Khadam said, eavesdropping security men drove much of his business away.
Today, however, customers are happy to see security forces and hired guards keeping an eye on things.
"We have security today," he said, "but it's not to listen."