From Baghdad to Macomb: Hookah lounge represents a fresh start
MACOMB TOWNSHIP — The reason Samir Najeeb left Iraq is documented by photos and embedded in his body.
The images he thumbs through on his smart phone are similar to the ones seen on the news after a bombing: A crowd gathers, reinforcing steel bars snake from cracked cement and sharp fragments of material are scattered.
Surgeons in Baghdad left three large pieces of shrapnel in his side, along with a countless number of microscopic pieces.
Najeeb, 27, never did find out who set the bomb that was meant to take his life, but he wasn’t willing to stick around and find out.
Back in 2008, Najeeb was fresh out of college and working with the U.S. Army as a civil engineer. Like many Iraqi contractors, he was threatened, and when the threats had no effect, they tried killing him.
Speaking of that day nearly four years later is difficult for Najeeb. Sitting on one of the black, leather couches inside his month-old business, his eyes redden, and he chokes up.
The Moonlight Hookah Lounge, where patrons dine on Middle Eastern cuisine, watch sports and exhale puffs of tobacco-less smoke into the air, is his biggest step at a brand-new start in the United States.
“It was just a lot, an empty lot,” Najeeb said of the place when he first leased it. “We started from scratch, pretty much.”
More than six months ago, Najeeb and his wife, Nora Kadhim, 27, were working at the gas station across the street from the strip mall where they’d later open the lounge near the intersection of Romeo Plank and 23 Mile roads. When a tanning salon moved out, Najeeb knew he wanted to open a hookahs lounge in the vacant space.
At the time of the interview, business wasn’t yet booming. Najeeb thought one reason is that people are unfamiliar with hookahs.
He assures that it is less harmful than smoking cigarettes. There’s very little nicotine and absolutely no tar. Further, the hookahs being smoked in Najeeb’s lounge are tobacco free. They have to be, according to Michigan law, or else Najeeb wouldn’t be able to serve food.
“I wish the people who were saying bad stuff about it would come and try it,” he said, discussing negative comments he had seen on other news websites about his place. “It’s just something to do while you’re doing something else: eating, watching movies, watching television, watching a game,” he said. “That’s it.”
One man — who Najeeb said had to be in his 70s — did venture in and was hesitant to smoke a hookah for the first time.
“Are you sure you’re not going to have to call an ambulance?” Najeeb recalled the man asking.
They sat together, sipped coffee and smoked tobacco-less hookah. The man left, promising to return.
It reminded Najeeb of the many times he introduced American soldiers to smoking a hookah while working with them in Baghdad.
Back then, Najeeb had just graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Baghdad and was hired by an American contracting company. Despite threats warning him to quit or die, young and arrogant Najeeb refused.
“I received many threats to quit, and I didn’t,” he said. “When you get hired after graduating, you feel like, ‘I got this.’ You still have the mentality of a teenager, stubborn against any way but yours.”
Meanwhile, Baghdad was becoming unrecognizable to him. Its citizens were fleeing; its market places were empty; and sectarian violence had the country teetering on civil war.
“It’s sad to see how you used to live in that place and how beautiful it was and how crappy it is right now,” he said, referring to Baghdad specifically.
Regardless, he planned to stay. “I was against coming over here, totally,” Najeeb said.
Moving to the United States became a point of contention between him and his future wife, Khadim, when she and her family immigrated here eight years ago. They were friends at the university and kept in contact throughout their separation.
Meanwhile, the threats intensified.
“When you work with Americans back home, you’re like an infidel to certain people,” Najeeb said. “Those certain people aren’t going to be satisfied unless you quit or they make you quit.”
They made him quit in 2008, setting an explosive outside of his apartment as he slept.
The pain was indescribable. Najeeb compared it to having shards of metal cooked over a fire and then having it shot into your body.
His friend from college, Mudhar Abdulsattar, who along with his wife now helps Najeeb and Kadhim at the hookah lounge, heard of the attack from the local TV news. He immediately drove to the hospital.
“There was all this blood everywhere,” said Abdulsattar, 27. “You don’t know from where it is coming out.”
Najeeb endured four surgeries and stayed in the hospital almost a month. Abdulsattar stayed with him in the hospital for most of those days and helped him through the physical therapy.
“He took me to shower while I was not able to do anything,” Najeeb said of Abdulsattar.
“Me and him are like brothers,” Abdulsattar said. “I had to be there in case he need anything at night because the hospitals are really bad.”
When the threats to Abdulsattar, who also worked for the U.S. military in Baghdad, became too much, he too fled the country earlier this year.
Najeeb paid his friend back by finding him an apartment and loaning Abdulsattar his car.
Najeeb said his decision to leave Baghdad was based mostly on his family’s fear for his life, which outweighed him living a 13-hour flight away in Detroit.
“I came running,” Najeeb said. “I left everything behind. I was OK after the first one, but who’s to say I’d be OK after the second one? What’s going to be your mom’s feeling when they see that you’re bad? It’s not like you were in a car accident and the airbag went off in your face. No, it’s not like that. It’s way worse.”
By the beginning of 2009, he was in the United States and planning to marry his longtime friend, Kadhim.
As husband and wife, they worked a wide range of jobs, from delivering newspapers to inspecting car parts in Tennessee and South Carolina for a year before landing at the gas station on Romeo Plank.
Along the way, they saved every penny they could. When the “For Lease” sign was placed in front of the strip mall, they had the money to invest in the new business.
The reasoning for opening a hookah lounge was simple: It’s the only one in the township. He said already the place is drawing people who grew up smoking hookahs, but much like he did for American soldiers in Baghdad, he hopes to be hookah’s ambassador to Macomb residents who don’t yet understand it.
“I like it in here,” he said, moving between sets of couches while replacing charcoal in hookahs. “It’s hard. It’s frustrating. You pay everybody bills and you might not have anything at the end of the month because we’re new. But we’re doing OK.”