Hookahs and hate crimes

Fire at Chico smoking lounge is latest in series of possible race-related incidents

Patrons smoke on the patio of Fusion Hookah Lounge on Walnut Street.

Patrons smoke on the patio of Fusion Hookah Lounge on Walnut Street.

PHOTO by Howard Hardee

Jenny Dahma is familiar with the sounds of explosions. She was born in the U.S. to a white mother, but she’s also part Palestinian and lived for a time in that country, where the noises of war are an everyday reality.

That’s why she’s confident that whatever was thrown out the window of a passing car and started a fire at her business, Fusion Hookah Lounge on Walnut Street, was no firecracker.

“I came outside and my husband was smoking hookah,” Dahma said. “I said, ‘Honey, what was that?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, probably some drunk kids playing with fireworks.’ That did not sound like a firework to me.”

Considering that the incident occurred on a holiday weekend (July 2) and Fusion is located in the student-heavy south campus neighborhood—about 80 percent of Dahma’s customers are American-born students, she estimates—it could be dismissed as a one-off case of mischief.

But based on the racial hatred Dahma, her husband and Fusion co-owner, Sam Dahma, and the Arabic customers at Fusion have endured over the past two years, and a broken bottle found at the scene, the arsonist may have been acting on something far more disturbing for the business owners—Islamaphobia.

The fire was captured on video by witnesses’ cellphone cameras and broadcast by Action News Now. It reached considerable height, nearing the roof of the building. Shubber Mohammed, a regular customer at Fusion, and a local homeless man named Thomas attempted to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher from a nearby apartment complex. It continued less than 15 minutes until a Chico fire engine arrived around 2:30 a.m. It could have been much worse. No one was injured and the total property damage was estimated at only $100, according to Chico Fire Department records.

After being contacted by Mohammed, a Butte College student, the Sacramento Valley chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is calling on the FBI to investigate the case as a possible hate crime. Executive Director Basim Elkarra said by phone there’s been a history of racial incidents at Fusion, and evidence suggests the fire was started by a “firebomb,” not a firecracker.

The FBI has been alerted, Elkarra said, and a CAIR representative was scheduled to visit Chico to assess the civil rights merits of the case on Wednesday, after CN&R’s deadline.

“In general, once [cases are] reported to law enforcement and the FBI hears of it,” potential hate crimes against Muslim people are thoroughly investigated, Elkarra said. And those incidents may be on the rise throughout California, according to CAIR’s 2015 Civil Rights Report. The agency received a total of 1,136 reports of anti-Muslim bias in 2014—almost double the previous year. Complaints involved “employment discrimination, federal law enforcement questioning, excessive and intrusive travel delays, hate crimes, school bullying, and other discrimination issues,” the report reads.

Despite being practicing Christians, such has been the experience of the Dahmas since they moved to Chico from Riverside County in December 2012. Hardly a day goes by that they don’t hear racial slurs and insults shouted from passing cars. “We’ve heard it three or four times a day, at times,” Dahma said.

Additionally, their business’ sign was recently egged, and another time the driver of a Ford F-150 truck rammed their patio—Dahma says purposely—breaking two umbrella stands. That last incident prompted the Dahmas to purchase and install a video surveillance system.

However, they didn’t install a camera on the side of the building exposed to the fire. Dahma shared a still image taken from video footage captured by Dragon Tobacco across Walnut Street. Though blurry, it shows someone hanging out of the rear passenger window of white car near the intersection of Third and Walnut streets “about eight seconds before the explosion,” she said.

Dahma wishes she’d “never opened up in Chico.” She wants to move, but her husband hesitates because they’ve “poured everything we own into the business,” she said.

“I’m worried about the customers,” she added through tears. “That’s the major thing on my conscience. I don’t have kids; I treat all of these students like my kids. It scares me, the possibility they could get injured because of ignorant people.”