A professor of Arabic studies at the University of Ottawa isn't buying the argument that people should be allowed to smoke shisha in public places because it's an integral part of their culture.

The city banned smoking from waterpipes in public places in August 2016. The bylaw came into effect on Dec. 1, 2016, but wasn't enforced until Monday.

Several hookah establishments in Ottawa have decided to take legal action against the city's ban on waterpipes, arguing the ban infringes on their cultural rights.

"I can understand and relate to some of their claims … but at the same time I feel it is a little bit of an exaggeration to generalize it and say it is an important practice in the Arab world. It's not," May Telmissany told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. She's tried smoking shisha once but isn't a smoker.

In Egypt, for example, about 30 per cent of the male population smokes cigarettes, according to statistics she's seen, and six per cent smoke shisha regularly.

"So this is a very, very tiny minority. Part of it is done privately as well in homes, and the other part is in public," Telmissany said.


Ottawa's ban on smoking from waterpipes in public places took effect Dec. 1, 2016, and enforcement began on Monday after a grace period. (CBC News)

Cultural argument 'not convincing'

She thinks it doesn't make sense for shisha smoking to be allowed while other forms of smoking are not.

"If it's still related to smoking and smoking is banned from public spaces, I don't know why shisha would be an exception. Shisha is a form of smoking as well. Yes, I understand it is associated with a social practice and people use it for socializing … but I don't understand how we can get around very firm regulations related to smoking by just claiming the cultural argument, which is not convincing, in my opinion."

For example, in the Arab world weddings are celebrated loudly in the streets, sometimes hours on end, but few would expect to be able to carry on that custom in Canada, she said.

'Propose an alternative and fight for it instead of fighting for a business which might not conform to some of our Canadian regulations.' - May Telmissany, U of O Arabic studies professor

Telmissany also finds it interesting that many of her friends who do smoke shisha regularly don't do so inside their homes.

"They will stay in the garage, so I don't understand why they want it to be in a public space," she said.

She thinks there are other, healthier ways of keeping Arab culture alive in Canada.

"Propose an alternative and fight for it instead of fighting for a business which might not conform to some of our Canadian regulations," Telmissany said.

Listen to the entire interview with Telmissany here.