Seta Chorbajian sits in a darkened Georgetown bistro, shoulder to shoulder with friends, the mouthpiece of a gurgling water pipe pressed to her lips.

Gooey molasses-laden tobacco gives off an apple scent as it smolders on her tall pipe -- known as the hookah in India, the shisha in Egypt, the nargile in Turkey or the hubble-bubble in Western circles. Chorbajian sucks the cooled smoke, savoring a puff off the tobacco wad. Then she passes a hose jutting from the pipe to a nearby friend.

"If I had my choice, I'd be in a hookah bar every night," said Chorbajian, 21, a student at Bard College in New York. "The sharing makes it so intimate even in a crowded place like this. . . . It's exotic and romantic, and that's probably why I gravitate to it, even seek it out, wherever I go."

Young hipsters such as Chorbajian, hanging out in the Prince Cafe, have helped propel hookah houses beyond their traditional Arab enclaves in the suburbs into the heart of District neighborhoods teeming with college students. It is an appealing market for businessmen such as Ehab Asal, who has opened five hookah establishments in the city since 2001, the most recent in Adams Morgan last week.

The phenomenon appears counterintuitive in an age when the number of adult cigarette smokers in this country keeps dropping, concern about the health risks of smoking keeps mounting, and the number of localities pushing for smoke-free bars and restaurants keeps growing.

One of the most recent to do so is the District, which is considering a smoking ban that threatens to stymie a business lucrative enough that the Egypt-born Asal plans to franchise the concept.

"The future of these [hookah] bars is uncertain," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who represents Adams Morgan and the U Street corridor. "Unless specific action is taken to exempt these businesses, and they should be exempted, I think they will be at risk."

Customers, many of whom are getting their first taste of the hookah, appear oblivious to the debate and more enthralled by the tradition.

Thomas Eissenberg, a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said one historical account traces that tradition to India in the early 1600s, when tobacco's debut there prompted Emperor Akbar to consult his physicians about its uses.

The physicians eventually concluded that tobacco was dangerous. But one suggested it could be rendered harmless if passed through water first -- a myth that persists to this day, Eissenberg said.

"We have no evidence to suggest that [smoking a hookah] is less harmful than smoking cigarettes," especially since one hookah session can last 45 minutes, meaning users inhale a larger volume of smoke than they would from a cigarette.

Hookah use spread, especially among elderly men in the Middle East, who whiled away the time moistening dried tobacco leaves with honey or molasses and then shaping them to fit the pipe's bowl, Eissenberg said.

The hookah's popularity waxed and waned through the ages, declining again as recently as 1980 then surging in the 1990s, said Eissenberg, co-author of a water pipe study funded by National Institutes of Health's John E. Fogarty International Center.

Asal wants to cash in on that popularity and does not think the D.C. proposal will affect him. He assumes a compromise can be reached for hookah lounges, as it has been for cigar bars in other localities that faced similar restrictions.

An across-the-board smoking ban in the District "wouldn't be fair, especially since we can separate the smoking and nonsmoking customers in different seating areas," said Asal, 37. "Why don't they ban the alcohol instead? That causes more trouble," from drunken driving to disorderly conduct.

Besides, an alcohol ban would not inflict financial hardship on Asal. Prince Cafe, and many of its Muslim-owned rivals, do not serve alcoholic beverages for religious reasons. And they hope to attract like-minded customers.

He figures his cafes are a hip, harmless and relatively cheap alternative for underage college kids barred from booze-filled nightclubs. On Saturdays, his stores -- and their kitchens -- stay open until 5 a.m. His cafes feature Lebanese and Indian cuisine and plenty of Arabic music videos. The occasional belly dancer or Middle Eastern pop star performs at one Georgetown location.

Customers pony up $10 for one hour of hookah and tobacco, which make up 35 percent of his sales, he said.

They have their choice of 30 sweet tobacco flavors, in easy-to-use pre-moistened wads. When those flavors, such as double apple, mango and peach, were mass-produced in the Middle East in the 1990s, it reinvigorated the hookah movement, Eissenberg said.

"That's when university-age kids in the Middle East really started using it," Eissenberg said. "Now it's even more accepted for women to smoke water pipes there rather than cigarettes, probably because it's associated with traditional activities rather than Western activities."

Though the hookah is more accepted, a divide remains between male-centric hookah houses and their mixed counterparts, even in Washington, where no-frills hangouts tend to attract devout Muslim men while the glitzier lounges cut across sex, age, religion and ethnicity.

At the four-month-old Queen's Cafe & Hookah in Adams Morgan, Hassan Mohammed said he shares a pipe with friends Yohannes Tesfay and Ibrahim Michail once or twice a week after work at this place.

Does his wife ever join him?

"No," said Mohammed, 30, a ramp agent at Dulles International Airport. "Who is going to take care of the kids if she's sitting here?"

And despite its widespread acceptance in the Arab world, not everyone wants to advertise their hookah habit, including a 19-year-old of Saudi descent who identified himself only as Ahmed.

"I don't want my parents to know I'm here because they don't smoke at all and they'd be upset," he said as he passed the pipe. "All they know is that I'm in D.C., but I didn't tell them exactly where."

Unlike Ahmed, Chorbajian, the Bard College student in Washington for the summer, does not have easy access to a city filled with hookah lounges.

"I'm from the suburbs and I go to school in the boondocks," Chorbajian said. "So it's a real treat to be able to go to these places here in D.C."

Sarish Khan, left, Mahreen Khan and Mehwish Khan share a hookah at the Prince Palace in Georgetown, a sister establishment of Prince Cafe.Belly dancer Rachel Brookmire performs at the Prince Palace in Georgetown. Hookah lounges draw Muslims as well as college students.