After two years working as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, Karam Shbeeta wanted something different in life. So he decided to open up a marijuana coffee shop in the Arab-Israeli city of Tira.
This was not an obvious career choice: places dedicated to smoking and purchasing marijuana in broad daylight are rare in Israel’s Arab society, where conservative views still prevail when it comes to the “devil’s lettuce.”
Tira, located 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Tel Aviv, has high youth unemployment and has also endured high crime rates in recent years. It can be a stressful place for residents and visitors alike, and is unlikely to ever be mistaken for Amsterdam. But on a recent visit to Shbeeta’s coffee shop, everything is calmness personified.
“I managed to build a community – one that embraces diversity and welcomes everyone, Arabs and Jews alike,” says Shbeeta (also spelled Shabita) during a guided tour of his coffee shop, called Smokey Monkey. And these are not just empty words: his shop attracts clients from across the region, including nearby Jewish cities and towns.
Shbeeta, 29, lives in Tira with his wife and daughter. He studied nursing and worked in that profession for six years, mostly in psychiatric institutions. During that time, he enrolled in a course about medical use of marijuana (more commonly known as cannabis in Israel) and later found himself working in that field.
“In my previous job, I was sitting in an office and saw how the patients who came to buy marijuana couldn’t try the product before buying it,” Shbeeta recounts. “The range of marijuana varieties is wide and increasing on a daily basis. Each strain can affect people differently.”
He was frustrated that he couldn’t find the right “match” for his patients and was concerned about people suffering harm by using the wrong kind of medication. This motivated him to open his own place.
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Smokey Monkey opened about seven months ago on one of Tira’s main streets. It serves a medical purpose – Shbeeta says only those with the appropriate medical documentation are allowed to buy there – but it’s also a place where customers simply come to meet friends and neighbors. “In this area, there are few places for young people to hang out, to meet and connect with others,” he says.
When Shbeeta first opened the place, he admits that his family was “confused and surprised” by the move. “They asked how I could leave my safe career as a nurse in order to open a coffee shop,” he relays. But Smokey Monkey is a success story, attaining national prominence when it featured on a news show at Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, late last year.
One of the shop owner’s goals is “to advise patients on medical marijuana, and how to obtain and use it in a legal way, rather than getting it illegally from the black market where you have no idea what you’re consuming and what harm it may cause you.” He says that many young Israelis use the drug illegally, “even though they are qualified to get it legally. They’re just unaware of that. When they get caught by the police, it ruins their lives.”
Lahav, 22, lives in Kochav Ya’ir, an upper-middle-class Jewish community next to Tira. For the past three months, he’s been working at Smokey Monkey, learning all about life in the Arab city across the road from his.
“When I started working here, I wasn’t familiar with the difficulties Arab society faces,” he says. “Working here, I got to know the Arab culture much better. At first, people looked at me differently because I’m Jewish. But the situation is different now: I feel connected to the people here, whom I call family.”
Shbeeta says his customers are mostly young men, Arabs and Jews alike. There is a clear dividing line when it comes to the female clientele, though. “Most women who come here are Jewish; Arab women very rarely visit,” he says. “The Arab community still looks differently at women smoking, which in my view doesn’t make sense. If a man can smoke, a woman can too.”
However, he adds that Arab men can also be stigmatized for marijuana usage. “That’s why some choose to do in a more discreet manner,” he explains. “The Arab community lacks awareness on medical marijuana and its benefits. The mind-set is still that if you smoke weed, you’re doing hard drugs.”
He continues: “Arab society is complex and can be highly conservative,” noting that in more traditional Arab communities such as Kafr Qasem and Umm al-Fahm, he wouldn’t have been able to open such an establishment. “The situation in Tira is different as it’s a larger place surrounded by Jewish neighbors. The mind-set is more open.”
But even in Tira he has received menacing messages, including threats to burn the coffee shop down. “Some people are against this place and are campaigning to get it shut down,” Shbeeta says.
Local conservatives aren’t Smokey Monkey’s only problem, either. It was raided by the police last month – and Shbeeta is still furious about that.
He accuses the police of ignoring his attempts to contact them in order to address threats he received from local drug dealers.
The police told Haaretz that they were acting based on information received about suspected drug trafficking on the premises. Shbeeta completely denies this and says that only those with medical permits are allowed to buy from his shop.
For him, Smokey Monkey is playing an important role in the lives of many people, helping them deal with trauma and pain. “Arab society in Israel is going through traumatic times,” Shbeeta observes. “There’s violence everywhere and many people are post-traumatic. Receiving mental health care is still something our society is ashamed to do. This generation needs to change the perception around trauma, otherwise we as a community will be stuck in our place.”
He sees his shop as part of the change that is currently happening. Yet despite his shop’s initial successes, the owner is reluctant to gaze too far into the future. “I have no idea how this place will end up,” he says. “There are difficulties from all directions: the community, the police, the drug dealers.” Still, he believes Smokey Monkey can be “a model for the future” – a place where people meet their neighbors and overcome their fears.