The changing world of Baghdad’s cultural cafés

Friday 04/03/2016
Iraqi men sit inside Shahbandar café in central Baghdad’s
Al-Mutanabi street.

Baghdad - The British mandate, in­dependence, society, politics, philosophy, cin­ema. poetry and arts are subjects that have been debated for decades between the walls of the century-old Shah­bandar coffeehouse, one of Bagh­dad’s few remaining traditional cultural cafés.
The smell of hot lemon tea and smoke from shisha pipes greets visitors entering the renovated café on Al-Mutanabi Street, Bagh­dad’s historic cultural oasis.
Shahbandar owner Mohamad al-Khashali insisted on maintain­ing the character of the café, which was devastated in 2007 in a suicide bombing that killed his four sons and one grandson.
“Despite the calamity that be­fell my family, I was keen on re­habilitating the place to make it once again appealing to its regular customers and clientele, though it bears a new name, the Shahbandar Martyrs’ Café,” Khashali said.
Antique brass decanters, old samovars and the leather and wood furniture, in addition to pictures of Ottoman pashas, King Faisal II and Iraqi poets and artists that adorn the walls, create a special ambi­ance reminiscent of the “good old days”.
“It is the character of the café that for generations has been the meeting place of intellectuals, thinkers and politicians who had a great impact on Iraq’s cultural and literary life,” Khashali said.
The café offers the lemon tea brewed the traditional Baghdadi way and the shishas. “Playing back­gammon and dominos is forbidden in the café, in order to give space for dialogue and cultural exchang­es, which makes the Shahbandar particular and different from the other (modern) coffee houses,” Khashali said with a laugh.
Cultural cafés thrived at the turn of the century along the banks of the Tigris, especially in the area of Al-Rasheed Street, a main land­mark of the city. The majority of those cafés, which bear witness to cultural, social and political chang­es marking Iraq’s modern history, have closed.
Older generations are accus­tomed to the traditional places, whereas young people go to the Shahbandar to get a feel of the old Baghdad and listen to stories from the past.
For writers, scientists, intellectu­als, artists and lovers of literature the cafés were like spiritual tem­ples in which the graceful rituals of worshipping culture and knowl­edge are practised.
Journalist Ahmad Suheil ex­plained that cultural cafés consti­tuted a substitute for clubs and fo­rums that did not previously exist. Over decades these meeting places became an important part of Iraqi life in general and of Baghdad life in particular.
“I regularly come on Fridays to Al-Mutanabi Street and spend time in the Shahbandar,” Suheil said. “The particular Baghdadi ambi­ance is the most attractive feature of this place… The pictures hang­ing on the walls transport me into past times that I have read about and heard my father talk a lot about.”
Suheil noted, however, that the “political and cultural scene” has changed from what it was when cultural cafés were the nexus for writers, artists and intellectuals from across Baghdad.
“These places have no more im­pact on cultural life as in the past. Modernisation and the widespread use of internet and social media platforms have greatly facilitated communication. Cultural meetings are now called on Facebook. Even popular movements and demon­strations can be organised on the ‘net,” Suheil contended.
Khouloud Samy, a university student specialising in Arab lit­erature, said he regularly visits Al- Mutanabi Street to look for books and sources for his thesis. “The (Shahbandar) café is the only place where I can relax after spending hours in libraries and bookshops,” Samy said, adding that the number of female customers is increasing; in the past, cafés were off-limits for women.
According to historians, the first Baghdad café, the Khan Jahan, was established in 1590 under Ottoman rule. The cafés were characterised by their brass tea decanters and hot water samovars that bestowed an attractive ambiance that brought together clientele from all social strata spending hours discussing private and public matters.
Writer Abdel Amir al-Majar noted that the old cultural cafés had seen controversial debates and argu­ments involving famous political figures such as Jamil Sidqi al-Zaha­wi and renowned poets including Maruf al-Rasafi and Muhammad Mehdi al-Jawhari, who had an ef­fective role in shaping Iraq’s cul­tural and political scene.
“But the situation has changed. Most of the famous cultural cafés have disappeared and were re­placed by modern places,” Majar said, adding, however, that Rida Alwan café is among the few that still attract the intellectuals and artists.
“Most of the old cafés have been turned into commercial outlets and shops. The Shahbandar is an almost unique place which has maintained its traditional charac­ter and services,” noted scriptwrit­er and director Bare’ Jabbar.
“I often discuss work with my team over a cup of lemon tea… It is the best place to spend time away from the chaos of the street and to have a break from the hassles of life.”
But for Suheil: “The cafés have largely become a place where peo­ple get together and nothing more.”