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Lifestyle | Drinking Coffee in Tehran


29 Sep 2012 20:42Comments

The social and political life of the Iranian café.


[ dispatch ] Coffeehouses in Iran are often designed and situated -- on narrow streets, for example -- to maintain a low profile from the outside. Some are windowless and have only an unmarked door as an entrance, an implicit challenge to a system in which most public places are under government control and surveillance. A key difference between modern Western and Iranian coffee shops turns on the issue of visibility; the atmosphere of the Iranian café is characterized by its dark, secretive design, though there are certainly those designed to appeal to young customers who want a social venue where they can see and be seen.

How does drinking a beverage become a political act?

From the ninth century, the coffeehouse was a place that Iranian poets, artists, and dervishes could gather without fear of harassment by officials of the king or local authorities. In "Coffee in Safavid Iran: Commerce and Consumption," the American scholar Rudi Matthee describes the cultural position and the atmosphere of the traditional Iranian coffeehouse, the ghahve khaneh, which, he writes, "struck a happy balance between the mosque, which was a public space but lacked worldly entertainment, and the ubiquitous taverns and gambling houses, which were to be avoided by upstanding citizens as they served alcohol and provided disreputable entertainment for the lower classes. Leisure went hand in hand with liveliness[;] more than one foreign visitor described the spirited atmosphere in the Safavid coffeehouses." He quotes Jean Chardin on the social function of the 17th-century Iranian café:

People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful, since the government does not heed what the people say. Innocent games [...] resembling checkers, hopscotch, and chess, are played. In addition, mollas, dervishes, and poets take turns telling stories in verse or in prose. The narrations by the mollas and the dervishes are moral lessons, like our sermons, but it is not considered scandalous not to pay attention to them. No one is forced to give up his game or his conversation because of it. A molla will stand up, in the middle, or at one end of the qahveh-khaneh, and begin to preach in a loud voice, or a dervish enters all of a sudden, and chastises the assembled on the vanity of the world and its material goods. It often happens that two or three people talk at the same time, one on one side, the other on the opposite, and sometimes one will be a preacher and the other a storyteller.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the government started to close coffee shops. The practice is still in effect today. Just two months ago, officers of the morality police raided 87 cafés and restaurants in a single district of the capital. Why is the current government so concerned about the coffeehouse? "Immoral" and "un-Islamic" behavior is the main reason coffee shops are being closed, but what is going on in these places that is deemed a threat to the Islamic government?

The crowds at coffee shops in Iran tend to be young. Youth culture in Iranian coffee shops is often a Westernized version of the traditional culture of the ghahve khaneh. The essential difference is that the old ghahve khaneh was religious in orientation, while coffee shops in Iran today are predominantly secular. They are the site of many couples' first dates, a place where they can be free of the inhibitions imposed by the morality police or parental supervision. Groups of young people gather as well, for everything from discussions after class at university to birthday celebrations.

Coffee shops serve the youth subculture in other ways, as well. It is not uncommon to find trendy handmade jewelery and other items for sale: colored cotton or woven bracelets in a neo-hippie style or small plaques inscribed with slogans like "No War" or the images of foreign film and music stars.

cheshmehiran.jpg Other groups such as artists, poets, and political activists tend to gravitate to particular coffee shops, often choosing a regular hangout (patogh). Because of concerns of trust and safety, such café-goers usually steer clear of interactions with strangers. In recent years, the members of many such groups have chosen to organize their meetings in private settings rather than in coffee shops, though poetry and philosophy readings still take place every so often. In contrast with Western coffee shops, single customers are less frequently seen, though their numbers have been growing recently as WiFi access becomes available at more locations.

Despite the often suffocating security atmosphere, some cafés still manage to hold exhibitions of local photographers and painters. Others trade in Western rock and jazz records. Some "intellectual" venues even host jazz performances, though at most, officially sanctioned pop music plays in the background.

In the early 2000s, a new group of bookstore cafés sprang up in Tehran, a bunch of them clustered on and around Karimkhan Street. The authorities seemed to be particularly disturbed by these establishments, several of which quickly became popular cultural haunts: Nashre Roshangaran, run by Shahla Lahiji, among the first female Iranian publishers as founder of the Roshangaran and Motaleat-e Zanan presses, was forced to close, as was Nashre Cheshme in 2004 -- the authorities claimed that the combination of a bookstore and coffee shop was a legal infraction. Two years later, Nashre Sales, Badraghe Javidan, Ketabe Roshan, and Shahre Ketab Vanak were closed on the same grounds of "mixing of trades." Nashre Sales, an especially popular meeting spot for the capital's literati, had also hosted some celebrated foreign writers like Turkey's Nobel Prize-winning Orhan Pamuk. By contrast -- as the reformist newspaper Etemaad Melli, run by Green Movement leader Mehdi Karroubi, pointed out -- Ahl-e Ghalam, a bookstore linked to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, was allowed to keep its café.

The closing of coffee shops demonstrates the government's fear of the burgeoning counterculture they facilitate. As part of an officially sanctioned effort to reappropriate the coffeehouse from its identity as a hive of illicit and morally reprehensible activities, a café was opened in Tehran that for the first time sets aside one day a week exclusively for women. Countering the "Westernized culture" of the standard café, a strict Islamic dress code is enforced at Keraseh. During most of the week, both sexes are permitted, but women are expected to sit on the right side of the establishment at an "appropriate" distance from any male customers. This is yet another example of the ongoing effort to homogenize public space under the highly gendered laws and norms of the Islamic Republic, which manifested soon after the Revolution with the violent enforcement of compulsory hejab.

religiouscafeiran.jpg Farzaneh Pezeshki, Keraseh's manager, points out that her coffee shop has plenty of light, since everything that goes on there is very much in accord with the moral rules laid down by the authorities. Rather than "provocative" photographs or images of "decadent" Western philosophers or poets adorning the walls, as commonly seen in other cafés, religious messages and homilies are visible everywhere. It is the only coffee shop legally allowed to operate during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Offering little opportunity to socialize beside Qur'anic reading groups, religious cafés like Keraseh have been criticized for failing to provide an attractive place for groups of religious young people to gather. Ironically, the demand for a different model of religiously oriented café is indicative of a desire even on the part of devout youth for spaces away from home in which to socialize with likeminded people.

Bahamin Azadi is a pen name for an independent researcher in sociology. Photo credit (top) by Hessam Samavatian. Homepage photo via Flickr by n_shahdi.

by the same author | Painted Politics: The Mural in Modern Iran

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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