Trendy Teahouses Strain Baghdad Traditions

Swanky TVs, soft drinks and exotic tobacco lure a young, mixed crowd to new-look cafes.

Trendy Teahouses Strain Baghdad Traditions

Swanky TVs, soft drinks and exotic tobacco lure a young, mixed crowd to new-look cafes.

Friday, 16 October, 2009
Sweet fumes of white smoke rise with the cries of men playing dominoes in the teahouse, spreading an unfamiliar scent in a traditional setting.

Change is wafting through the musty, masculine café culture of Baghdad, and fruit-flavoured tobacco is just one sign of it. The fragrant product is replacing the pure tobacco leaf smoked by generations of Iraqis in the hubble-bubble, or nargileh.

It is served in a new type of teahouse whose other attractions typically include giant TV screens, a range of soft drinks besides the traditional tea, and occasionally, a few women clients among the men.

Venues of this kind are thriving with better security in Baghdad, though other forms of leisure remain limited by the conflict.

“Where else can we go in a country where there are no places for amusement?” asked Ali Hussein, a 32-year-old motor parts dealer in Baghdad. “The cafe is heaven for us - a place to meet friends and release the fatigue of work.”

The crowd at the new teahouses is generally youthful, with tastes in entertainment shaped by neighbouring countries where some lived until recently as refugees.

Sarmad al-Waili, a music-store owner in his early thirties, sees much in common between the new type of Baghdadi café and the ones he frequented when he fled to Syria during the sectarian conflict.

“Young Iraqis who came back after the situation grew calmer are copying the Syrian style,” he said. “They’ve paid more attention to the décor and the quality of service.”

Sarmad’s favourite venue is Al-Iraq, a modernised teahouse in central Baghdad offering attentive waiters, dozens of nargileh, snack food and live sports on flat-screen TV monitors.

“This café was very different ten years ago,” said Dhiya Nasaif Jasim, the 42-year-old owner of Al-Iraq.

“I’ve replaced the bamboo chairs with plastic ones because they last longer, and I’ve added lights and plants to improve the atmosphere,” he said. Dhiya says his customers spend an average of 5,000 Iraqi dinars (about 4 US dollars) per person. The average used to be 1,500 dinars.

“Young people nowadays are looking for more greenery, and a special setting,” he said.

According to Dhiya, the clientele inside the tearoom has changed with the décor, “Cafes used to be for people aged 25 and upward. It was shameful for anyone younger than that to be seen in one. Nowadays, you see all sorts – from teenagers to the elderly.”

The conversation has changed too, taking in the country’s contentious politics in a way that was impossible in the days of Saddam Hussein, when the fear of informers fostered taboos.

“People discuss sectarian issues,” said Hassan al-Ani, a taxi driver in his forties, adding that a recent bank robbery and a corruption investigation have also been major talking points in the teahouse.

Not all are comfortable with this candour. Despite recent improvements, Baghdad remains a violent and unpredictable city.

“I avoid speaking of sectarian matters,” Sarmad said. “If it comes up in conversation, I try to change the subject or leave.”

Dhiya says he rarely hears anyone discussing the Shia-Sunni divide, blamed for much of Iraq’s recent bloodshed. He remains cautious however - guards search customers entering his café and weapons are not permitted.

Most of the time, Dhiya says, teahouse chatter explores new political and social freedoms.

“In the past, the customers mostly spoke of personal troubles, life, food rations… and very cautiously about the government. Now they speak openly about the government, criticising it without fear,” he said.

“Young people also speak freely about their love affairs and their relationships with girls.”

Women may feature heavily in conversations between men but they remain a minority, even in Baghdad’s more modern teahouses.

Hamid Salim, a 28-year-old electrician from the Karrada district, wishes the women were more visible. “We are not doing anything wrong. In the Muslim countries of the Gulf, you can see women smoking the nargileh. Why should it be a problem here?” he said.

Isam Ahmed, a 19-year-old student at a nargileh café in northern Baghdad’s Tunis district, also cites the example of neighbouring countries.

He says Iraqi teahouses have gone through a revolution, now that teenagers like him can visit them without fear of disapproval. “In my father’s time, only my grandfather smoked the nargileh,” he said.

For some old-timers in the old-fashioned establishments, the presence of women and young men in teahouses is a source of concern.

Subhi al-Hadithi, a man in his late sixties dressed in a dishdasha, believes smoking nargileh is a privilege acquired with age.

“It corrupts young men, and wastes their creative potential and their money,” he said, seated in Baghdad’s traditional Hassan Ajmi teahouse, where dusty fans dangle from a wooden roof.

“No one is forbidden from entering the cafes but allowing women and men to smoke in the same place is a misinterpretation of freedom.”

However, another habitué of the old-fashioned teahouses says women ought to be made welcome. “Given all this talk about equality and women’s rights, I think it is very civilised to have women sitting in cafes,” said Mohammed Nasir, a retired government employee.

Nonetheless, reservations about admitting women remain widespread.

Dhiya, the owner of the al-Iraq teahouse, recalls having to eject customers from his bar after an armed confrontation over a girl.

“Young Iraqis are not mature enough to accept [mingling between the sexes],” he said. “I am sure it will create problems as they start to flirt with girls and harass them.”

Sarmad, the music-store owner who frequents Al-Iraq, also says he would rather women stayed away, “I don’t feel at ease to joke loudly or call my friends rude names when women are around.”

“I come here to have a break from the wife and from the noise of the children.”

Good Iraqi women do not go to such venues, he says, adding that it would create problems with his wife if she learnt women also frequented the teahouses.

Khalid al-Ansary is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.
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