The Culture Café of Iraq
With the Iraqi parliamentary elections approaching this month, the Book Forum Café in Mosul (a city in northern Iran) became a popular hangout for citizens where talks and discussions focused on literacy and political awareness were regularly held, often led by the Khutwa Club, a debate society. While coffee’s bold step has surprised many in the outside world, those familiar with Iraq’s coffee culture have not been surprised. Because cafes in Iraq are traditionally known as spaces for political and cultural discussions.
So, if you are in Iraq at any time, take the time to visit traditional teahouses, cafes or modern cafes in Baghdad and other cities. You will find them not only around business blocks or popular cultural centers, but also hidden among the streets and alleys. It is not uncommon to find cafes named after cultural figures such as Farid Al Atrash or Umm Kulthum.
Café Shahbandar, Baghdad
An institution in its own right, this café, which ended its century in 2017, sits in the middle of Mutanabbi Street, famous for its bookshops. Coupled with owner Al-Hajj Muhammad Al-Khashali banning all kinds of games, from cards to dominoes, since 1963 it has flourished as an intellectual center. There is an old world charm to the place, with white photographs lining the wall, wooden doors, carefully arranged wooden benches, tea served in ‘istikan’. People of all ages frequent the cafe, some reading quietly, some watching people, others having heated discussions, while the waiters come in and out, pouring the umpteenth cup of tea or carrying trays of food. However, the cafe also paid the price for being on Baghdad’s busiest street when it was hit hard in a 2007 bombing that left many dead, including the owner’s four sons. , according to reports.
Umm Kulthum Café, Baghdad
Named after one of the greatest singers of Arab music, this Rasheed Street cafe opened in 1972. The walls are covered with photographs of the singer. Prepare to be drawn into some serious political discussion here as it is popular with intellectuals.
Alreef Café, Baghdad
The smell of strong coffee emerges when you walk into this popular book cafe in central Baghdad. Grab a book from the floor-to-ceiling libraries (a collaboration with Daraj Bookstore) and settle into one of the comfy sofas with your choice of coffee. Don’t forget to check out the digital drawings made by the owner herself. They also have a branch in Erbil.
Aqua Café, Baghdad
Customers appreciate the variety of coffees, pastries and desserts at this modern, family-run cafe that opened in 2017.
Elpida Cafe, Duhok
Located in the town of Duhok (in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq), this cafe is known for its freshly roasted coffee, selection of teas, flavored lemonades and desserts. They have both outdoor and indoor seating (non-smoking only). They have a shelf for those who want to enjoy a quiet reading moment with their coffee.
Considered the most populous city in Kurdistan, Erbil is known for its historical sites. It is also home to some of the old tea rooms. Machko, over 80, is one of them. According to the ancients, it was once the place where storytellers would meet and sing traditional songs. Today a key center for political and cultural discussions. However, veterans find the cafe loses its old character and gives way to a modern vibe.
Chaikhana Shaab, Sulaymaniyah
Sulaymaniyah, in the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, was known as the homeland of some of the country’s best poets, performers and other cultural figures. It’s no surprise, then, that the city’s most popular teahouse, opened in 1950, is the place where you can easily rub shoulders with politicians, artists and poets. See if you can strike up a conversation with the owner for an account of the role the cafe played during the region’s political turmoil in the 1980s.