Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—A coffeehouse that was damaged in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s famed Al-Mutanabbi Street is still buzzing with intellectuals nearly a hundred years since it first opened its doors.
Shabandar coffeehouse is located in the heart of Al-Mutanabbi Street’s celebrated book market. The café is considered to be the oldest and the most renowned in the Iraqi capital. Some see it as Baghdad’s cultural and political lung, while others see it as an important commercial center where all sections of Iraqi society meet.
The car bomb that detonated in March 2007 caused the destruction of the entire street, killing more than 30 people. The café’s owner, Hajj Mohamed Kazem Al-Khashali, lost four of his sons and a grandson in the attack.
Khashali renamed the café “Martyrs Coffeehouse,” a name that is now used alongside the old title that was drawn from an old Baghdadi family, the Shabandars.
The street was renovated and officially reopened by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki in late 2008: The Shabandar coffeehouse had survived yet another chapter in a century of dramatic change.
The café first opened in 1917, at the beginning of the British occupation of Baghdad. Khashali explains that, due to the café’s proximity to the Iraqi government headquarters, “upon the formation of Iraqi governments and the installation of King Faisal I, the café’s customers were mostly senior government officials.”
Built from gypsum, the café shows off one of the rare examples of authentic Baghdadi architecture that still stands today. Its walls are hung with portraits of Khalil Pasha, the last Ottoman governor of Baghdad, King Faisal I (r. 1921–1933), and several ministers from the royal period, as well as celebrities such as Umm Kalthoum.
Many of the surrounding structures have become commercial premises, but Khashali has been determined to keep the café’s old spirit alive. “Because I’m proud of my country’s culture and respect writers and artists, I distanced myself from the commercial mentality.” He explains that “Shabandar coffeehouse remained a place and a symbol of thinkers and artists. Despite the allures, I declined to accept many offers and held tight to this place. It is thanks to this place that I have become a friend of people in the cultural, literary and art milieu.”
Today, dignitaries, intellectuals and merchants still meet to conclude deals, exchange anecdotes and ideas, listen to stories and poetry, or just sit to read the paper. Khashali has ensured the environment caters to their needs: “Since 1963, the date I became owner of this place, all the usual entertainment and games in coffeehouses, such as dominos and backgammon, have been banned so that the coffeehouse is purely a literary and cultural gathering place for writers and poets who need to engage in discussions, and for students to be able to read in peace and quiet.”
TV anchor and poet Hamid Al-Qasem says: “We writers have developed a close relationship with Shabandar coffeehouse because the place is calm and we can talk to one another and exchange ideas and opinions and discuss new developments in the art sphere.” He explains that the café is particularly busy on Fridays, when writers, intellectuals and artists flow toward Al-Mutanabbi Street.
Khashali says: “Thanks to my efforts, supervision and my appeals for aid since the 1990s, I obtained a decree whereby the coffeehouse is considered a tourist and a cultural attraction.” He explains that were it not for the decree, the coffeehouse would have not been maintained and it would have been turned into shops.
Khashali does concede that some things have changed: “In the past, the coffeehouse saw Ramadan night sessions where visitors enjoyed listening to the Iraqi maqam [traditional music]. At the present time, however, this is limited only to Fridays and holidays.”