Baghdad Café

Baghdad, January 31, 2003

THROUGHOUT THE ISLAMIC WORLD, Friday is known as the day for Juma prayer. But for the literati that fill the benches and rest their short Turkish coffees on the small wobbly tables at the Sh’ah Bander Café, Friday is dedicated to the written word. By 9:30 a.m. the café is full with betweeded middle-aged men. If stripped of their nagila pipes and shai Iraqi teas, they would more resemble characters from an Evelyn Waugh novel than stereotypical Arabs, their pinstripes, Yorkshire caps, and dapper ties reminiscent of 1920s England.

The Caribbean-colored walls of the café reflect the nobility of the wordsmiths who sit beneath them, crammed as they are with black-and-white photographs of what seems to be a rather sophisticated time in Baghdad’s past. Antique frames are stuffed with yellowed pictures of Iraq’s first king, Faisal Abdul Aziz, as both boy and man, hand-colored prints of a Baghdad street riot during British times, and endless faces from an era that knew no weapons of mass destruction.

Outside, on Mutanabi Street, booksellers hustle dust-covered volumes for however many dinar might change hands. The street, named for a legendary poet who thought himself a prophet, is the historic heart of Baghdad’s book district. Sh’ah Bander, in fact, is located in a former printing press. It’s no surprise that such literary interests persist in the region that produced the Epic of Gilgamesh. This, after all, is present-day Mesopotamia.

Throughout the Al-Mutanabi district, the restaurants are full, the fruit stands are fully stocked, and the red double-decker buses rolling by seem oddly familiar. There are no armed militiamen at intersections. No tanks grinding up the asphalt on Sharia Raschid. But through the carbon monoxide haze one sees the shattered underbelly of a country crippled by twelve years of economic sanctions, two self-destructive wars with its neighbors in the past fourteen years, and an oppressive, self-serving dictatorship.

The Sh’ah Bander and other nearby cafés are a haven from the sanctions that have left many intellectuals driving taxis for dinar instead of pounding the keys of Crown typewriters. There is little money in Baghdad at all, even less for the purchase of words, but their passion for writing has not been dissuaded by lack of financial remuneration. “We don’t need a full stomach, but we do need to read and write” says Wajeeh Abbas, who writes for next to nothing for the weekly magazine al-Itihad. A few of the writers who gather here have been awarded small stipends from the government, but they have yet to receive any payments.

It seems that the oppression and economic struggles have given these writers an even stronger desire to produce. Many poems reflect their suffering, but others still relish romantic ideals. “We are human not iron” retorts Abdulati el Rashed of the al-Jumhuriah newspaper. The current trend among many of the poets is to write in what they call a European style, without rhyme. But some still prefer the more traditional Arab colloquial form known as she’ar shabi. Whatever the style, the writers at the Sh’ah Bander call their passion for writing “a form of madness.”

Although many of these men have begrudgingly sold off their book collections to traders on al-Mutanabi, they feel the need to look forward, not back — a reflection of Iraqi life outside the walls of Sh’ah Bander, where a city waits in limbo. The people have nothing more to do than go through the daily motions of normality. In the shadow of impending chaos, the café is filled with a sense of not just preserving less troubled times, but of continuing a strong cultural tradition rooted in words.

“This is my homeland / It’s my home and grave / And last place” writes poet Amer Abdil Ameer. “Who’ll carry its bags but me?”

JASON FLORIO is a London-born, New York-based photographer. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Newsweek, and Talk magazine, and has been acquired by the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He has been most drawn to the diversity of the Muslim world and has concentrated his work there for the past six years.