The Peo­ple’s Tea­house

The Kurdish Globe - - EDITORIAL - By Joshua Levkowitz

Domino pieces rapidly slap onto the ta­ble in the open­ing salvo. The tempo in­creases with the soft chimes of stir­ring spoons. The crash­ing sounds of saucers be­gin to build. Lay­ered over the per­cus­sion sec­tion, the din of chat­ter com­pletes the daily opus heard at the Shaab tea­house in Sle­mani, Iraq.

In the tra­di­tional fab­ric of Kur­dish life, the tea­house be­came the space for men to so­cial­ize akin to bars in the West. Shaab, since its foun­da­tion in Sleimani in 1952, acts as a sanc­tu­ary for denizens of the city to par­tic­i­pate in the de­vel­op­ments of pub­lic life.

Shaab stands apart from the rest of the tea­houses that dot the city be­cause of its re­la­tion­ship with the Iraqi Kur­dish strug­gle for au­ton­omy. I sat down for a cup of sug­ary tea with owner Baker Sharif to dis­cuss the his­tory of the place.

“This tea­house was orig­i­nally a ho­tel known as Amira, un­til my fa­ther, Sharif, came from Howraman. Many of Sleimani’s in­hab­i­tants helped him open Shaab.”

The tea­house’s name comes from the Ara­bic word for peo­ple or na­tion be­cause “my fa­ther rec­og­nized its sig­nif­i­cance,” Baker claims. He con­tin­ues, “On any day, this tea­house rep­re­sents our peo­ple: politi­cians, in­tel­lec­tu­als, artists, la­bor­ers, cler­ics and lay peo­ple alike.” Kurds, mostly men, con­gre­gate here to dis­cuss cur­rent af­fairs over sev­eral cups of tea.

Baker has worked at Shaab since he was seven years old. Lift­ing his teacup with cal­loused fin­gers, he be­gins telling me about Kur­dish Mukhabarat agents en­ter­ing the tea­house as early as 1973. They would spy on po­lit­i­cal ag­i­ta­tors, notably mem­bers from the Pa­tri­otic Union of Kur­dis­tan (PUK). “The PUK claimed this to be their unof­fi­cial head­quar­ters [af­ter 1975],” Baker says as he points to the floor. Even­tu­ally, em­ploy­ees and pa­trons of the tea­house were able to spot th­ese agents and adeptly switch their con­ver­sa­tions to triv­ial topics. “Ev­ery­one would see them coming in and go back to play­ing domi­noes,” Baker slyly smiles.

As Sad­dam’s Ba’athist pres­ence be­came more re­pres­sive in Sleimani in the late 1970s, in­hab­i­tants had lim­ited knowl­edge on Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal move­ments and rebel of­fen­sives hap­pen­ing in the moun­tains. Baker says, “At night­time, Pesh­merga came into the city and would de­liver na­tion­al­is­tic pam­phlets here.” The Shaab tea­house be­came an es­sen­tial link be­tween the PUK Pesh­merga and the peo­ple of Sleimani.

Other news­pa­pers were also dis­trib­uted to the tea­house in or­der to evade the heavy hand of the Ba’athist regime. Ko­ma­lah, a Kur­dish group in­flu­enced by Maoist ide­ol­ogy, pro­duced the news­pa­per “A New Way,” and de­liv­ered it to Shaab af­ter­hours. As the Ba’athists were able to com­pletely iso­late Sleimani by day, dis­senters at the tea­house were able to stoke the Kur­dish rev­o­lu­tion­ary spirit through­out the night.

The tea­house was a safe haven for all Kur­dish peo­ple be­cause peo­ple re­spected its plu­ral­is­tic makeup. The di­verse bunch of “PUK, KDP, Com­mu­nists, and other ac­tivists” would en­gage in lively de­bate over a cup of tea and a game of backgam­mon.

As the Iran-Iraq war reached its apex in the late 1980s, Kur­dish sol­diers of the Iraqi mil­i­tary de­fected in in­creas­ing num­bers. Baker knew the fate of th­ese de­fec­tors if the Mukhabarat found them so he uti­lized aban­doned ho­tel rooms on the sec­ond floor of the tea­house as a refuge for up to twelve sol­diers at a time. On one oc­ca­sion, po­lice en­tered the tea­house de­mand­ing to be taken to the sec­ond floor. Baker re­counted, “I just told them that there was a lot of dirt and stor­age equip­ment up there. I kept talk­ing un­til they left.” At that time, the poet Mo­hammed Omer Os­man, known to­day as the Gen­eral of Au­tumn, was hid­ing up­stairs. Con­tem­po­rary Kur­dish po­etry would not have been the same with­out the tea­house’s pro­tec­tion of Os­man.

Af­ter the Gulf War in 1991, Shaab once again be­came an im­por­tant meet­ing point for the Pesh­merga coming down from the moun­tains. Im­por­tant lead­ers to­day such as Naw­shir­wan Mustafa, Mo­hammed Salih, and oth­ers would meet there to dis­cuss pol­i­tics.

Apart from this dis­course , Kurds liv­ing abroad used the tea­house as a de­pend­able place to send re­mit­tances for their fam­ily. The tea­house served an es­sen­tial link be­tween the Kur­dish di­as­pora and those Kurds try­ing to re­con­struct their lives in post-war Iraq.

To­day, the Shaab tea­house con­tin­ues to be the back­bone of so­cial life in Sleimani. Due to the tea­house’s legacy, the government spon­sored ren­o­va­tions in 2004 and 2012. Look­ing around the packed room, Baker says, “This place is as vi­brant as ever.”

As Shaab’s at­mos­phere of lively chat­ter and cig­a­rette smoke swirls around, the Kurds’ tena­cious strug­gle for iden­tity be­comes all the more un­der­stood.

Lo­cal men play domi­nos and en­joy hot tea at the Shaab Tea­house in Suleimaniya Down­town, June 29, 2012.

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