SULAIMANIA — Walk too quickly and you might just miss it. Wedged between a shoe shop and a men’s clothing stall, there is a narrow, run-down doorway. Pass through it and make your way down the dark corridor and soon you’ll find yourself in a windowless, dimly-lit, smoke-filled hall where the din of light-hearted conversation, lively disputes, and the bounce of backgammon dice echo loudly.
You might assume that this is just a run-of-the-mill Middle Eastern teahouse, a place where men of all ages typically gather to shoot the breeze. But you would be mistaken.
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Here, in the heart of the bustling bazaar of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania, lies a portal to the city’s tumultuous past. A city that has – in the last 60 years alone – seen uprisings, civil war, underground resistance, invasion and, finally, liberation. Chaikhana Shaab, or the People’s Teahouse, has had a front-row seat to it all.
“If these walls could talk,” says Baker Rashid, an actor, director and habitue of the teahouse, “they would tell you it’s the place where Kurdish history has been made, culture created and preserved.”
Fifty-nine-year-old Rashid continues: “Teahouses are a Middle Eastern thing. They aren’t unique to Kurdish culture. But cultural teahouses are different. You can find them in all the big cities, like Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. And here in Sulaimania, we have Chaikhana Shaab.”
Tea and laughter
When Chaikhana Shaab first opened its doors in 1950, Iraq was a kingdom. The Kurds, who populated mostly the northern provinces of Sulaimania, Erbil, Kirkuk and Dohuk, were still grappling with having been cheated out of a homeland in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920 by the Allied Powers and the Ottoman government, had promised to give the oil-rich Mosul Vilayet to the Kurds. But three years later, the British and French drew up an altogether different map.
The proprietor was Hama Sharif Hama Amin, who hailed from the district of Hawraman, near the Iraqi border with Iran, and was promptly nicknamed “Sharif Hawrami” by the Sulaimania townsmen.
Migration from rural areas into the urban centres was slowly becoming more common during this period, as the government in Baghdad implemented devastating land reforms. But most Kurds continued to identify themselves – and others – primarily with their ancestral villages.
If these walls could talk, they would tell you it's the place where Kurdish history has been made, culture created and preserved.
Directly above Hawrami’s teahouse, there was a boarding house called the Hotel Shaab.
“Hotel Shaab was the best hotel in town, right in the city centre,” recalls Hawrami’s son, 61-year-old Bakr Hama Sharif. “And the owner of the hotel knew many artists, poets, intellectuals and high-ranking people. Whenever they came to see him, he brought them down to my father’s teahouse.”
This informal association earned the teahouse its name; it soon became known as Chaikhana Shaab.
“In those days, there was no television. The men would sit for hours and talk about different things,” Bakr explains. “And my father was known for his great sense of humour. He would joke with them and make all of them laugh, so they kept coming back.”
Among Chaikhana’s notable early patrons were the Kurdish poets Faik Bekas, Akhol Shaeb, Abdullah Jowhar, and Salam Mamle. It is not known whether the city’s politician-cum-novelist Ibrahim Ahmed, whose novel about one man’s personal struggle in the fight for Kurdish independence, Jani Gal (Labour Pains of a Nation), was adapted into a film in 2006, sat among its tables. But he may well have done. So, too, did leading Kurdish cultural figures from Iran – men like Majid Khan.
These were the intellectuals whose patriotic verses were instrumental in shaping contemporary Kurdish cultural consciousness.
A verse from a poem by Faik Bekas, loosely translated, goes something like this: “I promise, God help me, I will put the enemy [of Kurds] on a leash like a dog and I will put it under my feet.”
As a child, Bakr would help his father at the teahouse after school. He enjoyed serving the customers, who would fuss over him, and would sometimes listen in on their conversations.
“I was about 10 years old when I heard one of the poets declare: ‘If Arabs should ever deny Kurdish nationhood, I will say my prayers in Kurdish,'” recalls Bakr. “I don’t remember the name of the poet who said it, but his words stuck in my mind.”
Spies like us
Over the years, Bakr would witness the strength of that Kurdish resolve as Iraq’s Baathist government tightened the noose on their quest for nationhood. After the death of his father, he took over the running of the Chaikhana and watched it evolve from a salon of intellectuals, philosophers and artists, into a hub of political activity. Many of the pivotal moments in the decades-long Iraqi Kurdish resistance have, in one way or another, involved a glass of sweet red tea at Chaikhana Shaab.
But this is a democratic teahouse. We take in everyone and anyone. We don't care about their religion or their politics. We just serve tea.
The 1950s and early 1960s were marked by major upheaval across the Middle East, and it was no different for the Kurds, who were mobilising into political formations. The Kurdish nation at large was reshaping itself after a short-lived experiment with independence in northwestern Iran. Less than a year after it was founded, the Mahabad Republic was quashed by Iranian forces in 1946 and many of its leaders were executed.
One of its military leaders, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, fled to the USSR, where he spent more than 10 years in exile. During this time, his supporters and other intellectuals established the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq (KDP). After Barzani’s return from exile in 1958, he assumed active leadership of the KDP but oversaw a period of infighting and splits. In 1970, he signed an Autonomy Agreement with Baghdad, but the latter’s reluctance to enforce it resulted in the 1974 uprising.
In March 1975, when Barzani ordered the Peshmerga fighters to lay down their weapons and go home, members of the leftist Komala organisation resumed underground resistance activity.
Komala – short for the Kurdistan Toilers’ League – was formed in 1970 by a group of self-styled Marxist-Leninists who teamed up with urban intelligentsia to oppose what they felt were Barzani’s sell-out deals with Baghdad.
“I was a member of Komala,” says Bakr, wistfully. “The Baathists had a hard time monitoring our activities, and couldn’t find anyone who would snitch. But they knew that we used to meet at the Chaikhana, to relay messages to each other covertly. So they decided to plant spies – mainly Kurdish collaborators – so they could eavesdrop on conversations, and identify possible dissidents.”
In June 1975, members of Komala and other leftists threw their weight behind leading Barzani critic and lawyer Jalal Talabani and formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, as Peshmerga resistance rallied against the central government in Baghdad, there was a renewed crackdown on Kurdish nationalists. In those days, Chaikhana Shaab was known to serve as an unofficial base of the PUK.
“The PUK used this teahouse to spread news and intelligence to its members, both combatants and non-combatants,” explains Bakr.
“Usually, an official would come in, and relay messages, either about battle successes that had to be communicated to residents of the city, or the other way around; warnings from the city to the fighters in the mountains over gathered intelligence about a possible ambush or general Iraqi troop movements, planned purges, that kind of thing.”
And then came the day in 1987 when Baathist officers barged into the teahouse to arrest Bakr and his younger brother, Omar.
The Arabs have coffee, but the Kurds have their tea.
“They targeted us because my other brother Hiwa was a Peshmerga fighting in the mountains. We were detained for some time and interrogated,” he says.
‘This is a democratic teahouse’
In 1991, at the start of the last Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein’s regime, a contingent of Peshmerga fighters came down from their positions in the mountains, and entered the city of Sulaimania. Their first stop was Chaikhana Shaab.
“The Peshmergas who entered the city, they first came here to the Chaikhana to have a glass of tea – and, to inform their contacts that the operation was under way. They had arrived in support of the civilian population that had risen up to reclaim the city and push the Baathists out,” Bakr says. “They were about to liberate Sulaimania!”
Among the contingent of Peshmergas who arrived at the teahouse that day were Sheikh Jafar, who now heads the PUK Peshmerga units against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Hakim Qader, who is now at the helm of Asayish (the region’s security agency) in Sulaimania, and Delawar Haji Osman.
But it was not long after the liberation of the city that inter-Kurdish fighting began. In 1994, long-brewing tensions between the PUK and the KDP finally erupted into full blown conflict. The civil war lasted for about four years.
“In the mid-1990s, the atmosphere was tense in the city. Chaikhana Shaab was known as a meeting place for the PUK, but because the PUK was driven out of the city by the KDP in 1996, it was a difficult time for any PUK supporters still living here,” recalls Bakr. “The Chaikhana was practically empty. Not many people came here in those days.”
Bakr pauses, smiles mischievously, then adds: “But this is a democratic teahouse. We take in everyone and anyone. We don’t care about their religion or their politics. We just serve tea.”
A place of learning
Indeed, tea is an indispensable part of Kurdish life and culture. An old Kurdish saying goes: “Never trust a man who doesn’t like tea.”
“The Arabs have coffee, but the Kurds have their tea,” says 72-year-old novelist Rauf Saber Saeed, also known by his nom de plume ‘Rauf Behgard’.
Behgard, who heads the city’s premier publishing house, Sardam, began to frequent Chaikhana Shaab in the 1970s.
“Chaikhana Shaab was the place where writers, novelists, translators, actors and theatrical people gathered to discuss new ideas, new trends,” he says. “Kurds who travelled abroad, to Europe or to the important cultural capitals of the region, Baghdad, Beirut or Cairo, they would come to the Chaikhana and tell us about new books, new writers, modern concepts … Chaikhana Shaab was the place to learn about what was happening in the world of arts and literature outside the Kurdish region.”
As a young man, Behgard would voraciously read Arab literary journals and cultural magazines which helped “open our eyes to what was happening in the world”, but it was at the Chaikhana that the exchange of ideas would take place.
Behgard likens Chaikhana Shaab to Baghdad’s famous literary cafes, Gahwat al Brazil (Brazilian Cafe) and Gahwat al Barlaman (Parliament Cafe).
“[French philosopher] Jean Paul Sartre had Les Deux Magots, and here we have Chaikhana Shaab,” quips Behgard, whose latest anthology of short stories entitled Slaw Kafka (Dear Kafka) will be published this month.
Chaikhana Shaab’s indelible place in the hearts of the Kurdish literati was formalised in the late 1990s with the publication of award-winning Kurdish novelist Sherko Bekas’ memoirs, Nusin Ba’awi Kholamesh (Writing With Ashes). Chronicling his life from childhood until the 1991 Kurdish uprising, Bekas dedicated a sizeable section to the teahouse where he had been a regular for decades.
In the 1970s, when this place was a ghost town, when everyone ran to the mountains and very few people would come to the teahouse anymore, we nearly closed down. But we didn't. We survived.
Over the years, Chaikhana Shaab has served several generations of intellectual leaders. Until his death in 2014, Sherko Bekas, the son of Faik Bekas, was a regular. Both the father and uncle of former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih used to frequent it. And as a young man, before he left to pursue his studies in the UK, Barham Salih was also known to visit.
But times have changed. In recent years, countless Western-style cafes have sprung up across Iraq’s Kurdish region. And, much to Behgard’s chagrin, they serve coffee rather than tea, along with a variety of Starbucks-style cakes and pastries. Many – gasp! – even serve shisha. They also offer free wi-fi, allowing young Kurds, whether artistically inclined or not, contact with the world beyond their region.
So, instead of conversing with fellow Kurds over endless glasses of sweet tea, they conduct their debates online with people they have never even met.
Despite the obvious demographic imbalance at the teahouse – most of the patrons are over 50 – Chaikhana Shaab’s owner is unfazed.
“There are still many young people who come here. So many of them come here. Even if we were to kick them out, they would still come back,” he jokes. “The young people of Sulaimania who left the city for Europe or the US, when they return for a visit, they always stop by Chaikhana Shaab. This is more than a teahouse. It is the very soul of the city.”
Bakr vows never to shut it down.
“Just like I took over from my father, my children will take over from me one day,” he says.
“We have come close to closing down before,” he concedes. “In the 1970s, when this place was a ghost town, when everyone ran to the mountains and very few people would come to the teahouse anymore, we nearly closed down. But we didn’t. We survived.”
Some well-meaning patrons have gently suggested that he install wi-fi and replace the backgammon stalls with video games, to better woo the younger generation. But Bakr is intransigent and dismisses the idea with a wave of his hand.
“What do I need wi-fi for?” he asks. “I like it the way it is. If the place is still running, then I must be doing something right.”
Indeed, if the Chaikhana was able to survive war and invasion, why would it not overcome a little healthy competition from a few flashy restobars and cafes?
In 2004, former Iraqi President (and PUK leader) Jalal Talabani paid for the renovation of the Chaikhana, which is now widely recognised as a national institution.
Actor Baker Rashid sums it up best: “Yes, the new generation is different. This century, people have changed, and young people in Kurdistan have changed, too. But this is an historical place. There will never be another place like this because of the history that it’s imbibed with. This will be like a museum. It will stay.”
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @ummanais