In Baghdad café, poetry, not politics, sparks the debate

Mohammad Khish Ali, 75, (seated) the owner of the Shahbandar cafe in old Baghdad, (Iraq) chats with customers, Nov. 7, 2014. On the wall are the portraits of his five sons killed in a 2007 bombing that destroyed the original building. Ali escaped serious injury.
Mohammad Khish Ali, 75, (seated) the owner of the Shahbandar cafe in old Baghdad, (Iraq) chats with customers, Nov. 7, 2014. On the wall are the portraits of his five sons killed in a 2007 bombing that destroyed the original building. Ali escaped serious injury. McClatchy

Khalid Ali Mustapha and his friends were arguing. Not about the issues of the day, like the latest Islamic State atrocity or how plummeting oil prices and corruption are straining Iraq’s exchequer. The dispute was over a poem about unrequited love.

“I don’t believe he wrote this poem,” Mustapha said of its author, prompting finger wags and tongue clicks of disagreement. “I believe he stole it from another poet. I say this because he never wrote another poem.”

While the debate may seem misplaced amid Iraq’s sectarian horrors and political turmoil, it was in keeping with the time-honored chinwag that has for decades made the Shahbandar café an oasis of camaraderie for many of Baghdad’s writers, artists, playwrights, professors, journalists and others.

The Shahbandar is always open. But it’s only on Fridays – the Islamic day of prayer and rest – that high-brow clientele plow through the crowd-clogged streets of Baghdad’s old city, rendezvous in the corner establishment’s shady interior and gab for hours on narrow wooden benches over water pipes and glasses of over-sweetened tea.

“I decided to welcome the well educated and to welcome those who want to have genuine conversation and put away the games,” said the owner, Mohammad Khish Ali, 75, referring to the chip-slapping backgammon duels that typify other cafés. “I want to attract culture, to have scientists and those who want to learn.”

The café also welcomes those who usually aren’t found in such places in conservative Iraq: women.

“This place is for everyone,” said Heba Ibrahim, a government translator who showed up one recent Friday with four female friends. “Whoever is here is open-minded. That’s why, to me, it’s a great place to take your leisure. No one will say bad things about you.”

While it can be challenging to find an open bench to squeeze on to, the massive emigration of academics and members of the professional class escaping Iraq’s years of bloodletting has diminished the number of regulars.

“Many people who used to sit with us have left,” said Moyad al Bassam, 66, an author and art historian. “This is Iraq and we are Iraqis, so death is always in front of us.”

Death came to the Shahbandar on March 5, 2007, in the midst of the sectarian war ignited by the 2003 U.S. invasion, when an explosives-laden pickup erupted 40 yards away.

The blast collapsed a row of buildings, including the one where Ali’s great-grandfather’s grandfather had opened the café in 1917 in what was the city’s Ottoman Empire-built administrative heart. Also destroyed was a print shop Ali owned that was directly across from the blast. Sixty-eight people died, including five of Ali’s sons. Somehow he survived.

“The explosion destroyed the entire place. It collapsed in on itself,” recalled Ali, choking back tears. “I was buried underneath. I was unconscious. People had to pull me out.”

Asked why he thought his shop and café were targeted, Ali was caustic. “Ask Bush,” he replied, referring to former President George W. Bush. “They occupied us. The security portfolio was under their control.”

Like many Iraqis, Ali clearly remains livid over the invasion and the suffering that it unleashed.

“I have a personal view of Bush,” he said. “Jesus will join me in heaven against him.”

It cost some $30 million to rebuild the café and other buildings, said Ali, who spurned offers of foreign contributions because of a demand by international donors that the expenditures of their money be verified by an independent monitor.

“You killed my sons without an agent. Now you want to impose an agent on me?” he recalled saying in rejecting the offers. He declined to disclose from which countries the offers came, but his words implied they were American.

Portraits of his dead sons and calligraphy excerpts from the Quran adorn a wall overlooking the strategically placed wooden desk where Ali sits, wearing a robe-like dishdasha and turban, keeping watch over the chattering crowd while settling bills and bantering with customers.

The other walls are festooned with copies of black-and-white photographs from bygone eras, hanging in lines like a parade through Iraq’s turbulent history. Conspicuously absent are pictures from the rule of Saddam Hussein and the U.S. invasion that ended it.

The photographs replaced those destroyed in the bombing. Luckily, Ali had archived the negatives of some. Others were dug up by friends and patrons.

Many are from World War I and the British mandate that followed. More than a few are of King Faisal I, the son of the emir of the holy city of Mecca and descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, who the British installed in 1921. One features Faisal with a group of British officers, including T.E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia.

In another is Gertrude Bell, the renowned British traveler, diplomat and spy who worked with Lawrence to promote Faisal to the monarchy and helped set the borders of modern Iraq.

There are others of famous Iraqi poets, actors and writers, the kind of clientele who fill the place on Fridays with boisterous chitchat as waiters wend between the benches, deftly avoiding jostling the stool-like wooden tables and upsetting the small glasses of tea clustered on their tops.

It’s not just the rarefied conversation inside that attracts the café’s regulars.

Fridays also are when a weekly book market is held outside on Mutanabbi Street. Peddlers pile their wares in jumbled heaps or regimented rows on the ground or atop carts set up in front of the small bookshops lining the street. Browsers jostle as they search the titles while children hunt for school texts.

“One of the most important things about this place is that the oldest book shops are here. So it’s a source of knowledge,” said Salman Dragh al Saibah, 75, a retired government economist who’s been coming to the Shahbandar since the 1950s.

It wasn’t always so, he recalled.

“When Saddam was in power, you couldn’t get all the books that people wanted,” al Saibah said. “There were restrictions on religious books.”

Moreover, he said, no one openly discussed politics because they feared secret police informants.

“People were afraid of each other. People talked politics among themselves so there was no need to do it in public,” said al Saibah. “Now politics is the first thing people talk about. It’s a priority. There’s a hair’s-width distance between us and death. Maybe we will be killed when we leave the café.”

Nearby, a debate revved among a group of older gentlemen who’ve been meeting at the café for more than 30 years. At issue was a poem written in the 1970s titled “Leila and Me,” which was eventually set to a popular tune.

Al Bassam disputed the contention that the poem wasn’t written by Hassan al Marwani.

“I knew Hassan al Marwani and I knew one of his friends who told me the story,” said al Bassam, relating how the author had penned the poem about a woman from an elite Baghdad family with whom he fell in love at university but who spurned him because he was a poor country lad. “He was crazy about her.”

Like Iraq, the Shabandar’s future is clouded.

Ali said that none of his five surviving sons wants to take over the café when he’s too old to run it.

“They told me it’s a losing business,” he explained. “Other cafés have closed because of the terrible situation. But I have deep roots in Baghdad. That’s why I want to keep it running.

“When foreign tourists return to Baghdad, they will have a real impression of life here from this place, a real understanding of our culture and our history.”