Desegregating a Baghdad Cafe
In Baghdad today, changes occur by the minute. It would be downright cynical to say that they frequently occur at the end of a gun, but I have to say I’ve become cynical with age. Still, positive changes can be rolled back simply by not standing firm. I’m reminded of that when I recollect my first entry into the Shahbander Café, an icon of the new Iraq. By the time my colleagues and I had arrived in the city last June, it had become a familiar Baghdadi haunt for journalists, photographers, ethnographers and cultural historians. Something about that cavernous interior, with its wooden benches and hookah-smoking clientèle had captured the attention both of the Western press and returning locals.
But to start at the top. One Friday morning, our group went to the famous al-Mutannabi street, the street of the booksellers, and, after browsing its dusty stalls and the scattered books displayed on the pavement, we accidentally bumped into Dr. Lamia al-Gailani, an Iraqi archaeologist, and Mrs. Amal al-Khudhairi. Amal had been the patron of Bait al-Iraqi, a celebrated cultural salon which once brought artists, writers and musicians together in a gracious setting on Baghdad’s most famous street, the Rasheed. The house was bombed during the war, one tragedy among many in a city whose whole history seemed to spread before us like a catalogue of abuses. A chance remark from me on whether a woman could now enter the Shahbander Café, traditionally a man’s preserve, set Lamia’s eyes ablaze. “I don’t see why not”, she said forcefully, “Wait, I’ll come with you”.
I remember my trepidation when I entered the café: I was breaking a social convention of old Baghdad that women do not enter traditional coffee houses in the city. But heck, this was the new Iraq. I was not going to fraternize with the chess-playing, tea-swigging, cigarette smoking patrons of the cafe, I was just going to order a Pepsi. Well, as it turned out, this was then…. Two months ago, I again went to the Shahbander, this time to meet with a history Professor from Baghdad University. But lo and behold, he was standing outside on the pavement. When I naturally moved towards the door of the café, he looked at me in an embarrassed way and said almost too quickly, “Come and meet my friend Ahmad, who’s got the best-stocked bookstore in town”.
So there you have it. Something so simple as entering a coffee shop in Old Baghdad in 2004 became an indicator of gauche expatriate ethics. I could have forced the issue, of course. But would it have resulted in instant desegregation? I leave that for my feminist readers to respond.
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