The People’s Tea House

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.” 

Men gather over backgammon boards at Shaab Teahouse

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

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