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Drinking Coffee In Tehran's 'Islands Of Forgetfulness'

Female vocals and the soft thud of chill-out beats mixes with the steam of the coffee maker, the jingle and clank of cups, and the chatter of young people.

Over 10 years ago, there were very few coffee shops in the Iranian capital, but now they are everywhere and each person has at least one or two favorite places.

“It truly doesn't matter where in Tehran you are. In the posh northern suburbs or downtown, coffee shops are little islands of sanctuary," says Mehrdad, a coffee-shop manager in central Tehran.

"But unlike many places in Europe, for example France in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Tehran coffee shops are not principally political. Coffee shops in Iran -- and particularly in Tehran -- are 'islands of temporary forgetfulness,'” Mehrdad says, emphasizing the word "forgetfulness."

Mehrdad has been in this business for over 15 years and I always find time to go to his coffee shop.

A big smile and a strong and warm handshake are his trade. Before smoking was banned a couple of years ago, he would always offer me a cigarette.

While making an espresso Mehrdad continues: “The present culture of drinking coffee came from university students wanting to stay up for exams, although drinking Turkish coffee was not uncommon in households, especially if it was followed by fortune telling.”

I hear a giggling sound from the table behind me and as I turn I realize that one of the girls has an upside-down cup in her hand, one of the rituals of reading the coffee grounds. “And do you remember that drinking instant coffee was supposed to be a sign of social status?” says the fortune-teller girl.

“Coffee shops in Iran are a different breed to their European counterparts,” Mehrdad says. I look around the room and ask Mehrdad, “so why do people come to coffee shops anyway?”

Mehrdad raises his right eyebrow toward a table in the corner, which happened to be a smartly hidden part of the shop where a couple sat, staring into each other’s eyes and holding hands.

“The majority of customers are lovers, be it a girlfriend-boyfriend couple, a mistress or a lover, fiances, newly married couples, or just interested parties needing a place to sit, look at each other and talk over a coffee," Mehrdad says.

Music Sharing

A young man with a strange hairdo (strange that is to the norms of Iranian society) then came to sit at our table.

His name was Bahador and without hesitation he starts to promote his music. “We've produced this CD ourselves. It's a rock album that has got some air time in San Jose. It would mean a lot to us if you purchase it and support our underground production,” he says.

As I was paying for the original but illegal CD (not bootlegged but illegal because this kind of music is prohibited by the government) Mehrdad whispers, “This is the second group of coffee-shop customers: artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals.”

“There are no ways and no places for musicians whose work is not approved by the government to promote their music," Mehrdad says as Bahador left our table.

"Many of these bands go underground and promote their music through the Internet but then they do not get any income from it and if they want to have even a small concert, they get arrested…. And the lucky few that get a chance of publishing their books, come [here] to have book readings."

I look around and see some paintings on the wall, as well as some picture prints with price tags under them. “Do you ever concentrate on selling coffee in this place?” I ask Mehrdad.

My comment annoys him a little bit. “For now coffee shops are everything: a book-reading place, a dating place, an underground music distribution center, sometimes an art gallery. But at the end of the day, it's a place that people, and especially young people, come to get away from it all just for one hour.”

Ahmad is a pseudonym for a journalist in the Iranian capital, Tehran.

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