During our last trip to Suleimaniya, we went to a teahouse of yore. You know, one of those places where intellectuals, writers, poets, artists, firebrand revolutionaries, lefties, the young, the old, and usually men but sometimes women gather. Tea, coffee, and maybe something stronger are drunk. Plans to overthrow the chains of colonialism, capitalism, governments, and hegemony are made. New ideas are born. Friendships, partnerships, and alliances are made and broken over games of domino and chess. Maybe I exaggerate. More often than not, it’s just a comfortable place to sit, drink, and shoot the sh*t for a while.
The teahouse we visited in Suleimaniya is the oldest surviving one in Kurdistan. Its walls are covered with portraits of famous Kurdish poets, writers, singers, musicians, thinkers, and politicians. Abdullah Ocalan features prominently. There are glass bookshelves filled with dusty old books that you can read while sipping your tea. The back of the teahouse is where the domino players gather to slap their domino pieces rather violently onto wobbly metal tables. There’s a steady hum throughout this hazy, smoke-filled establishment from the conversations and the TVs that rather unfortunately occupies center stage. Or maybe the constant reel of news and political commentary are what feeds revolution-starting conversations in our day and age. Anna and I were once again the only women present, but this particular teahouse is open only for women on Thursdays – a chance for Kurdish women to start their own revolution?
I keep talking about revolutions. I think I’m a bit nostalgic for the idea of cafe culture a la Les Deux Magots, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I can’t really be nostalgic about something I’ve never experienced (
hipster alert!), though our fair share of hegemony-smashing talk does happen in a public space. Only it’s a pub, not a teahouse or a cafe. We don’t really have anything like the teahouses of Kurdistan, the coffeehouses of 17th and 18th century London, or the cafes of 20th century Paris anymore. Instead, we have Starbucks. A place to go for a cup of really bad coffee and free wifi. Where, instead of being social with people in real life, you sit by yourself being social in the virtual world, and perhaps not utter a single word in several hours except to ask for another bad coffee. Once in a while you’ll run into an independent coffee shop that makes good coffee and has friendlier baristas and clientele, but you’ll probably still be working on that novel in solitude while trying to make your $5 coffee last for two hours. Or if you’re like me, try and finish your required reading on constitutional design but give up after two pages and drink several very expensive long blacks while watching the Shoreditch hipsters go by.
But there really is something to be said about coffee/teahouse culture and dissent. Public meeting spaces are vital for a thriving civic and political culture, which is in turn a cornerstone of democracy. The Internet is a powerful public space that allows for discussions on a larger scale than ever before, but the physical interactions and space are still necessary. Let’s bring back the teahouses of yore.