Baghdad cafe marks 100 years as intellectual hub
Baghdad cafe marks 100 years as intellectual hub
Since opening its doors a century ago, the establishment has become a hub of Baghdad’s intellectual life, drawing poets and politicians to its wooden benches and photo-lined walls.
“I’ve been coming here for the past 60 years,” Abdel Fattah Al-Noeimi, 77, tells AFP, dapper in his spotless brown suit and matching tie.
“At nine in the morning until two or three in the afternoon, when everyone is leaving.”
From British rule to modern-day Iraq, Shabandar has lived through the birth of a nation, the toppling of its monarchy, decades of domination by Saddam Hussein, the drama of the US-led invasion and the bloody chaos that followed.
The twists and tragedies have all left their mark on the cafe.
During the sectarian bloodletting, a car bomb in 2007 tore through the historic Al-Mutanabbi Street on which the cafe stands — killing around 100 people.
Among the dead were four sons and a grandson of Shabandar’s owner, Mohammed Al-Khashali.
But Khashali does not want to dwell on that tragic event — and today the rhythm of clinking tea glasses, bubbling hookah pipes and conversation hums just as it always has done.
“Taking a seat here is like taking a seat in a history book,” the proprietor tells AFP from his regular position by the glass and wood front doors.
When it first became a cafe in 1917, the brick and plaster building was already a local institution as it housed the printing press of merchant Abdel Majid Al-Shabandar — whose name comes from Turkish, meaning “the greatest of merchants.”
Khashali — who sports a traditional white robe and beard of the same color — took over in 1963 and made a decision that would prove defining: he banned all games, including cards and dominoes, from the cafe.
While the move surprised some customers, it meant the new owner stayed true to a “promise” he had made to himself.
“That this would be a place where people of culture would meet,” Khashali said.
“That is truly what happened.”
Dozens of black and white photographs covering the walls of the cafe offer a glimpse into the history of Baghdad and Iraq, chronicling some of its leading lights and others who have since slipped into obscurity.
In a golden book, a number of foreign ambassadors have left their signatures.
The diversity of the faces of the men and women lining the walls is echoed nowadays by the varied crowd that still packs into Shabandar each morning.
The cafe is “not reserved for any religion, or culture or part of society — everyone is here,” says regular patron Noeimi.
It even encompasses a certain “school of thought” of its own, he insists, where despite the profound divisions that have torn apart Iraqi society, “everyone respects each others’ ideas.”
As the hubbub of chatter and shouted orders rumbles on around him, Rammah Abdelamir, 17, looks up from his book on modern political thought to take in this “monument of old Baghdad.”
Waiters weave between customers, filling their glasses with steaming hot tea, as they barely look up from deep in their conversations.
“This place is a bit of a mecca for intellectuals and a place of learning for each new generation,” Abdelamir says.
Iraq’s top musicians play on despite unpaid wages
In a dusty Baghdad dance studio, conductor Mohammed Amin Ezzat tries to fire up the musicians of Iraq’s National Symphony Orchestra, whose enthusiasm has been dampened by eight months without pay.
An aging air conditioner fights to beat back the summer heat in the cramped space at the capital’s School of Music and Ballet as the 57-year-old maestro leads the group through a rehearsal of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The shaggy-haired Ezzat and the 40 musicians surrounding him are gearing up to perform at Baghdad’s National Theater on Saturday, but the group’s morale is at an all-time low.
The ensemble has lost more than half its members since the start of the year, when the government issued a directive barring state employees with two jobs from receiving two salaries.
The anti-corruption measure was suggested by the World Bank and should affect only about a third of the orchestra’s musicians, but because of delays in carrying out the reform wages have been withheld from the entire group.
“The orchestra is in great danger,” Ezzat said. “Some don’t have enough money to come, and others are disappointed by the impact of politics on the orchestra.”
Officially created in 1970 after several unsuccessful attempts, Iraq’s national orchestra has survived decades of upheaval.
It has survived wars, an invasion, a 12-year international embargo and a devastating three-year battle against Daesh militants, which came to an end last year.
But this may be the last straw for the outfit, a collateral victim of Iraq’s “war on corruption.”
“Not being paid for eight months has had a terrible psychological effect on the musicians, but we’ll continue to resist peacefully with our music,” said Ezzat, who became the orchestra’s first Iraqi conductor in 1989.
“We’re on the precipice but sure that we won’t jump.”
When all its salaries are tallied up — including the maestro’s $1,200 a month, peanuts for a major conductor — the orchestra costs the state about $85,000 (€73,000) a year.
The sum is a pittance compared to the exorbitant figures siphoned off by ministers and high officials who have either fled or been arrested.
The conductor, his daughter Noor, a timpanist, and his sons Hossam and Islam, who play the cello and viola respectively, have all been without a salary since January.
But according to Raed Allawi, the head of administrative affairs at Iraq’s Culture Ministry, there is no reason to panic — the wages will soon be paid.
“The Finance Ministry has asked for a regularization of contracts. Verification measures are underway and this explains the late payment of wages,” Allawi said.
“The orchestra is one of the country’s cultural showcases (and the ministry) respects its artists and their talent.”
For the symphony’s musicians, however, these are empty words they have heard already.
Saad Al-Dujaily, a professor of medicine and a flutist, thinks the measure is regressive. “I’ve been an obstetrician and a flute player since I was very young,” he said.
Because of the directive, the 57-year-old practitioner — who teaches at Baghdad’s Al-Nahrain University and plays in the national orchestra — is now entitled to only one salary.
“In Iraq, we’re proud to have more than one job, to have more than one love, to practice two professions with the same love and passion,” said Dujaily, who plans to continue with the orchestra to help preserve its quality.
Further along into the rehearsal, the studio’s electricity cuts, a common occurrence in a country plagued by power outages.
The orchestra cannot afford the diesel to fuel the building’s generator.
But the musicians play on in the windowless room, using their cell phones to illuminate the sheet music. “There have been crises in the past, but this is the worst,” said Doaa Majid Al-Azzawi, an oboe player.
“Especially since my father and I are musicians. We don’t know what will happen, but if the orchestra has to stop, it’s culture in Iraq that will be dealt a deadly blow,” the 25-year-old said.
When the studio’s lights eventually make a flickering return, so too does the players’ enthusiasm, and the music swells.
“As long as we live, music will live. It’s our culture,” said Noor, the conductor’s daughter.