Centre of Adda Culture in Baghdad | Shahbandar Café

Today was a weekly off-day and we went to the historic street of Baghdad — Rashid Street and the celebrated book market on the Mutanabbi Street. It was very hot with the temperature around 46°C (or 115°F) then and we were walking down the street. We thought to refresh ourselves with some hot tea in the famous, historic café.

The smell of hot tea in istikan and smoke from shisha pipes greeted us as we entered the café. The café offers the lemon tea brewed the traditional Baghdadi way and the shishas.

shabandar cafe, baghdad
Entering the Shahbandar café

Since opening its doors, Shahbandar café had become a hub of Baghdad’s intellectual life, drawing poets, and politicians to its wooden benches and photo-lined walls. The society, politics, philosophy, cin­ema. poetry and arts are being debated for decades between the walls of the century-old Shahbandar café.

shahbandar cafe

This place is typically for adda. Adda is and has been an integral part of the Bengali culture and it is the life-blood of the Bengali community. It is a quintessential aspect of Bengali culture. Bengalis are known for their uncanny propensity of spending endless hours in adda sessions. Adda has spread to other parts of India with the migration of Bengalis.

Adda emerged as a salon-like gathering at which thoughts and persuasions of the day could be discussed in a good-natured, if sometimes vociferous, manner. And over time adda travelled from its acknowledged birthplace of Kolkata to other places, Dhaka and beyond into Greater Banglasphere.

Sudeep Chakravarti
There are roadside teahouses in Baghdad, where people spend hours in conversation over tea and shisha

The closest English word that can describe the essence of adda is chat or gossip. It’s a friendly, casual conversation at an informal gathering of like-minded people, who want to talk their hearts out as a means of relaxation during leisure hours. The word adda exists in other Indian languages, but without its unique Bengali connotations.

I have noticed Baghdadis also have the similar propensity of spending endless hours in adda sessions. Like Bengalis, Iraqis are also fanatically fond of adda.

Cultural cafés and teahouses consti­tuted a substitute for clubs and fo­rums that did not previously exist. Over decades these meeting places became an important part of Iraqi life in general and of Baghdad life in particular. The origin of the tradition to regular intellectual dialogues is traced back to Ancient Greece at the time of Socrates and Plato. According to historians, the first Baghdad café, the Khan Jahan, was established in 1590 under the Ottoman rule. 

Scores of black and white photographs covering the walls of the café offer a glimpse into the history of Baghdad and Iraq, chronicling some of its leading lights including the portraits of Khalil Pasha, the last Ottoman governor of Baghdad, King Faisal I (reigned 1921–1933), and several ministers from the royal period, as well as many other celebrities.

Waiting for our Istikans of tea

Antique brass tea decanters, old hot water samovars, and wood furniture, in addition to pictures of Ottoman pashas, King Faisal II and Iraqi poets and artists that adorn the walls bestow an attractive ambiance reminiscent of the “good old days” of the city.

When it first became a café in 1917, the brick and plaster building was already a local institution as it housed the printing press of merchant Abdel Majid Al-Shabandar. Shahbandar was the title used to be given to the head of merchants or to the head official of a port during the medieval period.

A small bird roosts in a cage near the door of the Shahbandar café on Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad 
A small bird roosts in a cage near the door of the Shahbandar café on Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad

From British rule to modern-day Iraq, Shahbandar 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 March 5, 2007 car blast devastated the book market along Mutanabbi Street and also tore through the café, killing more than 30 people and over 100 injured. The café’s owner lost four of his sons and a grandson in the attack. The café still stands, a testament to the resilience of the country and the capital, Baghdad, even if so much has happened here. Shahbandar café is one of Bagh­dad’s few remaining traditional cultural cafés.

38 thoughts on “Centre of Adda Culture in Baghdad | Shahbandar Café

  1. We all need an adda – Cafe, Kahwakhana, Tea House, Coffee House or a Bar. Don’t see women here? Same old ideas about gender?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Sir. Fantastic to see how you covered Shabandar. Please do enlighten us on what varieties of tea they serve there? Is it just cardamom tea or do they also have other varieties. Thanks 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Sir Many thanks for your response. I am a student of Arabic culture and the language and I find your Iraq articles highly enlightening! I’ve also been told that cardamom tea is the quintessential ‘Shaayi Al Iraqi’. Did you happen to taste any during your trip? Also, would you know if mint tea is popular in these cafes like it is in the Maghreb or in other regions of the Arab World? Thanks again 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, Raj, cardamom is used too, but mint tea is not that popular. The black tea is consumed whole day and next popular is basra nemoon tea. I have tasted all these tea in Baghdad. It’s good to know that you’re a student of Arabic culture and language. I wish you study this culture scientifically; it’s an amazing culture.


  3. Sir the info you provided was indeed, deeply gratifying, thanks so much! I would say you are truly blessed to have had all these unique experiences, even Karbala Shareef. I wonder if you experienced any attars in Iraq. Though it’s not particularly famed for fragrances, they do have some nice varieties available.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I wonder if you visited the famous Multaqa Al Ustoora Umm Al Kulthum on Al Rasheed Street? It is another famed tea house in Baghdad like Al Zahawi. Very vibrant and a literary hub as well 🙂


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