Food & Dining Society & Culture

Shahbandar Café | A Cultural Café in Baghdad

Shahbandar café is one of Bagh­dad’s few remaining traditional cultural cafés. 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 café still stands, a testament to the resilience of the country and the capital, Baghdad, even if so much has happened here. 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.

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. 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.

shabandar cafe, baghdad
Entering the Shahbandar café

Cultural cafés 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. 

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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 (r. 1921–1933), and several ministers from the royal period, as well as many other celebrities.

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.

This place is typically for adda. Sudeep Chakravarti writes: “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.” It then spreads to other parts of India.

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.

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