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Tea Times:
In Nasiriyah, Where Your Choice of Café Says Everything About You

Ali Nasseri
Most Iraqi cafes don’t discriminate among their guests. Not so in Nasiriyah, where the city’s tea drinkers sequester themselves according to occupation and preferred conversation.
9.10.2019  |  Dhi Qar
Tea drinking is a popular pastime in Iraqi cities. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )
Tea drinking is a popular pastime in Iraqi cities. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )

In the centre of the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, visitors will often meet at Habboubi Square. The square is lined with cafes, establishments where locals go to sip tea and watch the world go by. This pastime is the same here as in many other Iraqi cities – but there’s something that makes Nasiriyah’s cafes a little different.

Unlike in other cities, where most cafes are open to all comers – that is, anybody who wishes to take tea there, can – Nasiriyah’s cafes have a tradition of catering to certain subgroups of local society.

For example, one of the first cafes on the square is known as the “intellectuals’ café”.  Going in, you will hear the patrons discussing Iraq’s cultural and political life.

The construction workers' café has become the source of our livelihood, one local builder said. 

The café has this nickname because of the nature of the customers, explains Ali Hassan, the owner. His customers arrange to meet here because they know they will find like minds, other locals who want to talk about poetry or politics.

Not far from the so-called “intellectuals’ café” is the “writers’ café”. Ali al-Shayel, a local novelist, is here today and he says this venue draws writers of all kinds because Asran al-Badri, a well-known local writer, began his career here in the 1950s. Al-Badri had been illiterate but after he learned to read, he started writing in this very café and eventually published several books on literature and philosophy.

A little further away is the café for labourers and construction workers. These locals meet here every evening after work and stay until late at night. Jassim Ali, a local builder and regular at the café, says that these days, the café is a meeting point for property owners who want work done and their potential contractors. “The café has become the source of our livelihood,” he told NIQASH.

Athletes and sports fans also have a special café in Nasiriyah. In here, the walls are plastered with pictures of players and you will hear noisy debates about local and international sports events and games; bets are also laid here, as hookah smoke fogs up the cafe.  

 

A cafe in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Sarmad Yaseen

 

“This café is mostly visited by younger people, who like to play sports,” says Salah Mahdi, a happy 25-year-old football fan who’s just won a bet on an Italian football game. “But even though the place is dedicated to sports, we don’t forbid anybody else from coming in,” he insists.

Local academic Mohammed Abdul Reda, 65, believes that Nasiriyah’s tea-drinkers have always categorised themselves like this, ever since the city was founded in the late 19th century. Each establishment has its own special symbolism. In fact, he adds, there are even cafes dedicated to local tribes.

For example, local tribes Zahiriyah, Husseinat and Bani Zaid all have venues where members regularly gather to discuss internal clan affairs or to meet with members of other tribes. Often the café owner is also a member of the same tribe.

Haj Hussein Wali owns the café where the Zahiriyah tribe members meet and he says that over the past 50 years or so, he has seen dozens of tribal disputes ironed out in the café, as well as witnessed the resolution of an inter-tribal feud that would have claimed the lives of many locals had it not been resolved.  

Not all of the carefully classified cafes of Nasiriyah survive though. Merchants and traders also used to have their own café in the city and it was considered a special landmark on Jumhuriyah Street. However the businessmen eventually abandoned the establishment, holding their meetings in other places such as the local chamber of commerce and the business owners’ federation offices.

Kathem Tuwaili, a retired trader in his 70s, still remembers the merchants’ café. Nasiriyah businesspeople would host guests from other cities there but, he adds mournfully, that golden age is over.