In the often politically tumultuous climate of Sulaimani, one place has endured numerous crises and developed a reputation as a meeting place for people of different convictions: Shaab Teahouse.
Founded in late 1940s, Shaab was opened near Sulaimani’s historic Sara area by tea maker Wasta Sharif, who gradually turned it into a place for people from all walks of life to gather. Intellectuals, writers, artists, and journalists are among those who frequent Shaab (Arabic for “people”), giving it a character distinct from the scores of other teahouses that dot the city.
Notable Kurds such as poet Ahmad Hardi and singer and musician Hama Salih Dilan have been fixtures at the popular teahouse at one time or another.
“My father himself was a lover of literature,” said Omar Sharif, who has worked at Shaab alongside his father, Wasta Sharif, since childhood, and now owns and runs the teahouse.
At the age of 58, Omar never loses the smile on his face, and has enough energy and cordiality for everyone at this rendezvous of the elite and the average.
“During the time of my father, besides the writers, Imams and others came as well. The people got so close to him that they would sometimes borrow money from him before going to do their military service,” said Omar. “Shaab had become like a home for them.’
Many of the customers here call the teahouse “my second home.”
“Shaab is no longer only a teahouse and a place to kill time. Sulaimani’s soul is here. It has become a place where people meet, exchange ideas, and get to know each other. I fully feel the love that brings people together here,” said Omar.
Political leaders in Sulaimani province have also visited the teahouse, though not Iraq’s current president, Jalal Talabani. From the current prime minister of Kurdistan, Barham Salih, to former vice-president Kosrat Rasoul, Shaab has been no stranger to high-profile public figures.
“Anyone who has worked in the world of politics, art, and culture has paid a visit to Shaab,” said Amir Halabjayi, a journalist.
Mohammed Tofiq Rahim, a senior opposition politician, said he cannot visit the teahouse nowadays because of his busy schedule, but was a frequent visitor in the past.
Saadi Ahmed Pira, a leader in President Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, says he visits the teahouse every time he returns to Sulaimani.
“If there is something called the street parliament, then Shaab is it. It’s indeed a place for free thinking and dreaming,” said Pira.
When recently rumour spread that the government was planning to allow the construction of shopping malls on the site where Shaab now stands, it was its faithful customers who cried foul even before its owner did.
“We didn’t let that happen. This has become a unique place. We went to Mrs. Herro [the First Lady] and had the decision revoked,” said Halabjayi. He added that the government would have had to deal with a serious crisis if it were to allow Shaab’s destruction for such a project.
Aram Khambar is one of those people whom you can safely bet will be found at Shaab any time of the day. He said Shaab has become the writers’ and artists’ union.
“It’s the most beautiful house in Sulaimani,” said Khambar.
Pictures of notable personalities of Sulaimani stare out at the visitors from the walls. Among them is the late filmmaker Husein Misri, who, in his last interview with Rudaw, called himself, “a graduate of Shaab School.”
Despite all its fame, Shaab is, generally speaking, a men’s hangout, although women are not restricted from visiting. Several Sulaimani female actors and artists, waiting to put an end to the male domination of the teahouse, have started going there. They hope that their presence will gradually encourage other women to go, too.
Shaab’s strongly male character has drawn a lot of criticism.
Venus Fayiq, a female activist and TV presenter, says she does not understand what is so special about the teahouse.
“I don’t understand what’s got all those writers sitting there waiting for inspiration. It’s a very male place; it looks like civilization hasn’t reached there yet,” said Venus, who recently wrote an article entitled “Down with Shaab.”
She suggested that a monthly poetry-reading session be held at Shaab for a female poet, to curb the male domination of the popular spot.
During the recent two-month unrest that engulfed Sulaimani, Shaab was one of the few locations, if not the sole one, where people from across the political spectrum hung out together in peace. Just as bitter and sweet tea sit next to each other on Omar’s tray, so do people from different political backgrounds at his tables.
“It was the only place in Sulaimani that was not conquered by politics,” said Omar, describing it as a place that neither “said ‘down with’ nor ‘long live’” during the unrests.
With the passage of decades, Shaab has not lost its spirit and continues to be a place where young and old, elite and average, left and right meet.
In a large notebook kept at Shaab, famous figures from around Kurdistan and elsewhere have penned their memories of visiting the teahouse. Omar says he put the notebook there to add another element of richness to the place’s history and heritage.
The first note was written by Sherko Bekas, a towering figure of modern Kurdish poetry and a native of Sulaimani. Other notable names are the famous Arab poet Adonis and Farhad Pirbal, a Kurdish novelist and writer from Erbil, the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Shaab has a small library, and many of its books are supplied by the Kurdish Ministry of Culture. University students are one group that visit Shaab to read and borrow books.
Omar says the teahouse is more than a business for him. He has developed such strong ties with the community and his customers that he doesn’t always charge them, especially poor students, for borrowing books or drinking tea at Shaab.
June 1, 2011