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Chai, shirini and the Internet
Loving two of Tehran's cafes for very different reasons

October 27, 1999
The Iranian

I have two favorite cafes in Tehran. They belong to different times, different epochs even. They are in geo-socially distant, absolutely disparate parts of town. And they both cater to the educated and the intellectual (or the intellectual-wannabe anyway), but of unquestionably different tastes and goals and values.

Chineh cyber-cafe in the very upmarket and exclusive Qeitarieh neighborhood is the first true Internet cafe in Iran, and the frequent visits to the cafe by various Western news agencies in its early days (more than a year ago), from BBC and CNN to Reuters and USA Today, attests to its very novelty. Internet is a very controlled medium in Iran, and this constraint is exercised not only through state limitations on Internet service providers (ISP), but also through pricing. The majority of ISPs tend to be state agencies and organizations (i.e. universities, state-sponsored think-tanks etc.). Those few ISPs which operate "independently" from the state only cautiously provide access to individuals (rather than companies and organizations) and even then, charge prices which essentially limit the use of the Internet to those in the stratosphere of the class system.

The fast-disappearing middle class of Iran cannot easily afford access to the outside world. Rumor has it (and I can say confidently that this rumor is far more than that) that these "independent" ISPs have also had to make the proverbial deal with the devil and at any given time provide the list of URLs accessed by their customers to the ominous and omnipresent Ministry of Information. Additionally, the most popular and efficient ISP in Iran provides access to the Internet through satellite connections (thus its name Safineh or spaceship) and no one can operate a satellite connection LEGALLY (and this is the key word) without state permits. To receive such a permit, political connections are absolute necessities.

Despite all these very real obstacles, Internet is beginning to take hold in Iran. Since the very obvious success of Chineh cafe, I have seen another cyber-cafe in another affluent neighborhood (Darband Street), and have heard of more popping up in various locations. The consumers of this particular combination of services are computer-literate, well-off, and well-connected to the "outside." The service is quite expensive by Iranian standards (more than 3000 tomans or almost $4 per hour), and the neighborhood in which the cafe is located is difficult to reach by any sort of public transport, and as such price and class censorship obviously determine the type of customers the cafe has. In fact, on every occasion that I have visited the cafe, the seats in front of the computers have been occupied by middle-aged men surfing the web-pages of Wall Street investment firms, the business pages of CNN and CNNfn and Bloomberg. Young kids surfing the net for fun are few and far in between and on the couple of occasions that I have seen them using the net, they have been checking out the web-pages of American universities.

The cafe is extremely European in its setting; wrought iron chairs around tiny private tables, plants every where, a marble bar (no alcoholic drinks of course), pleasant discreet lighting, and an Italian espresso machine (an expensive rarity) differentiate it from other coffee shops in the city. What makes the cafe a favorite of mine, however, -- other than the fast and reliable connection to the Internet -- is its owner and employees. The owner of Chineh cyber-cafe is a very chic youngish bearded gentleman who belongs to the new breed of religious new-thinkers in Iran. He has served in the war between Iran and Iraq voluntarily, his daughter is named Zeinab (the original Zeinab was the sister of Imam Hussein and is a symbol of political religion), and he himself seems to be well-connected to the Ministry of Culture. He seems open-minded and tolerant and in his conversations with strangers is warm and friendly. On the few occasions where I have boldly engaged him in a political argument he has been polite, interested, and not at all confrontational nor patronizing or missionary as other religious (or right-wing) intellectuals -- particularly the war veterans -- in Iran tend to be.

All other employees (the guy behind the bar, and the gregarious and amiable technical consultant) are happy to see you, remember their customers and are just as happy to leave one to oneself. I like Chineh, also because in its small, calm and quiet confines, there seems to be an air of individuality, a polite recognition of a space within which one can lose herself in solitude like nowhere else in an Iranian common space. Here in Iran, solitude is considered a blight, not a blessing and seeking a moment of silence away from the crowd, particularly if the crowd is related to oneself, is deemed anti-social and even impolite. That is why, being able to stare at a screen without any interruptions, knowing that I am just doing what I want, without fear of abusing some sort of social norm or even worse, hurting someone's feelings, has become my sanctuary.

Cafe Naderi is also my sanctuary, and I love it in a completely different way. It is socially as far away from Chineh as one may imagine. It is a part of Tehran's history, perhaps Iran's history. It is located below Hotel Naderi in what is now the center of town and not too far from Tehran's theater district and Tehran University. The cafe has been there for more than fifty years now, if not more, and has seen within its vast, grubby, and plain walls the formation of god knows how many parties, artists' leagues, unions, and political organizations. Rumor even has it that the Tudeh Party heads used to meet here for coffee and pastries around the time of World War II. Behind its high windows, there is a lovely garden which must be divine in the summer and inside, the space can not be more humble and simple: a pastry counter at one end and rickety unpretentious tables from one end to the other. The waiters look like they have worked here all their lives; they are all elderly, amazingly sociable and kind, and they all -- without exception -- have called me "dokhtaram" ("my daughter") when speaking to me without seeming patronizing or disdainful. They all smile and joke around with the customers, something that I have rarely seen elsewhere in Tehran, perhaps because in most restaurants the customers don't deign to speak to the "help" as equals. Not here.

Here in Cafe Naderi, the composition of the crowd changes from day to day and even from hour to hour, but it changes just a little. This is my favorite place in Tehran for people-watching, and on several occasions, I have actually arrived at the cafe at breakfast time (around 8:00 a.m.) and chosen to stay on until mid-afternoon, devouring my daily dose of six newspapers, endless cups of tea or Turkish coffee, and -- I am ashamed to admit -- too many rich, light, sinful cream-puffs ordered specially from Naderi Confectionery next door. The waiters seem quite accustomed to such eternal customers and do not mind you taking up a good table right next to the window for the entire day.

In the mornings, Cafe Naderi teems with the most interesting group of its customers: they are elderly gentlemen, all spiffily dressed in black turtlenecks or old three-button suits, often wearing berets or chapeaux, sometimes gorgeous old raincoats, occasionally carrying canes. They all look like they have been coming here for ages. The waitstaff know them by name; a great number of them seem to be professors who teach or at one time have taught at Tehran University. Many others are artists, writers, painters, and film-makers. I have seen famous faces among them, but all receive equal -- and equally delightful -- treatment from the cafe. Many seem to know each other, as they tip hats to one another upon entry; many others seem to meet regularly here for their breakfast, or after-breakfast tea. I love this group particularly because I can spend endless hours imagining who they may be and what kind of lives they may have led; what adventures they must have had and what they do now. I eavesdrop on their conversations, pretending to read my papers; and I am moved by the absences I find so apparent of all those men and women these customers seem to reminisce about.

From mid-morning to mid-afternoon the cafe becomes the forte of the young university and/or the artistic crowd. Occasionally, they are a university-age couple on a discreet date, but more frequently, they are young, feverish men and women, gathered mostly in groups and engaged in passionate arguments about art, film, politics and the love lives of their friends. I often look at them wistfully, because there is a sort of innocent cynicism in their outlook of the world which I remember from my early twenties. The young crowd at Cafe Naderi is very different than the young crowd I have seen in the affluent neighborhoods of North Tehran or in the hustle-bustle of South Tehran. There is a level of engagement with and enthusiasm about social and political issues here that I have not seen elsewhere. I have a feeling that the university students who gather here are the ones that shall be most effective in determining the course of art and politics in Iran in the years and decades to come.

At Chineh, I enjoy my solitude with a screen. This cafe seems to only call the future, it rebelliously negates the past, stubbornly insists on looking forward. In the noisy commotion of Cafe Naderi there is another kind of peace; there is a continuity, a sense of permanence and perpetuity. Much has changed in the lifetime of Cafe Naderi. One feels -- at a very visceral level -- that thee young and old sipping tea under the high ceiling of Cafe Naderi have seen and lived through coups, wars, revolutions, exile, prison, transformation and change. They have created, they have fought, and many -- too many -- of them who have had tea and pastries here have gone away, been executed or died. There is something about the character of this cafe that reminds you of this more than anywhere else, more than all else. Nevertheless, at Cafe Naderi you feel that life will go on once we are all gone, and if that is true, then there is hope.

* Laleh Khalili's articles index

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