“Counterpublic Regime”: Coffee Houses Illuminate Iran’s True Society

The Grand Bazaar of Tabriz, where so much of Iran’s true culture lingers hidden under the sweeping stone arches.

By | Rachel Brooks

June 30, 2021 

Note: Discourse pieces include opinions and commentary to stimulate conversation. They do not reflect an official agenda of Republic Underground. 

The coffee house in Tabriz is argued by scholars as an “institution of social defiance.” 

 

Coffee houses have long been seen in the city of Tabriz as institutions of free speech. Encyclopaedia Iranica recalls the age of the Safavid reign when coffee houses served as places of contemplation, of a cheap staple of social gathering, the cradle of expression for the non-elite.

Lund University researcher Laleh Foroughanfar argues the coffee houses of modern Tabriz serve as “reemerging counterpublics.” In this argument, the coffee house presents a place of local “counter-hegemonic” discourse. 

The coffee house, however, may be more nuanced than this. Social defiance exists in Tabriz’s coffee houses because the regime regulates their existence. Yet, they are more than mere defiance of the regime. 

Rather, Tabriz and its coffee houses are a microcosm of Iranian separation from the ruling regime. It is the regime that is “other” and not the coffee house. A brief history of Iranian coffee houses highlights this statement. 

Note on Iran’s ethnic cultures: Tabriz never once was a wholly Persian place. It’s geographic location allows it to share in the rich history of its immediate northern counterpart Azerbaijan. Outside of Tabriz, Iran as a whole is an ethnically diverse place, composed of Azerbaijanis, Persians, Ahwazi Arabs, and other minorities of varying ethnic, cultural, or religious identifiers.  

History of Iranian coffee houses: Historians believe that coffee houses, called qahva-ḵāna appeared in Iran during the reign of Shah Ṭahmāsb though they are not mentioned in the public record before the reign of Shah Abbas. Scholars credit the relative stability of politics and trade under the Safavids as the path for spreading coffee through old Iran.

During the reign of Safavids, poets and thinkers, and any person of leisure visited the coffee house to discuss music, poetry, art, literature, and the greater meaning of life. They spoke, the poets of an old Iran, under lamps let down from the ceiling. Morning and night they spoke, and in this soft light, they enjoyed the freedom of a rich culture that has blurred into the political homogeny of modern times.

Coffee houses served as the witnesses of the debate and parade of culture. Shah Abbas welcomed Ottomans, Indians, Russians, English, and more to the tables of his Renaissance coffee houses. Such was time, in the days when old Iran lay on the byways of the Silk Road, which once ran through its northern neighbor Azerbaijan, where Iran was wealthy in culture and flowing thoughts. 

Counterargument: The researcher with Lund University analyzes the coffee house as a place of social defiance and as a counter-public. Yet, it is the regime that is counter-public, repressing the true cultural diversity of Iran, which one may observe from its pre-regime history.  

Foroughanfar continues this assessment of the coffee house as a counter-public by observing the deep trust built within the coffee house community within Tabriz today. Foroughanfar’s research interviewed graphic designers, teachers, and many other young professionals, mostly males, who meet in coffee houses for hookah, cigarettes, coffee, and discussion.

These coffee houses are treated with a great sense of pride, communal trust, and love, Foroughanfar notes. The owner will sometimes reject an outsider by refusing to serve hookah at certain times to encourage a stranger to the community who may be a regime spy to leave the establishment. Others relayed to Foroughanfar that the coffee house patrons and the owner will take up money for those in need and that they who patron these establishments trust them above charity institutions. 

Foroughanfar’s research of Tabriz coffee houses led to the conclusion that the coffee house itself is an institution of defiance. 

“In the politically constrained context of Iran, resistance and opposition in the coffeehouses hence surface as ‘noncollective’ ‘non-movements’ (Bayat, 2010),” wrote Foroughanfar. 

“In this way, to draw on the concept of James Hoslton, marginalized ethnic groups configure new spaces of ‘insurgent citizenship’(Holston, 1995).”

Foroughanfar cites the communal trust and sense of security these institutions give in making this argument of “insurgent citizenship.” Yet, in making this argument, one implies that Iranians have a real, represented citizenship within the regime and that the regime is an accepted institution that some groups are marginalized under as they are “non-collective” members of “non-movements” against the social whole. The reality is that the social whole is under oppression, with some groups falling into pockets of more intensive abuse. Nevertheless, the society as a whole is subjected to the otherness of the regime thought, and has been for 40 years out of Millennia of history. 

 

From what we observe in the Iranian Diaspora, one argues that this assessment is flawed because the coffee house and Iranian society ist expressing itself in full in coffee house, and not as “counter” to society. Iran’s public and its civilians are only represented truly in institutions that the regime does not touch. Coffee houses then serve only as litmus paper of the true spirit of Iranian peoples as a national body and not as counter-movement to the regime. 

 

In this case, the Shia Islamic Persian homogeny of the regime is a fabrication of the regime. We observe from a variety of counter sources that this homogeny is merely a political contrivance. Religion surveys by Gamaan.org, Iranian civilian lobbies and regime protest groups such as No2IR Resonance and Iranian Americans For Liberty, and various other voices show us that the regime is itself the counterpublic.

One may also suppose from Foroughanfar’s account of the coffee houses that patron mistrust and need to screen strangers as potential spies does not make coffee houses effective emancipation structures. Rather, they are social Iran preserved underground. 

The regime is the movement that is contrarty to the Iranian, and that the coffee house is among the last shadows of life where the authoritarian control does not subvert. 

So, while Foroughanfar’s article describes the coffee house as having “emancipation potential” it is perhaps an oversimplification of their place. The coffee house does not so much serve as an institution of emancipation as it does an object of what must be emancipated from the otherness of tyranny. 

 

Share Your Thoughts

Are coffee houses “instutitions of defiance” or are they “microcosms of Iran’s true society?” What are your thoughts? Have both arguments oversimplified what the coffee house heritage in Iran means for the whole nation as many diverse cultures hailing from the same place?

Share your thoughts with us at Submissions.