Friday, April 23, 2010

Coffee shops: Iran's aboveground underground

Trying to find some psychic elbowroom in Tehran's 'Islands Of Forgetfulness:'

While making an espresso Mehrdad [the shop owner] continues: “The present culture of drinking coffee came from university students wanting to stay up for exams, although drinking Turkish coffee was not uncommon in households, especially if it was followed by fortune telling.”

I hear a giggling sound from the table behind me and as I turn I realize that one of the girls has an upside-down cup in her hand, one of the rituals of reading the coffee grounds....

“The majority of customers are lovers, be it a girlfriend-boyfriend couple, a mistress or a lover, fiances, newly married couples, or just interested parties needing a place to sit, look at each other and talk over a coffee," Mehrdad says.

Music Sharing

A young man with a strange hairdo (strange that is to the norms of Iranian society) then came to sit at our table.

His name was Bahador and without hesitation he starts to promote his music. “We've produced this CD ourselves. It's a rock album that has got some air time in San Jose. It would mean a lot to us if you purchase it and support our underground production,” he says.

As I was paying for the original but illegal CD (not bootlegged but illegal because this kind of music is prohibited by the government) Mehrdad whispers, “This is the second group of coffee-shop customers: artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals.”

“There are no ways and no places for musicians whose work is not approved by the government to promote their music," Mehrdad says as Bahador left our table.


  1. Why would music be "not approved"? Do you need to be a licenced artist? Do you need to submit a work to a board of censors to be able to sell your art legally?

  2. I don't know how approval works, but I would be very surprised if a puritanical clerical regime which sees itself as besieged by evil forces did not censor public expression one way or another. It could be something as simple as the Revolutionary Guards looking into the record shops every once in a while and frowning.