Iranians mourn the loss of themselves as Untitled Café closes

Ebrahim Raisi’s personal crusade against self-expression has sadly reached the small Iranian town of Rasht, once a mainstay of contrary thought. The closure of the Untitled Café is just further proof of the shrinking public space for Iranians.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s hardline administration is busy unleashing a multi-pronged war on people’s lifestyles and privacy.

Police vans are deployed to arrest women on the streets who dress in ways deemed insufficiently conservative, musical performances are canceled intermittently and major film productions are not allowed to screen.

Now unscathed unofficial spaces where young people mingle and play away from the stern gaze of the authorities are overrun.

“The reason for the closure of the business? Maral was reportedly seen not wearing a headscarf at the counter, and some of the cafe customers also sometimes took off their headscarves while chatting and dining”

Untitled Café in Rasht – a city in northern Iran known for its rich food culture, luxury shopping malls, upscale neighborhoods with fashionable clothing retailers and a young, educated population with a broad mindset liberal – is one of the recent victims of a crackdown designed to eradicate opportunities for people to express their identity in defiance of what many see as a formalized and rigid way of life prescribed for Iranians.

Maral, a 29-year-old English Literature graduate, teamed up with a friend to launch the cafe which would serve good food, drinks and music. It was also a place his contemporaries in Rasht could rely on for a few hours of recreation, away from the painful concerns of life in Iran hampered by sanctions and isolation.

But sadly, his business only lasted five months after it opened last July and was shut down by a community policing police department.

An anonymous facade of a cafe in Rasht [photo credit: Kourosh Ziabari]

The reason for the closure of the company? Maral was reportedly seen not putting on a headscarf at the counter, and some of the cafe’s patrons also occasionally removed their headscarves while chatting and dining.

From the point of view of a stubborn government, women sometimes not covering their hair, music being played, girls and boys sharing tables and flouting the Islamic Republic’s unwritten laws on gender segregation are justifications convincing for a privately run restaurant. to be closed.

“I had eight employees who worked with me in the morning and evening coffee, and we had 15 tables for four and six people. We had become so popular that every day all tables were occupied and vacated at least twice. The closure of the cafe caused us damage of almost 2.5 billion rials [$7,800]“, said Maral The new Arabicadding that in a short time, the Untitled Café had become a serious rival for the larger bistros and restaurants in Rasht, mainly due to its outdoor space and comfortable location.

The cafe was located in the heart of a bustling and upscale area of ​​Rasht characterized by long lines of shops, restaurants, patisseries and chic sidewalks inspired by European architecture.

The demand for housing and new businesses, especially in entertainment and gastronomy, has increased significantly in the northern parts of Rasht in recent times, as it has become a hub for the socialization of young people, offering its inhabitants and passers-by some limited freedoms. .

“The element of personal vendetta led by an ultra-conservative member of the judiciary who apparently did not want to see the running of a youth-loved cafe that did not meet his criteria as a pious and devout citizen was something that was disguised From the beginning”

Maral was told by a couple of officers late one night in November that the cafe would be closing imminently and in order to get permission to reopen it she had to sign affidavits confirming not to repeat the offenses committed, i.e. staff and customers removing their hijab.

Throughout the process of trying to overturn the decision, Maral says she faced authorities who treated her aggressively and at times insultingly.

“One day, at the police station, the commander-in-chief of the department turned to me with an impetuous air and fumed: ‘What are you doing in this cafe? The whole town is talking about you! When I felt cheated and said, ‘What were we doing, sir? We were doing our job regularly and your men raided our house and shut it down’, at which point he got angry and threatened me saying ‘Don’t argue with me or I’ll tell the soldier to throw you behind bars away,” Maral recounted.

Until recently, the small town of Rasht was a stronghold of Iranian counter-terrorism [photo credit: Kourosh Ziabari]

She said The new Arabic it was his impression and that of his colleagues that police officers react more arbitrarily and rudely when interacting with women, indicating the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes among officials in the Islamic Republic.

At that point, his male colleague advised him not to make any more appointments with the police and that he would pursue the case alone until it was solved.

The various local authorities they have implored have promised them that the ban on their business will soon be lifted and that they will be able to resume their activities shortly once the dust settles. This promise has never been kept.

Shortly after, Maral and his colleagues got wind of the disorienting misadventure that awaited them: an influential judge, Mr. S, whose flat was directly opposite the cafe, had pulled the strings and coerced the neighbors into sign a petition expressing their displeasure with the cafe operating as a hot spot where unrelated young boys and girls can hang out and joke around the neighborhood, disturbing residents and creating noise.

Something that was disguised from the start, and it was after 20 days that some of the Untitled Café associates familiar with the town’s legal affairs revealed the story to Maral.

“We asked a lawyer who was a friend of ours to try to meet this judge in person and ask him to withdraw his complaint. Our friend went to his office three times, and each time the secretary refused to let him in after long hours of waiting,” she said.

“On a fourth attempt he was able to find a slot to meet the big shot, but then, as soon as he mentioned the name of our cafe in a conversation, Mr S called the security guards for the kicked out of his office. He didn’t even listen to a call.

Maral laments that he never understood why Mr. S developed this hostility towards the cafe and used his personal influence to shut down their fledgling business, given that they never knew him intimately. If maintained, she says, it could be life-changing for her and her friends, given how young they are.

Ironically, the 29-year-old comes from a traditional religious family and her father is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. These veterans are highly regarded by society and even respected by conservative leaders.

But in this case, like hundreds of others that unfold daily when the progeny of “revolution” loyalists are despised by the establishment and ultimately disillusioned with the system, the Islamic Republic has managed to dash hopes for a another young Iranian.

“I am alienated with religion and society after all this ordeal. When it happened, the first thing I thought was that I tried my luck in Iran, this is not a place to stay,” she said.

“I was never interested in leaving my country, but now I think I will pay the costs of moving and culture shock, among other hardships. It would be better than staying in a setting where you are humiliated and your rights completely ignored.

Note: Due to Maral’s concerns for his safety and that of his friends, the original name of the Untitled Café has been omitted and the name of the judge referred to in the story is abbreviated.

Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iranian correspondent for Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.

Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari

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