Iranian Coffee Shops Offer Lattes and Haven

“The music of pop singer Ricky Martin filled the air as customers ordered $4 shots of espresso and connected to the shop’s wireless Internet with their cell phones. Girls with long hair spilling out from under their obligatory Islamic head scarves giggled shyly as they held hands with their boyfriends.” Did anything seem unusual in the above description? If you caught the headscarf clue, you know that this is not your ordinary western coffee shop. Indeed, this is Iran, where coffee shops and other western type entertainment are severely restricted.

Even so, as in so many other countries, people are flocking to coffee shops. At seventy percent of Iran’s population, the young people are driving the trend; they’re finding the coffee shop to be a haven where they can taste not only lattes and tea, but a little bit of freedom that’s not possible out on the streets. In a country where an unrelated unmarried couple can be arrested for sitting in a car together, the modern coffee shops in Tehran and other cities are almost revolutionary. Couples can sit in these shops, enjoy a coffee and a cigarette, and feel somewhat safe. It seems to be much less about the coffee than it is about a private place away from the morality police.

Even though pop music and clubs are strictly forbidden, as the above example showed, at least some of the new coffee shops play pop music. In ten years the number of coffee shops in Tehran has increased from a handful to hundreds. It’s happened so fast, the “morality police” have not kept up, and now there are almost too many to police. Still, at any moment the shops could be closed down by the government; no one knows how long the present “tolerance” will last. As it is, any shop at any time could be raided by the morality police and any girl caught smoking could be arrested. Basically any customer could be arrested and accused of smoking. That’s an excuse – it’s really the idea of unmarried men and women socializing together that’s the problem.

One cafe owner said it would be impossible to turn back the clock. He stated, “The authorities have to tolerate us. Young people need to be able to unwind from the everyday pressures at some place. Here, they can.” Amazing – another revolution waged in coffee shops.

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