Tehran has always been high on my list of places to visit. As the most populous city in Iran it’s the cultural heart of the country, combining Persian roots with modern architecture and the influence of a globalized youth who attend Tehran University. This beautiful cosmopolitan city is situated below the Alborz mountains and Mount Damavand, the highest peak in Iran. With its many complex layers of social, religious and political issues Iran is a complex destination to visit—but that does little to quell the spirit of a curious traveler.
One of the many influences the youth have had on Tehran is a rise in new coffee shops opening around the city in recent years. These coffee shops are often the only places where Iranians can socialize or use free wifi in a country without bars. However, their popularity has been countered by government raids, regulations and even shutdowns from the “morality police.” Last summer, 87 coffee shops were raided and closed in a single weekend for “not following Islamic values.”
The attempt to shutter coffee shops has been a reoccurring theme in Iranian history, with similar closures taking place following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 to combat “western influence.” Another recent string of closures happened in 2007, but the coffee shops return despite the continuous efforts against them.
One casualty of the recent crackdown was Café Prague, a popular coffee shop that opened in 2009, which had been a second home for students, activists and intellectuals in Tehran until January of this year. When the owners of the café refused to install surveillance cameras required by the morality police for “civic monitoring,” they were forced to close permanently.
An Iranian photographer, Amirhossein Darafsheh, took these beautiful photographs of the last day at Café Prague, which captures a glimpse of the vibrant café culture being repressed in Iran.
I loved this cafe not only because they had the best coffee and cakes in Tehran and not only for their free wifi. I loved the place because of their humanitarian views and their cultural atmosphere – which is a very rare substance in my country; Iran.
And they are shutting down the place. Why? because based on a new ruling, every cafe should have CCTVs installed in place, recored everything and give free access to the police and security forces to the recorded data. I loved cafe prague but I’m happy that they didn’t accepted this 1984ish order from a totalitarian government and closed the place.
Goodbye Cafe Prague and hope to see you someday in a free society. -Amirhossein Darafsheh
It’s hard to argue that coffee shops symbolize “western immorality” when coffee has been a part of Persian and Middle Eastern culture since long before the development of the western world. The closings are more likely symbolic victims of the political struggles between governments. But coffee shops are known to have influenced revolutions throughout history, and trying to prevent that from happening is a high priority among leaders of a theocracy.
It can be easy to forget how often freedom is taken for granted, like the simple act of enjoying a cup of coffee (or affording one) with friends in a café. Coffee is a privilege, not a right—yet it’s something most of us couldn’t imagine going a day without it. Coffee is an infinitely complex beverage, not just in the cup, but also in the social and humanitarian issues that surround it. One day I hope to enjoy coffee in Tehran, when its people are free to enjoy it as well.
View all of Amirhossein’s incredible and heartbreaking photos.