BAGHDAD—Hisham Mustafa lives for Habermas. In a corner of the Shandabar café, he is taken away by his love for the German philosopher. “I cannot say that I study him. Study is such a big word,” the literary critic says modestly, looking at me with gentle eyes through coke bottle glasses. “I simply try to understand him and apply his criticisms to Arabic literature.” He pauses to take a long puff on his water pipe, then waxes on: “You know? Things are always changing. Language is alive. Religion gives us a view of the past. Nothing is static. Nothing is absolute. This is what I have taken from Habermas.”
It’s Friday, the Muslim day of rest and the day of gathering at the Shandabar café. During my visit, the only beverage being served is lemon tea, a distinctly Iraqi drink. Plumes of sweet nargilla smoke twirl into the air and pairs of elderly men are enraptured in animated conversations. The yellow brick walls are covered in ancient black and white portraits of old Iraqi sheikhs and prints of colorful landscapes. The café’s patrons take pride in the fact that backgammon and cards aren’t allowed. This isn’t a place for idlers. It’s a place of culture.
Outside, people pick through stacks of books on Mutanabi Street. Great works of Arabic literature stand next to collections of Picasso, military books from Saddam, and tattered copies of Stephen King novels and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. At one end of the pedestrian avenue, an Iraqi hummer guards the entrance. At the other end, people sit on benches along the east bank of the Tigris. Here, the oldest part of Baghdad is just a replica of what it used to be. Blown to rubble throughout the war, it was recently rebuilt in its image. Today it’s bustling.
The fact that we had to wait to find a seat in the Shandabar café is symbolic of the fact that Iraq’s intellectual scene is slowly coming back to life. The doors of the 92-year-old café—originally Baghdad’s first steam-powered printing press—reopened a month and a half ago. It was rebuilt a year and a half after being devastated by a suicide bomber in a bomb-laden truck. Thirty people were killed. Portraits of its old managers hang on the wall under a sign that reads “café of martyrs.”
Hisham says Iraq is undergoing a new, slow renascence, coming to life after intense restriction on intellectual freedom by Saddam and violent repercussions by militias after the American invasion. He calls the new government a tribal one, where politicians answer to their kin and religious sects before anyone else. Several of his friends are bedridden, but he is clearly excited with the fact that he and his colleagues to sit together in one place. They even publish a philosophical newspaper. Before I get up to go, he asks if I would like to attend one of their twice-weekly discussions next week. They will be discussing Hegel.