Iranians mourn loss of self-expression as creative oasis Untitled Café shuts down

untitled cafe - kasht
7 min read
10 August, 2022

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

Police vans are deployed to arrest women on the streets dressing in ways deemed to be insufficiently conservative, musical performances are called off intermittingly, and major cinematic productions are not licensed to be screened.

Now, the unscathed unofficial spaces for young people to mingle and have fun away from the stern gaze of the authorities are being encroached on.

"The reason for shuttering the business? Maral was reported to have been seen not putting on a headscarf at the counter, and some of the café guests also occasionally removed their veil while chatting and dining"

Untitled Café in Rasht – a city in northern Iran known for its rich food culture, luxury shopping centres, upscale districts subsuming voguish clothing retailers and a largely liberal-minded, educated young population – is one of the recent casualties of the crackdown destined to stamp out opportunities for people to express their identities in defiance of what many see as a formalised, rigid way of life prescribed to Iranians.

Maral, a 29-year-old graduate of English literature, partnered with a friend to launch the café where good food, drinks and music would be served. It was also a place her contemporaries in Rasht could depend on for a few hours of recreation, removed from the woeful preoccupations of life in Iran hobbled by sanctions and isolation.

But unfortunately, her enterprise only lasted five months after its opening last July and was shut down by a department of police tasked with community policing.

The relatively anonymous facade of Untitled Cafe in Kasht [photo credit: Koroush Ziabari]
An anonymous facade of a café in Rasht [photo credit: Kourosh Ziabari]

The reason for shuttering the business? Maral was reported to have been seen not putting on a headscarf at the counter, and some of the café guests also occasionally removed their veil while chatting and dining.

From the perspective of a hidebound government, women sometimes not covering their hair, music being played out, and girls and boys sharing tables and shrugging off the unwritten laws of the Islamic Republic on gender segregation are compelling justifications for a private sector-run food place to be closed down.

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“I had eight staff working with me at the café in morning and night shifts, and we had 15 tables for four and six people. We had become so popular that every day, all the tables would be occupied and vacated at least twice. The closure of the café has caused us the damage of nearly 2.5 billion rials [$7,800],” Maral told The New Arab, adding that in a short span of time, the Untitled Café had emerged as a serious rival for major bistros and eateries in Rasht, primarily owing to its outdoor space and cosy location.

The café was situated at the heart of a bustling, swanky neighbourhood in Rasht characterised by long lines of boutiques, eating places, patisseries and fancy sidewalks inspired by European architecture.

The demand for housing and new businesses, especially in entertainment and gastronomy, has grown markedly in the northern parts of Rasht as of late as they have become credited with being a hub for youths’ socialisation, offering its dwellers and passers-by some limited freedoms.

"The element of personal vendetta waged by an ultra-conservative judiciary member who apparently didn’t want to see the running of a café well-liked among the youths that didn’t meet his criteria of pious, devout citizens was something that was disguised from the beginning"

It was communicated to Maral by a couple of officers late on a November night that the café would be closed down imminently and in order to obtain permission to reopen it, she had to sign affidavits confirming not to repeat the offences committed, namely the staff and customers removing their hijab.

During the entire process of trying to overturn the ruling, Maral says she was confronted by the authorities treating her aggressively and sometimes insultingly.

“One day at the police office, the senior commander of the department turned to me brashly, fulminating, ‘What are you guys doing in this café? The entire city is talking about you!’ When I felt abused and retorted, ‘What were we doing, sir? We were doing our job routinely and your people raided our place and closed it’ at which point, he got steamed up and threatened me by saying ‘Don’t argue with me or I’ll tell the soldier to throw you behind the bars right away,” Maral recounted.

Until recently, the small city of Kasht had been a bastian of Iranian contrarianism [photo credit: Kourosh Ziabari]
Until recently, the small city of Rasht had been a bastion of Iranian contrarianism [photo credit: Kourosh Ziabari]

She told The New Arab it was her impression and that of her colleagues that the police officers react more arbitrarily and coarsely when they interact with women, betokening the prevalence of misogynistic attitudes among the Islamic Republic officials.

At that point, she was advised by her male co-worker not to make further appointments with the police and that he would be prosecuting the case on his own until resolved.

They were promised by different local authorities they pleaded for assistance that the ban on their business would be rescinded soon and they could restart operating shortly once the dust settled. That promise was never fulfilled.

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It wasn’t before long when Maral and her colleagues got wind of the bottom line of the disorienting mishap befalling them: an influential judge, Mr S, whose apartment was right across the café, had pulled the strings and coerced the neighbours into signing a petition expressing their discontent over the café functioning as a hotspot for unrelated young boys and girls to hang out and banter in the area, disturbing the residents, and creating noise.

The element of personal vendetta waged by an ultra-conservative judiciary member who apparently didn’t want to see the running of a café well-liked among the youths that didn’t meet his criteria of 'pious, devout citizens' was something that was disguised from the beginning, and it was after 20 days when some of the Untitled Café’s associates privy to the legal matters of the city revealed the story to Maral.

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

“On a fourth attempt, he was able to find a slot to meet the big wig, but then, as soon as he mentioned the name of our café in a conversation, Mr S called the security guards to eject him from his office. He even didn’t listen to an appeal.”

Maral deplores that she never understood why Mr S developed this hostility towards the café and used his personal leverage to pull the plug on their burgeoning enterprise, given that they had never known him intimately. If maintained, she says, this could be a life-changing business for her and her friends given how young they all are.


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

But in this case, like hundreds of others unfolding daily when the offspring of the “revolution” loyalists are slighted by the establishment and eventually disillusioned with the system, the Islamic Republic succeeded in crushing the hopes of another young Iranian.

“I am alienated with religion and society after all these hardships. When this happened, the first thing I told myself was, I have tried my chances in Iran, this is not a place for me to stay,” she said.

“I was never interested in leaving my country, but now I think I’ll pay the costs of moving out and embracing culture shock, among other difficulties. It would be better than remaining in a setting where you are humiliated, and your rights entirely glossed over.”

Note: Due to Maral’s concerns about her security and that of her friends, the original name of the Untitled Café has been omitted and the name of the judge discussed in the story is abbreviated.

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

Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari