March 21, 2014 1:42 pm

Cappuccinos and handicrafts reveal softer side to Iran’s ‘basij’

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General ambience inside Cafe Kerase in central Tehran, within walking distance from Tehran Univeristy. Café Kerase is affiliated to the ideologically-driven basij or the 12.5m-strong voluntary arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Photo: Kaveh Kazemi©Kaveh Kazemi

Café Kerase in central Tehran

Many Iranians see basij – the 12.5m-strong ideologically-driven volunteer forces of the Revolutionary Guards – as stick-wielding plainclothes thugs on motorcycles who beat up pro-democracy protesters or attack European embassies.

But at Café Kerase, these conservative guardians of the 1979 Islamic revolution can be found sipping cappuccinos and espressos, and discussing art and politics over snacks.

Most of the women here are clad head to toe in black chadors and men have untrimmed beards – trademarks of conservative regime supporters. Their clothes distinguish them from the urban middle classes, whose men tend to sport jeans and whose women defy obligatory Islamic covering with loose scarves.

“We like this café to be a hang-out for an exchange of thoughts, literature and art,” says Mohammad Jafari, the 30-year-old manager whose “dream is to be a good basiji” and who holds a collection of university degrees including mechanical engineering.

Café Kerase – an old Persian word for “book” – gives a nuanced image of the paramilitary force and is an attempt to embrace the values of the middle class and narrow the gap with the rest of the society, although there has been no tangible change in the guards’ cultural policies following Iran’s shift toward moderation under centrist president Hassan Rouhani, who swept to power last summer.

“The truth is that those who attack people and disrupt political meetings of reformists represent only a minority in the basij, even though their voice is loud,” says Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician and a former political prisoner. “I used to be a member of basij myself and still live and socialise with them and discuss political developments without any problem.”

Situated within walking distance of Tehran University – it is affiliated to its basij department – Café Kerase is open to the public and even foreign tourists – “if they observe Islamic dignities”, says Mr Jafari.

The café attracts conservative customers who find other coffee shops in the capital city too western or “superficial”. Inside, the atmosphere is pleasant and calm, with a good, reasonably-priced menu and handicrafts on sale. There is also a selection of books and DVDs, many focused on the alleged brutality of the US.

Among the DVDs is a documentary about Argo, the Oscar-winning feature about the seizure of the US embassy by Iranian students in 1979. Another is entitled “The [Barack] Obama Deception” and its cover asks: “Who is Obama working for? What lies has he told?” There is also a review of the 2006 war between Lebanon’s Hizbollah and Israel.

Although the café has only about half a dozen tables, it can accommodate about 50 people for events, and has held workshops on religious teachings, poetry and nutrition as well as movie screenings followed by discussions. It also hosts birthday parties and anniversaries, and is planning to host a presentation showcasing new designs of Islamic clothing for women.

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Vajiheh, a 26-year-old textile design graduate, attends a workshop in which a religious teacher, named only as Ms Taghavi, reminds about half a dozen participants of the sacrifices made by young voluntary fighters during the war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Taking a date pit out of a green velvet jewellery box, Ms Taghavi tells the group: “This seed will grow if planted in the garden [as did the reputation of fighters who were martyred at the front]. But if you put it in the wrong place, then it will be doomed to humiliation and obscurity” – referring to those who do not defend the revolution.

Vajiheh says that as well as finding the workshops inspiring, she feels secure in Café Kerase.

“In other cafés my chador scares everyone off,” she says. “I like to be in an environment where religious dignities are not violated, and men and women do not behave outrageously.”

The café plans to expand its activities to political discussions, says Mr Jafari, who describes himself as “religious, athletic, a poet, an engineer, emotional, a nature lover – in a word, special”.

He becomes animated as he discusses Iran’s nuclear negotiations with western powers, in which the Islamic regime agreed to suspend a significant part of its programme in return for modest sanctions relief, angering the country’s hardliners.

Mr Jafari believes the negotiations should continue, but “there could be a better agreement to get more advantages and concede less”. He believes “the west thinks we are in a weak position while Iran is one of the world’s most secure countries with a high standard of living”.

To him, the west and the US are not trustworthy and “there is an eternal war between right and wrong”.

But, he adds, he does not reject everything western. When he decided to open the café, he had not tasted a cappuccino. But he liked it the first time he tried it and told staff that they should serve it at world standard to customers.

“Unlike westerners, we do not impose our culture,” he says. “If a coffee shop is a place to waste time, then it is no good. But if it’s a place like a mosque or a frontline in a war, where we can promote our human and religious interests, think and exchange views, then it is good.”

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