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A Pocket of Peace in Baghdad
Romi Café has become a favorite haunt for free thinkers in Baghdad
It’s difficult to relax in Baghdad. Iraq’s capital is tense and unpredictable, hardened by years of conflict that frequently spills into the streets. Residents are used to the sound of rockets and machine gun fire ringing through the night. They have seen the streets choked with protesters and the terror when security forces open fire. Some even participate in the violence, working for armed groups or political parties that benefit from the turmoil. But most prefer to find respite where they can and forget for a while that they are forced to coexist with conflict.
Romi Café in the Karrada area of Baghdad, is one of the few places they can do this, a rare sanctuary for authors, environmentalists, journalists, NGO workers and others who dream of better days in Baghdad and Iraq as a whole. “We need somewhere to feel safe, so people can speak freely without any fear of oppression,” says Mahdi Majeed, who opened Romi Café in early 2023.
As a journalist, he saw the value in having a dedicated space for people to gather and exchange ideas. “I wanted to create the environment I needed, somewhere to debate thoughts, ideologies and political movements,” the 30-year-old says. But he also wants Romi Café to be a place where people find respite from the pressures of life in this febrile city, so he named it after Rumi, the Sufi poet who is a symbol of peace and acceptance across the Arab world.
Majeed, who has won awards for his own poetry collections, wants the atmosphere to be calm and serene, channeling the compassion and creativity of the great Sufi master. To that end, he is filling the shelves with books to create a library, funded in part by an Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders. With the new library, Majeed hopes to reinforce the atmosphere of open discussion and debate, encouraging civil dialogue in a city where polarized views often end in violence.
“Baghdad is a difficult environment, and after a while, it gets to you,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of Ideas Beyond Borders. “Having a space to feel normal, be yourself and engage with other people seeking the same respite is of huge importance – only people living in the city will fully understand why.”
Already, there’s a steady stream of regulars who come to work, socialize and relax at Romi Cafe. Majeed has invested heavily in the food, compiling a selection of vegetarian, meat and fish dishes, including international and Iraqi favorites as well as a selection of pastries and the best-quality coffee they could find. “People love it,” he says. “The food, the atmosphere, the space – most come every day.”
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